Despite the continuous conversations about gender diversity in tech, women are still underrepresented and underpaid in the tech industry – the industry that leads the world in innovation but is one of the worst sectors when it comes to gender equality. Why do we not have more women in tech? A question that has been asked continuously over the years with no sufficient actions taken.
Stanford University has recently concluded its online programming course, Code In Place, wherein certified Section Leaders tutor a group of university students from all over the globe on programming fundamentals. One Section Leader reported that four of their students were females and they initially strongly believed that the ability of a teenager or an adult to understand the logic of programming, getting in-depth of its concepts and taking it as a career, does not depend on the individual’s gender. Although the students shared no previous experience or background in coding, by the end of the course, it was quite obvious that the four females in that class were the ones continuously answering the questions that used to be asked, trying to solve the problems that used to be discussed in each topic with ideas from outside the box and scored the highest marks in 70% of the assignments. The Section Leader was inspired by the rapid development of their understanding and the exceptional results they showed within a very short span of time.
So, if women are actually capable of learning something that is as challenging as programming, why do we not see more of them in the tech industry? That question was raised last April in a LinkedIn post published on International Women’s Day. One of the comments on that post was from a person claiming that the distribution of abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that is the reason, in the person’s point of view, why we do not see enough women in tech and even leadership industries. So, the question remains, is that really the reason why women are not as involved?
Prof Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Aston, a university in Birmingham, who studied comprehensively cognitive differences between men and women. According to the viewpoint of Rippon, in numerous cases, the differences between male and female performance, if present, are very small and can disappear with training. In addition, the difference between male and female performance is not consistent across cultures. In one of Rippon’s studies, she found that British men performed significantly better on a spatial rotation task than women. However, when the experiment was repeated with Chinese participants, there was no difference between the performance of male and female participants. Rippon conducted other studies as well and one of them showed that differences in personality traits between men and women varied widely across countries, depending on the status of women in that society.
If we take a look at the numbers in the United Kingdom, a study conducted by the PWC showed that only 15% of women are in STEM roles and 5% are in technology leadership roles. No more than 27% said that they would pursue a tech career. This was evident to one of the students pursuing their undergraduate degree in Software Engineering at the University of Portsmouth who reported that there is not even a single female in their class. The student also reflected back to 2017 when they participated in one of the biggest competitive programming contests in Jordan – “ASU Future Programmers”. The competition was among students from Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. The student claims that as a competitor, it is safe to say that in order to secure a place in the top 20 at least, decent skills in coding and a wide background in problem-solving are needed. In that year, 8 out of the top 20 teams were females including a female team in the top 3.
This is one of the examples of how young women showed substantial performance in one of the fields that are currently lacking the involvement and contribution of more of them. So what is the reason?
It is believed that it all starts from school. Computer science and tech-related subjects need to be made more compelling to girls focusing on how technology can improve lives and solve social issues that women are interested in. More pioneering and notable women in IT should be highlighted more, from local women that actually made it and excelled in the industry to global notable ones such as Ginni Rometty; Chairman and Former CEO of IBM, Ellen Pao; CEO of Reddit, Sheryl Sandberg; COO of Facebook, Ruth Porat; CFO of Google, and many others. Applying this in active learning strategies will perhaps attract a diverse group of students from both genders, making women feel more comfortable in their education and make a career in tech a more attainable – and inspirational – goal.
Girls’ perception, interests and career choices are profoundly influenced by education, media, peers, family, teachers, friends, community and role models. The portrayal of tech and IT in general by all the influencing factors listed, and not limited to them, needs to change for the perception of tech for girls to change. These sources and agents play a vital part in how tech and IT careers are presented to girls. The way they speak about and present careers in technology directly impacts how they feel about pursuing and undertaking such a career and their suitability to work in this industry. Change needs to happen in every single one of these areas so that girls do not decide at school age that they cannot – or do not want to – pursue a career in IT. Not applying this change will result in fewer girls being interested in tech, less arisen of tech female leaders and more gender-biased talent pools for employers to recruit from.
Not just limiting to that, the media does play a critical role when it comes to shaping the idea around “techies” in general. When was the last time you actually saw a programmer on TV or in a movie portrayed as a female? Almost never. Educational and media efforts should be put in to present females as involved parties in the tech industry and show them how technology is present in their everyday lives and how it can empower them to be change agents. In addition to that, highlighting the idea that even if girls did not begin early with computer science, this does not mean that they cannot catch up to or even surpass male counterparts.
In conclusion, getting more women into tech roles today can help break the cycle of a male-dominated industry and fill the STEM talent demand. We are seeing more initiatives now that are trying to have an impact and drive this change, but we certainly need more of them and more actions to be taken. The tech industry is known to be sexist and it should no longer be. If this challenge continues with no action being taken at all, it will have real consequences on the future of our community and technology as a whole. How can software and programs be built for everyone, if not everyone is involved in its production? No industry or sector can reach its full potential until women reach their full potential.
This article has been written by Mohammad Atoum, a community member of Unikorn.