Few industries today hold such a disparity between genders as that of digital technology. The sector, involves industries like the manufacturing of electronics, creation of software, computers or products and services relating to information technology. And it is perhaps the fastest growing sector in the modern business world. Yet within the industry, it holds an almost archaic imbalance between the amount of women and men employed. Why is it that tech is such a male dominated field? Can anything be done about it? Ahead of our collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions on their new graduate and student program, Intern Avenue decided to investigate the state of gender diversity in the tech industry, and what we found was quite interesting.
Surprisingly, though women make up a small fraction of the tech workforce now, throughout the field’s history, women are present have been present from the start.
Sue Black – honorary professor at UCL – detailed the history of tech in her article for the BBC. Following her lead, we begin with Ada Lovelace, a 19th century woman attributed to being a “pioneer” of computer programming. She worked with Charles Babbis on a prototype for the first “Analytical Engine” (which is basically a blueprint of the world’s first computer). Lovelace anticipated the potential for these machines to eventually be programmed to do anything, and this was nearly 100 years before the first computer was ever programmed to do anything. Fast forward and we’re at World War II, where women like Joan Clarke (who helped break cryptic code) and Grace Hopper (she invented one of the first modern programming languages) are at the forefront of computer science field.
Yet when equal access to education was institutionalised in the 1970s, social norms encouraged men to take the mantel when it came to science and maths. As the computing and software industries boomed in the 80s, men were better equipped to fill the positions. This is the environment in which the modern world of computer science was formed.
Looking at the global statistics today, things seem fairly grim for gender equality in the tech world. In the UK workforce, the proportion of women in digital jobs has dropped from 33% in 2002 to 27% in 2015.Reports by The Huffington Post at the end of last year even claimed that within the digital sector, on 17% of the jobs were occupied by women. If you contrast this with the digital skills gap the UK is already experiencing, this becomes quite a pressing issue. It is forecasted that the UK tech industry will need 745,000 workers by 2017 and one million by 2020. With women also accounting for the larger majority of the graduating cohort in higher education for much of this decade, it seems illogical that there are so few women following digital career pathways.
And why is it important for both companies and consumers to care? The figures show that there are far too few women influencing both product development and business strategy. “That’s not just harmful to women; it’s bad for business,” notes CNET’s Roger Cheng.
The female consumer is one all companies should be attentive to, according to a report last year from Deloitte:
By some analyses, [women] account for $4.3 trillion of total U.S. consumer spending of $5.9 trillion, making [them] the largest single economic force not just in the United States, but in the world.
For businesses, there is a definite benefit to reflecting its consumer base in their company employees. Not only has research shown that women are the largest consumer force, it also indicates that companies who prioritise difference and diversity – like points of view, market insights and approaches to problem solving – often have higher sales, more customers and larger market share than their less-diverse rivals. Having a more diverse workforce makes business sense.
So where do these problems stem from? Several researchers, business leaders and journalists have pointed to the falling proportion of women enrolling in computer science or tech orientated degrees. In the US, during the mid-1980s, 37% of computer science majors were women; in 2012, that figure had dropped to a startling 12%.
The consensus is that the field is one that is presented as exclusive to men and unappealing to women. President of Harvey Mudd College – a leading institution for maths and science in the US – Maria Klawe, compiled research on the matter and concluded:
We’ve done lots of research on why young women don’t choose tech careers and number one is they think it’s not interesting. Number two, they think they wouldn’t be good at it. Number three, they think they will be working with a number of people that they just wouldn’t feel comfortable or happy working alongside.
Further research by the American Association of University Women reveals that there is an inherent stereotype in a women’s capacity to handle a STEM related job. From a young age girls are thought to be not as good as boys at math and science. This stereotype grows up with them, influences their future study choices, and inevitably affects the hiring process. Both male and female managers are more likely to view women as less competent in math or tech than their male counterparts. Furthermore, men are twice as likely to be hired for a mathematics oriented job if the only difference between candidates is gender, according to a study published in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But as we move into a world where tech now becomes the essential cog in nearly all businesses and industries, the “culture” and attitudes surrounding digital jobs is falling under question. The roles are no longer in the basement of a company building, and the culture surrounding them is progressing to one of diversity and inclusion – slowly.
“Technology careers are interesting,” writes Mark Fieldman for Forbes, “women are great at it, and they get to work alongside extraordinary men and women.”
The need for more women in the tech industry is real and pressing. As more jobs are created in the field at an exponential rate, the merits of a career in technology need to be highlighted to young women as they choose their university degree. Even more so, young girls need to be encouraged that science and mathematics is just as much their strength as it would be a boy’s.
Are you a women studying tech, or interested in a digital career? The DWP and Intern Avenue are working together to promote digital technology careers within the government for bright young graduates and students. Follow the DWP to find out more here.