There is a disproportionate representation of women in tech and yes, it is a problem.
Devil’s advocates will ask why. If women and girls don’t gravitate towards STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) why force the issue? Well, when the global population is increasingly reliant on technology, from a grass root level through to government, military, education, law, it is important that the 3.5 billion female humans on the planet are represented. If the only tech inventors, scientists, and luminaries of a generation are boys and men, then women and girls will be at a constant disadvantage in every aspect of life. Using literacy as an example, there is an undisputed correlation between a child who can read and write faring better in life than one who can’t. ‘Success’ is subjective and personal, but life is easier for the literate person – and now we need to consider technological literacy as vital alongside reading, writing, and numeracy. London School of Economics MSc student Marie Misund-Bringslid puts it beautifully:
“So why should women work in tech? To me, the answer is quite obvious. After all, we make up half the users of technology. Tech is all too often designed for great big man bodies, and not for women. This includes vital inventions such as the airbag, artificial hearts, and mobile phones. As we are becoming more and more dependent on technology, it makes up an increasingly important part of our everyday lives. It is obvious that women should be as influential in development and creation as men.”
Men and women are different; but they should also be equal in terms of representation in, and benefitting from the outputs of, STEM fields.
So why are girls not as drawn to STEM subjects as boys? Why are there fewer women in STEM careers? What puts women off working in the tech sector? How do we fix the problem?
Many leaders in STEM do appreciate the benefits of a diverse workforce and would gladly hire more women, but they are finding that only 5% of applications for tech positions come from women. Tech sector recruiters concur—not enough women are putting themselves forward in the first place.
This leads to the ultimate question: what do only girl children experience that steers them away from science, tech, engineering, and mathematics?
Let’s put ourselves in a girl’s shoes from the very beginning and take a hypothetical journey with her. This should go some way towards highlighting the hurdles and obstacles that she may be forced to navigate in order to become a successful female leader in a STEM field. We are hypothesizing and empathizing— this is absolutely not a description of every woman’s experience; there are countless differences, factor combinations, levels of privilege, nuances. But all these experiences are going on, in the developed world, right now, to girls and women.
In the US, in particular, it’s increasingly common for parents to find out a baby’s gender months before her birth. While not completely mainstream, gender reveal parties are a growing trend— cakes are sliced, balloons are released, powder crackers are pulled with the resulting pink or blue emerging to much excitement from all involved. Unconsciously, and certainly without malice, parents build up certain expectations and ideas about their unborn child based on the result of this ‘revelation’. Even before such celebrations were invented, the first question on anyone’s lips on the arrival of a new baby is “boy or girl?” This stuff is given real meaning.
There are so many assumptions and unchallenged beliefs based purely on a child’s gender that it is be nigh on impossible to raise a child without any gender bias; those who do try are widely lambasted and mocked. Sugar and spice/slugs and snails. Princesses/superheroes. Beauty/brawn. Of course, many boys and girls fit comfortably into their assigned roles, and many are none the worse for it.
But what of the girl child who asks too many difficult questions, thinks critically, shuns her “cute” toys in order to explore and build and dismantle? She gravitates towards “boy’s” toys, books, games, TV shows and pursuits which are so often based on bravery, discovery, adventure, strength, heroics, risk-taking, problem-solving and competing. At the very least she is labeled a “tomboy”, which serves to let her know she is different, not a “normal” girly girl. She may even be forced to comply, to play the girly girl role, and is denied the chance to follow the interests that lie outside of these parameters. Of course, there are the “girly” engineers, the super-feminine scientists, but they exist because their environment has allowed them to nurture all sides of their character rather than just one, and they are even more in the minority. Chances are there are few, if any, realistic female role models who she can emulate and look up to. And all this before she even starts school.
Already carrying the weight of feeling “different” from her peers, our inquisitive and scientifically-minded girl child joins the education system. We can now add to the passive, unconscious gender expectations, with some more active gender stereotyping by those around her. Teachers are unwittingly deterring female students from taking math and science subjects by implying that they are more difficult than other subjects, according to a report published in 2015. Gender stereotyping is a broader issue in schools and the problems associated with gender bias affect boys as well as girls—in some cases, secondary school pupils are deterred from choosing subjects traditionally associated with the opposite gender because they feared homophobic bullying. This is particularly an issue for girls in math, physics, and engineering, and for boys in modern foreign languages.
