Women in Technology

Women in Technology

You’re hiring. You’re reviewing CVs.
You’re not bothered about names are you?

What matters are skills, experience and the competencies of the candidates Right? Wrong! You probably have unconscious bias.

A recent US study used 100 STEM professors (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) to review CVs. But here’s the quirk - half the CVs had the name John at the top and half had the name Jennifer. They all detailed exactly the same qualifications, experience and skills.

The outcomes are depressing. Jen was considered significantly ‘less competent’ than John and so the professors were far less inclined to hire or mentor her. They suggested that if she was hired then her pay should be on average 13% less than John’s. Even the female professors preferred John.

In a similar study carried out in Australia with a thousand hiring managers, the ‘male candidate’ was far more likely to be asked to an interview than the female. The skills, experience and abilities are exactly the same – the deciding factor is the name – or rather the gender.

This is ‘unconscious bias’ in action – where judgments are shaped by stereotypes regardless of intentions. And it’s not just in recruitment that this bias can have impact It’s there in appraisals and assessment too. So in the key areas of getting a job, retaining a role and developing a successful career this bias is present and it’s having a massive impact on women working in technology areas.

So what? Well, about 15% of tech professionals in the UK are women and this figure is not improving. In fact it’s getting worse. Shockingly, a 2015 survey by ‘Stack Overflow’, a community for coders, showed 92% of their 26,000 participants are male.

Here’s why it matters. The growth of technology in all forms means massive job growth; the demand for coders is high but the supply of good coders is limited so these jobs are commanding high salaries.

Do men involved in technology want their wives, partners, daughters, nieces and colleagues to have good, well-paid jobs which also offer some excellent creative challenge, flexible working and diverse career opportunities? I think they do. Add to that the real business benefits of employing bright, focused, creative women into these roles and the numerous studies which prove that companies with better diversity across their workforce have better performance. Having at least as many women in tech as men becomes a no brainer doesn’t it?

According to a 2012 White House Report ‘the United States is on track to face a shortfall of … one million qualified STEM workers over the next decade’. That’s bad enough; but why exclude half the population, albeit unconsciously, from filling this void just because they happen to be female?

So far, so problematic. The troubling ‘unconscious bias’ was mentioned repeatedly by many of the speakers at the recent ‘Women in the Tech Sector’ Westminster eForum. It’s clear that championing the necessity and benefits of training all managers and recruiters in how to recognise unconscious bias and diminish its impacts is vital.

How do you get more girls excited and involved in STEM subjects at the earliest opportunity? It’s a classic ‘supply chain’ issue with a twist. To an extent you can simply ‘talk’ your way out of it.

Consider how often we are ‘hitting targets’ or ‘fighting an uphill battle’. Military metaphors litter work communication, reinforcing masculine behaviours especially in technical areas.

Perhaps there’s something to take from the world of software development where ‘Agile’ environments focus on communal, communicative and collaborative behaviours which are perhaps considered more ‘female’. But hold on…is that me being unconsciously biased?

As speakers at the eForum singled out language as a particular issue, I heard how The Harvey Mudd College in the US renamed their ‘Introduction to Java’ course to “Creative Approaches to Problem Solving in Science Engineering using Python”. As a result of this and other language and cultural changes made by the college, the number of women majoring in computer science increased from 10% to 40% in 4 years.

These are all big ticket items to address – how the unconscious works, use of language and gender inequality in society and work. Undaunted, the eForum presented a whole host of really impressive UK activity including:

  • ‘Freeformers’ who are working with businesses and young people to show work and careers through different lenses and use role models and young people to inspire their peers.
  • ‘STEMNET’ Ambassadors Programme – nearly 34,000 people working across 95% of all UK secondary schools. 40% of whom are female and all of whom are charged with inspiring, exciting and mentoring young people to consider courses and further their careers via STEM subjects.
  • ‘Girls in Tech UK’ who promote the technical sector and manage networks, offering mentoring, workshops and support at all levels, from school age to company board members
  • ‘Future Tech Girls’ a new initiative looking to find excellent and meaningful tech work experience for girls in schools.

Alongside all of these, there is exceptional activity taking place within companies such as Sky, Facebook and Accenture as well as work by bodies including the Women’s Engineering Society and the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Training, measuring, advising and promoting all aspects of this wide topic is happening. Measurement of diversity, keeping working environments fair and equitable, flexible hours and parttime working, women in leadership initiatives, technology academies, networking and peer support groups – they’re all out there.

But is it enough? As Nicola Mendelsohn, Vice President EMEA, Facebook pointed out, we’re 45 years on from the Equal Pay Act of 1970 receiving Royal Assent. However pay between the genders is not yet equal, especially in the technology sector.

Let’s hope consciously recognising the unconscious and doing something about it has some impact.

This article was first published in KitPlus magazine May 2016

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Last modified on 15 June 2016
Emma Clifford

Experienced in delivering multi-million pound benefits via change projects in the media sector.