Over the past decade, we’ve been debating the lack of diversity in technology and how we can change the face of the industry.
Although this sector continues to grow at an incredible rate, females are still underrepresented. Currently, only one in six tech specialists are women, and only one in ten are IT leaders.
In addition, the sector also suffers from a problematic culture, one which is perceived as being sexist and alpha-male. It’s hard to miss the high-profile headlines, from Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick’s resignation as chief executive after an investigation into company workplace culture, to Google engineer James Damore’s infamous memo suggesting that men may be more suited to working in tech than women.
There are many initiatives to diversify the tech sector, but it often follows the same rhetoric. For many, it’s a challenge that will take some time to address, and this perception can, unfortunately, decrease the amount of attention given to the issue.
It’s easy to think that change won’t happen overnight, but what if it could? What if there was a solution that could deliver more immediate results right under our noses?
The problem with recruitment drives
Hiring women within IT — particularly at the highest level — can be incredibly challenging. Although there’s a growing awareness of the need for a diverse workforce, employers have a limited talent pool to choose from. There is a growing desire to develop the talent pipeline and the male-dominated work environments which naturally follow as a result of it. However, many tech companies are targeting the same skilled female IT workers as they attempt to hit diversity targets and while it’s great that they are attempting to action change, the talent pipeline still remains small. Last year UCAS confirmed this by revealing that female students studying a computer science degree in the UK make up only 19 per cent of students.
Despite an increasing number of female role models, the belief that ‘women will never make it to the top’ still exists. Often, females in this industry are only associated with certain managerial roles, such as HR and marketing. In an open letter to women in tech, Samir El-Alamni, CEO of Doctorly, speaks openly about these kinds of perceptions. In particular, she remembers being told that females don’t join start-ups early on. A common piece of advice was that ‘once you start hiring marketing, HR, product management and salespeople, you will have more women applying’.
Diversity targets in themselves can prove problematic. Not only have they been criticised for giving some candidates an ‘unfair’ advantage over others, but also, a male-dominated talent pool can make it hard to achieve a diverse shortlist. Looking at data from Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — who first began publishing diversity reports in 2014 — it’s clear little has changed over time.
A challenge which may take generations to solve
A study by Girls Who Code found that many young females studying computer science are left feeling discouraged by their first encounters with tech companies. Of the 1,000 women surveyed, more than half said they’d had a negative experience while applying for internships — or had spoken to someone else who had.
Unfortunately, tech’s toxic workplace culture — from gender-biased interview questions to inappropriate remarks — can discourage young women from entering the profession even as they apply for their first jobs. By qualifying in this area, they’ve already overcome several hurdles, yet still have many more to go.
Even at school, there’s a widely publicised STEM gender gap. At a very young age, girls are opting against studying science, technology, engineering and maths — and this is nothing to do with ability. Research indicates that we’re more likely to lose mathematically gifted women than mathematically gifted men from the talent pipeline.
Currently, just 27 per cent of females consider a career in technology — a fact that will, indeed, take time to change. Subsequently, there’s still a need to invest in the education system, changing the mindsets of pupils, teachers, parents so that gifted young people are encouraged to expand their career options. Universities and employers should additionally consider alterations in intake objectives and institutional culture.
Today’s solution: Investing in female entrepreneurs
Encouraging more women to follow a career will take long-term investment in the next generation of talented young minds. But, what if it’s possible to change the gender gap in tech today by investing in women, not just at the bottom of the career ladder but at the top?
Within Europe, just 2.5 per cent of start-ups have entirely female founder teams. It’s a tough environment for these entrepreneurs — and some have bravely spoken up about sexist comments and harassment. However, they’re continuing to prevail against the odds, bringing in a higher profit in comparison to their male peers. A study from Boston Consulting showed that, for every dollar raised, women-run start-ups generated 78 cents in revenue, compared to 32 cents for men.
Unsurprisingly, these business owners also attract less investment. In the UK, women-led start-ups net only 12.8 per cent of available funding. It’s a similar story wherever you look. In the US, investment in all-female founding teams increased to $3.3 billion for 2019, but this made up just 2.8 per cent of all capital invested. Not only do females face hiring challenges within the talent pipeline, they also find themselves on the receiving end of gender bias when it comes to setting up their own enterprises.
In America alone, there are an estimated 12.3 million businesses owned by women. These women in tech are bucking the trend to create leadership positions for themselves by developing growing, successful companies. By supporting these female founders, investing in those at the top of the funnel — who are already in leadership positions — it’s entirely possible that there’s a faster way to solve the gender gap.
Supporting women in business
Creating a team of people with different experiences, skills and outlooks isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’. There’s a real business case for workplace diversity. Not only does this boost revenue by 19 per cent, but inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be leaders in their market — outperforming competitors by taking a fresh, innovative approach.
Unfortunately, within venture capital firms, the gender gap continues. It’s rare to see females within these organisations who have responsibility for allocating funds to new businesses. A recent study found that fewer than 10 per cent of decision-makers at US VC firms were women, suggesting that men often hold the purse strings.
Start-up investment can be a risky business. Before promising funding, investors need to be sure that they’re backing the right horse. However, it can be hard to persuade someone of the need for your product if they don’t have direct experience of the issue it’s trying to solve. Commenting on this Sophia Matveeva, CEO and co-founder of Enty, suggests that tech products created by and for females ‘are just not as instinctively easy for male investors to relate to’, making it harder for these types of ideas to secure much-needed investment.
Solving the gender gap via female founders
With women driving 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer spending, supporting women with more investment isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes business sense. Not only will this help those who are successful in their own right to thrive, but it’s a sure-fire way to solve a problematic tech culture which is proving to be so damaging.
Research from Microsoft shows that girls in the UK are more likely to consider studying STEM subjects — including computer science — if they have an inspiring role model. However, with only 5 per cent of leadership positions in the industry held by women, only 22 per cent of people surveyed by PwC could name a famous female in this area.
Not only this, but female entrepreneurs are more likely to support ‘one of their own’. A report by the World Economic Forum suggests that women in leadership positions take a conscientious approach towards diversity — actively seeking to hire in a way that allows them to broaden their team. When there are more women within the C-suite, this has a knock-on effect across the ranks, and positive consequences for tech’s gender gap.
Above all, women understand women’s issues; they have experienced the problematic areas of tech culture and so can create a more inclusive culture that can support change. By campaigning for investment into women at the top of the funnel, it’s possible that leaders within the tech sector can solve both the industry’s culture and diversity problem at once. So what is it we’re waiting for?
Originally published at https://wearetechwomen.com on March 2, 2020.