A large number of pupils, both male and female, reported living with a daily barrage of sexist “banter”. These pupils “were aware that some of their behaviors and subject choices are heavily gendered, and often driven by peer pressure”.
Peer pressure can be a minefield—most children want to feel “normal”, no teen enjoys having their differences pointed out. It will be even tougher if a schoolgirl is relatively uninterested in all the pursuits that are expected and even encouraged amongst her female peers—such as beauty/appearance, female-dominated subjects, and being popular/sociable. She may start to quiet her voice, withdraw into herself, and feel less brave when it comes to participation in her science, technology or math lessons. She may feel all too conspicuous, and school years are hard enough when one does blend into the crowd and stick with the mainstream.
Dame Mary Archer, chair of the Science Museum Group, explained “Girls switch off from maths and science around the age of 14… Young role models between the ages of 14 and 16 are really important in showing girls that science and maths are for people like them.“
In addition to this she is subjected to the usual deeply ingrained mainstream misogyny, along with all her female peers; she is expected to be aesthetically pleasing, to take up as little space as possible, to be accommodating and apologetic, to avoid being “bossy”, to take responsibility for any effect she has on her male peers, to behave well, and to not question rules or authority. The aforementioned report also highlighted “casual sexism in class, such as cat-calling, sexist jokes, and derogatory language. Often senior leaders would assert that there was no problem with sexist language at their school but students would report it as an “everyday reality”. In extreme cases, this language ‘verged on bullying’.”
So, our young female protagonist has stuck with her STEM interests thus far. She now carries passive, unconscious, preconceived expectations, active stereotyping, gender bias and peer pressure, few relatable real-life STEM role models, a magnified self-consciousness, and she looks to the STEM community for inspiration on what to do next. She is bright, she is still inquisitive and diligent, and she is all the more resolute and resilient having taken a trickier path than many through school. But her proverbial voice is not as loud as it could be, and certainly not as confident as the majority of male voices around her— there is not necessarily a correlation between their volume and the skills and talent behind them.
Indeed, bright girls are much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result. As explained by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. in her 2011 article The Trouble With Bright Girls:
“Successful women know only too well that in any male-dominated profession, we often find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage. We are routinely underestimated, underutilized and even underpaid. Studies show that women need to perform at extraordinarily high levels, just to appear moderately competent compared to our male coworkers.”
She overcomes unconscious (and conscious) bias in the hiring process and joins the workforce in a STEM field. She knows that she is at least as skilled as her male co-workers but she watches as those with the loudest voices are progressed and promoted. She is in the minority, and fellow female colleagues are noticeable in their absence. The culture is often competitive, ego-centric and sometimes aggressive. She is none of those things (although she does know some young women who are, and they are labeled unfavorably too). But she is ambitious and brave. The majority of female friends she has made along the way were dissuaded from even considering a career in STEM, despite their great skill and qualifications, by the reputation that preceded it. Or perhaps they dipped their toe in the water and decided that no, it would take too much extra emotional – and literal – labor to be a woman in STEM.
The Elephant in the Valley was a collaborative effort between seven women in Silicon Valley with backgrounds including venture capital, academia, and entrepreneurship. They compiled a list of several hundred senior-level women from their collective contact lists and invited them to participate in a survey about gender in Silicon Valley between April and May 2015. 100% of respondents were women, and 100% with at least ten years of experience; 25% of whom were at CXO level, and 22% were venture capitalists or company founders/entrepreneurs.
The results are alarming. 84% of women in tech have been told they are “too aggressive”, almost half have been asked to carry out lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do, two-thirds have felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities, 59% have not had the same opportunities as their male counterparts and an astonishing 90% have witnessed sexist behavior at company events or industry conferences. When it comes to unconscious bias, 88% of women in tech have had clients/colleagues address questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them, 87% have been on the receiving end of demeaning comments from male colleagues and 60% have experienced unwanted sexual advances—65% of these were from a superior, and half were repeat offenses.
