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The gender gap in technology is symptomatic of a larger and more historic trend of gender inequality in the jobs market.
The business of technology is charged as ever. Tech is at the helm of critical opportunities such as climate tech, and pivoting global transformations, such as in mobility or food.
And yet, despite its progressive outlook, one of the more persistent problems in the industry is the lack of women in this sector.
Women have been historically receiving the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the jobs market in general. A 2017 International Labor Organisation (ILO) report pegs global employment at 75% for men, but 49% for women. This is despite the gains it made in the 20th century, especially in its second half. Between 1990 and 2005, female labor participation hovered around the 51% mark before a drop to 50.81% in 2006.
This gap is not expected to improve in the whole coming decade. A particularly ominous sign is that in December 2020, women accounted for 100% of jobs lost in the U.S. In 2019, women had outnumbered men in the workforce for the first time in a decade in the same country.
Women’s participation in the tech workforce falls further below national and global averages. While higher in China, the participation of women in the tech workforce in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Southeast Asia is 30-32%. India tails far behind at 18% (despite having the most women tech graduates of the lot).
For an industry well past the cusp of becoming a need-to-have, the gender gap in technology is a problem of considerable proportion.
Tech and startup culture is skewed against women.
In the startup space, women founders are notoriously underfunded compared to their male counterparts. They generally receiving a mere 3% the funding that male founders receive. This is despite women founders demonstrating higher returns per dollar.
Moreover, there is also a skill-based gender gap in technology. Women workers’ representation in AI, one of the top five most in-demand hard skills according to research from LinkedIn, was just at 22% in 2019. In Southeast Asia, which has better gender representation in tech than some of the world’s major economies, women’s representation in tech still falls behind other industries.
“If the current makeup of your team is mostly male, or mostly a particular race, you need to think about what happened in that hiring process that’s caused your team to be this way,” says Aziza Sheerin. Sheerin is Regional Director, Asia, at skill-based learning platform General Assembly. In her role, Sheerin has focused on growing General Assembly’s footprint in Asia over the last six years.
Sheerin recounts an experience with an employer who was unable to recruit more women developers into their largely male team.
“Why do you think that is? … It’s about showing that you’re an inclusive and open culture, and that you’re willing to make that extra effort,” Sheerin says.
Sheerin recalls General Assembly’s very first class in Singapore, in November 2015. The class had 20 software engineers, of which only one was a woman. Looking through their admissions data to understand what went wrong, Sheerin realized that it wasn’t that they were rejecting female applicants. There weren’t enough of them applying in the first place.
This directed the company to local groups with strong female memberships, with the aim of sourcing talent to increase women’s representation in their graduate pool. They also made it a point to achieve equal representation in their events as well.
Further, General Assembly recently launched a scholarship program called See Her Excel. The program offers scholarships for women earning less than SG$48000 per year.
The results show. “Today, in terms of our numbers, we’re at about 50% of our graduates are women. It’s a bit higher in user experience design and digital marketing, it still has a way to go in data science and software engineering,” Sheerin notes.
Three ways your tech company can go about the gender gap in technology
In 2017, Google fired one of its computer engineers for circulating a misogynistic manifesto. In an article by The Guardian dissecting this bias behind the manifesto, founding partner at London-based VC firm Passion Capital Eileen Burbidge points out that gender issues in tech are symptomatic of a larger cultural trend. She further notes that what would work as change in the general work culture, would very well work for tech.
Addressing some of the basic concerns surrounding gender gap in technology can nudge tech companies towards the right direction. Sheerin explains what this can look like.
For starters, she points out that bias can often be unconscious. These are stereotypes that people tend to attribute to a group of others, without being aware that they are doing so. That women are more emotional than men, or are more suited for ‘softer’ roles, are examples of such bias. This, in turn, affects hiring practices, work assignments, and their upward career mobility as well.
An ILO report on gender bias in the workplace highlights several ways to address such bias. Concealing candidates’ physical attributes through blind evaluations, for instance, can help to remove unconscious bias at the earlier stages of hiring. It also notes that assessing company data, such as retention rates and wage brackets, can help to tackle unconscious bias by checking for possible gender gaps.
Secondly, companies need to diversify the sources from where they hire. Companies may be inadvertently propagating unequal gender representation by hiring from the same sources.
“Whenever companies come and tell me that [they don’t have enough women on their team],” says Sheerin, “My first question is, are you looking at the same places you’ve always been looking, because nothing’s going to change if you keep looking there.”
This kind of inclusivity must extend beyond hiring, and into company governance policies, she adds. Pregnancy, for instance, can be a deal breaker for women in tech. A law associate points out, in The Guardian’s report, that people within the tech industry tend to see pregnancy and maternity as problematic.
It’s important to change that perspective. Sheerin notes that the pandemic already added extra parenting pressure on women.
“Especially with COVID-19, a lot of moms I know were running their businesses, taking care of the kids, and now they are their kids’ teachers as well,” Sheerin says.
Pregnancy and child-rearing are responsibilities to be borne equally by parents, rather than a sole obligation of the birthing partner. Such a shift in perspective is likely to trickle down to company policy, giving it a more flexible and inclusive spin.
Having more women in tech is simply better for business. A McKinsey report suggest that companies having over 30% of women executives were more likely to outdo those with 10%-30% women’s representation. Those with near 50% representation had a “substantial differential likelihood of outperformance.”
To reach that level of representation, tech companies have many gaps to bridge — gaps in leadership, pay, representation or employment, for instance.
And so, the fight for gender parity in tech is not a fight by women alone. It’ll take a village, or in this case, an entire industry. For tech, this is also a time to reckon with where it will place its bets — on a past that has a history of repressing women in the workforce, or on a future that looks radically different, and bears the winds of change.
Aziza Sheerin’s image courtesy of General Assembly
Header image by Freepik