The barriers women face entering and progressing in the tech sector
Whether in business, popular culture or politics, it's hard to escape digital technology today – but women are sorely under-represented in the sector. Women accounted for just 22% of tech directors in 2018; and the number of female computer science graduates in the US actually halved between 1984 and 2016. And this is an issue with a direct impact on the bottom line. Having more women in the boardroom has been tied to better financial performance; and more diverse teams have been shown to consistently make better decisions.
Changing the culture
“Previous research suggests that the masculine culture, gender stereotypes and lack of role models are the main barriers [to entry for women in tech],” says Sonya Barlow, Delivery Manager for Mudano and Founder of Like Minded Females. “[This] makes many women feel insecure and intimidated, though they may be well-suited to the environment and have the actual experience. Having spoken to women who have been in the industry for a number of years, the barriers are often the same – and they need to be broken!”
So what steps need to be taken? It starts at the top, says Sonya. “First and foremost, companies need to listen to women and to take time to understand what their actual concerns are,” Sonya says. “What companies often do is to make assumptions and have their senior stakeholders lead these discussions. The truth is that these senior males or females do not represent the modern-day working cohort or their cultures. The board or senior members of a company can be gender diverse, but without having a diverse representation of culture and backgrounds, they often will not understand the many barriers that women face.”
It doesn't end there, though. Sonya advises, “Three things companies can start doing now: ensure diverse representation among decision makers; establish supportive forums which listen to women; and provide confidence and gender bias training. There should also be acknowledgement that not all tech roles are the same.”
Assertiveness can in fact be a critical factor. Research has shown that women are often more reluctant to request promotions and salary increases – so managers should periodically consider which staff members are most deserving of advancement, rather than limiting their attention to those who directly ask for recognition.
Equally, businesses pursuing gender diversity should champion successful women and highlight female role models – setting an example for women across the organisation and proving that it's possible to get ahead.
Parental leave also presents a challenge for career progression, and it's a burden that often falls on mothers. A key tool for tackling this, says Nadia Nagamootoo (Founder and Director of Avenir Consulting), is extending parental leave on equal terms for fathers. By working to tackle societal expectations around motherhood, and offering flexibility for parents, businesses can ensure that women aren't side-lined against their wishes.
It's also important to consider diversity at the hiring stage, of course. This means weeding gender bias out of jobs ads, whether it may be subtle or more explicit; but it also extends to simply hiring more women. And this may require rehabilitating the sector's image.
“Younger females don't see themselves leading the tech space and therefore that is a massive put off,” says Sonya. “Add that to the masculine culture and it's an industry which is still causing anxiety to many. Also, the tech industry [often isn't] listening to the needs of women... Younger females are apprehensive because they don't want to work in technology, a disruptive industry and be confused for an admin or coffee runner. They want an industry which understands their value and worth.”
Given this, a proactive approach is essential – and companies really can't start early enough. Empiric's Next Tech Girls scheme, for example, is geared towards helping teenagers get work experience placements in the tech sector, so they can see the opportunities that are available and get a foot on the ladder.
“Stats suggest [it will be] at least 14 years [for women to have equality in the tech industry],” says Sonya. “Short term, we can teach the women around us key skills and personality traits which men seem to take ownership of more naturally, such as confidence, owning a room and tackling impostor syndrome.”
It's then about understanding the key things that women want from the workplace, including flexible work options as well as mentors, buddy systems and training. “Long term, [it's about] hiring and retaining diverse talent at the top of the company so these individuals represent the views of the diverse cohort now in the workplace,” says Sonya. “The fight for societal and cultural change isn't an easy one and it won't be an overnight success,” she adds.
Sonya Barlow is a woman of colour in technology, the founder of the Like Minded Females diversity initiative and a public speaker. Her passions lie in creating cultural change, especially for females in technology, and she will soon be starting a PhD on the topic of "Barriers for Females in Tech" at the University of Bath (pursuing research with real companies and leading strategic initiatives). Sonya was a Rising Star award winner 2017 and a PwC UK Tech Businesswoman finalist 2018; she has been published in the Metro newspaper; and will be a TedX speaker in 2019. Sonya can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.
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