As Bethanye Blount’s and Susan Wu’s examples show in Liz Mundy’s infamous piece in The Atlantic, “succeeding in tech as a woman requires something more treacherous than the old adage about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s more like doing everything backwards and in heels while some guy is trying to yank at your dress, and another is telling you that a woman can’t dance as well as a man, oh, and could you stop dancing for a moment and bring him something to drink?”
So, are women in tech doing anything to help themselves? The answer is yes, but of the women who do report sexual harassment, 60% are dissatisfied with the subsequent course of action. 40% don’t report at all because they believe it will negatively impact their career, with a further 30% keeping quiet in order to forget presumably traumatic or at the very least unpleasant experiences. Women in lower paid positions fare worse still as their ability to “fight back” legally is limited financially.
Our young woman continues on her journey. She now carries the weight of a lifetime of passive, unconscious, preconceived expectations, active stereotyping, gender bias and peer pressure, few relatable real-life STEM role models, a magnified self-consciousness, the effort of treading a fine line in terms of character traits (she can’t be perceived as too hard OR too soft), casual and recurring sexual harassment or unwanted advances happening to her or around her or both, and the effort required to ensure she cannot be seen to invite it, discrimination (both assumed and literal) around childbearing and family, and prevalent unconscious biases at every level from entry to C suite…and she navigates the casual sexism that ripples throughout in every industry, but is magnified still in STEM.
Sexist conversations infiltrate her consciousness and undermine her confidence. Harassment and discrimination suits abound, and these are just the tip of an iceberg of all the incidences that go unreported or are settled privately in non-disparagement agreements.
She draws on the resilience and resolve that got her through the tough school years, and she “leans in”. She collaborates with like-minded and diverse counterparts. She studies, networks, learns and absorbs, seeks inspirational mentors— male and female—and she aims high. She is judged on her appearance more than any male counterpart. There is a perception that she has less gravitas. She has to continually break through the threads of old boy’s networks. She endures and overlooks gender-based (and often patronizing) labels such as “mompreneur” (‘dadpreneur’?), “girl” (no male tech leader is ever called ‘boy’), “bossy” (that old chestnut), “feisty”, “ball-breaker”, or the classic “bitch”. She dreams of the day she is only ever referred to in terms that are applied to both men and women.
She is accomplished and successful not just because of her natural strengths, interests, and conspicuousness, but also in spite of them.
She is a board member or a thought leader or a tech evangelist or a CTO or a luminary or a keynote speaker— a celebrated Woman In Tech. She becomes the role model that she needed. And the unborn girl babies will have one more role model to look to for strength and inspiration as they deflect all the outside forces that work to discourage or distract them from their STEM destinies.
In her Fortune interview back in January 2015, hugely influential tech venture capitalist Eileen Burbridge displayed the balanced, logical and inspiring attitude that STEM needs more of:
“I actively seek out strong entrepreneurs—regardless of gender or demographic. For obvious reasons, I take a great interest in women entrepreneurs in particular. Therefore, I try to make myself available to anyone who is interested in connecting, getting feedback— or pitching. Over the years I’ve seen more women entrepreneurs emerging and I look forward to this trend continuing.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she and her VC partners refuse to invest in “jerks”, a business policy that would go a long way towards eradicating the objectionable behavior that’s disproportionately rife in STEM, but such progressive and outlandish business practices are unsurprisingly rare.
We’ve not even touched on the can of worms that is the gender pay gap, nor examined the extra discrimination experienced by non-white women and men. These are hugely important issues in and of themselves—only when we achieve equal pay for equal work and eradicate racial bias and under-representation can we even begin to congratulate ourselves.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate the ones who have made it, acknowledge all that it took to get there, and work to remove the obstacles that we’ve historically put in girls’ paths to STEM success for those who wish to follow in our hypothetical heroine’s footsteps.
Originally published on: https://beeinmybonnet.tumblr.com/post/163365875391/the-trouble-with-women-in-tech-hint-its-not
Kelly is a 38-year-old, British working mother, married with two young sons. She isn’t a blogger, but sometimes has something to say out loud, usually on the subject of maternal mental health, intersectional feminism, social justice and raising kind, tolerant, strong, feminist boys. You can find her on LinkedIn & Tumblr.