Missing in Action: The Underrepresentation of Women in Tech

Author: Maya Tutton

In his 2016 address at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Intel CEO Brian Krzanich argued that if technology is to define the future, it must first be representative of it. Two years on, and the CES failed to heed that warning by enlisting an all-male rota of keynote speakers. At a time when gender equality is firmly in the spotlight, that lack of diversity exposed the harsh truth that the tech industry is still stuck in the dark ages.

A man’s world

Statistics on diversity paint a very clear picture; women are woefully underrepresented in technology. In the UK, only 15% of people working in STEM roles are female, dropping to 5% in the highest leadership positions. Across the pond, just 14% of executive positions in Silicon Valley are filled by women. Figures on the percentage of women of colour working in computing roles show the dire underrepresentation of minorities, with African-American women in the US holding just 3% of these occupations in 2015, and Hispanic women an even more shocking 1%. Rather than being an upward trend, the overall percentage of female computer scientists in the US has actually shrunk from 37% in 1995 to just 24% today. How can that be?

Perception is everything

The answer is fundamentally one of perception. Close your eyes and picture a programmer. Or an IT technician. Do you see a woman? The answer is probably no. The tech industry is overwhelmingly perceived as a male domain, and this has had a number of far-reaching consequences.

For one, the preponderance of men at the C-suite level means aspiring young women lack role models. A recent PwC report showed that 78% of British students are unable to name a single famous woman in tech. Unsurprisingly then, only 3% of female students said that they were set on working in the sector. The problem is self-perpetuating, as this lack of representation results in fewer women bothering to even study STEM subjects, let alone go on to become the inspiring CEOs of the future.

Another important consequence of perception is the ‘imposter syndrome’ it can provoke in the few women who do make it in the industry. Melinda Gates has written about this issue extensively and stresses the ‘otherness’ that women and minorities can feel in an overwhelmingly male environment.  

Hostile workplace culture

In many cases, when women do enter the tech industry, its alienating work ethos forces them out. A Harvard Business Review study into the exodus of women from science and tech named the ‘hostility of the workplace culture’ as the number one reason why 52% of women in these fields eventually leave them. The isolation felt by many women in so-called ‘brogramming’ environments can result in a lack of support, and therefore advancement, within the company. In extreme cases, the culture can be one of sexual harassment, a hugely controversial issue which has gained greater coverage with the current #metoo movement. The scandals surrounding Uber, for instance, showed the problems that some women face in these environments.

Another key reason why women leave the industry is because of the 60-hour+ working weeks and burdensome travel demands. Given that in two-income households women still bear the brunt of housework and childcare, they are simply unable to fulfill the conditions demanded of them.  

Upping the ratio of women

Increasing the proportion of women working in tech can only be achieved by simultaneously addressing the low number entering the field and the high rate at which they leave. Perceptions must be tackled in order to encourage girls to study STEM subjects and retention rates must be increased by improving the workplace environment.

The recruitment issue is being confronted by such non-profit organizations as Girls Who Code who introduce young women to coding through events and summer camps. Black Girls Code is another inspiring charity which is fighting to encourage and inspire African-American girls to study computer science, recognising and challenging the even more entrenched prejudices that women of colour face.

The 18 women working in technology who made it onto the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list are also making waves. Not only are they potential role models for girls, they have also had tangible effects on their companies’ approaches to female employment. YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki, for example, has increased the percentage of women in her company by 6% in the last 3 years. Another inspiring woman is Jean Liu, the president of Didi Chuxing, who has led her company to become the Chinese version of Uber through smart mergers and huge fundraising.

Here at Pod, we are proud of the fact that 40% of our employees are female – a ratio that far exceeds the industry average. Achieving this goes beyond just hiring female employees to creating a workplace culture in which they choose to stay. In order to do this, companies have to implement or maintain structures that will support women, as described on the AnitaB.org website, and women must feel empowered to explore technology independently – groups like Ping a Programadoras (attended by our very own Marsé Sancha Maya) show that there is a growing demand for structures like this in and out of the office..

A more representative future

The importance of changing today’s reality cannot be overemphasized. Whilst women are inadequately represented in many industries, the implications of women not being included in technology are particularly damaging. Why? Because technology has never been so powerful and important as it is now. The technological revolution we are currently facing will undoubtedly change the world as we know it. And if women are not there to help shape it, then we risk creating a future which instead of reversing women’s inequality, entrenches it.