By Christopher Burke, CEO of Brickendon
The concept of women in technology, or in any senior business role, still grabs the headlines. Names such as Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Virginia Rometty are paraded about as impressive female role models with the aim of showing that women are capable of doing anything and everything. So why do females remain underrepresented in this flourishing sector?
Throughout history there have been a wealth of British women working in technology. Ada Lovelace is believed to be the first computer programmer, while Steve Shirley (Dame Stephanie Shirley) started her company Xansa in 1962, employing predominantly female programmers. Despite these notable and inspirational figures and the fact that women represent half of the available talent pool, women only make up 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) occupations.
Women fare slightly better in finance, with females accounting for over 40% of employees in the securities, investment banking and commodities industries. Yet in fintech, a sector acclaimed for its innovation and talent, the figures make for shocking reading. There is only one female chief executive across Europe’s top 50 fintech companies, while women hold less than five percent of executive roles.
It has therefore never been more urgent to prioritise diversity and create a technology sector that mirrors the modern world…
The Absence of Women
While it is widely acknowledged that diverse groups are stronger, more creative and more innovative, the lack of women in technology is having a fundamental impact on the way we live and work. For example, the launch of the Apple Health Kit was widely criticised for not featuring women’s health, while some recognition software has not been programmed to identify female voices. If more women worked in technology it is likely these problems would not have arisen, because female innovators tend to place more emphasis on integration and collaboration.. Without gender diversity companies lose a whole host of different perspectives and creativity, which can in turn impact on their financial performance as they fail to meet the needs of their consumers.
However, encouraging diversity in technology cannot solely be achieved at an executive level. Instead we should look at the grassroots.
Dismembering Gender Roles
According to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, women are being put off careers in science because of the pressures of family life combined with “biases” in the workplace. Others believe the reasons are more inbred.
From an early age girls are often taught about gender, states Maria Tamboukou, Professor of feminist studies at the University of East London. Childrens’ toys and clothes often categorise genders, girls’ toys largely revolve around them being mothers and the importance of beauty, while boys are identified as adventurous and being brave. According to Maria, more needs to be done to address these issues, including there being more role models to help girls consider their position, as well as changing the way our children consider careers and traditional roles. While girls are more likely to outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE Level, the number who choose these subjects at a higher education level falls. Consequently, just 8.5% of UK engineers are female.
Image can also play a role in discouraging women from pursuing a career in technology. Stereotypes can focus on a men-only club where members discuss the latest computer games with characters from Channel 4’s IT Crowd often springing to mind.
It is not all doom and gloom though, as there are steps being made to encourage women into the technology sector. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee recommended that the government focus on apprenticeships to persuade women to pursue a career in the technology industry,while organisations and lobby groups have been set up to raise awareness of women in technology. Stemettes is one such group, founded with the aim of inspiring the next generation of females into STEM fields. It has set a goal of getting the number of women in the STEM workforce up to 30 per cent by 2020.
One solution is to look at companies that are successfully embracing diversity for inspiration on best practice. Newer companies such as Google and eBay have built diversity, flexibility and childcare support into their organisations from the outset, making it easier for women, and where desired men, to manage the balance between their work and family life.
Still, with a technology industry not lacking in impressive female role models – three of the most powerful technology companies in the world are headed by women: Facebook has Sandberg; Mayer, once the first female engineer at search giant Google, is chief executive of Yahoo!, while Rometty is president and chief executive of IBM – some might say the foundations have been laid.
House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Women in Scientific Careers, Sixth Report of Session 2013-14
House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Digital Skills Crisis Report, 2016-17