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Women in Tech: Whose Responsibility Is It to Even up the Numbers?

Women in Tech: Whose Responsibility Is It to Even up the Numbers?

by 

Alex Holderness

January 23, 2017

Development
Companies
Culture
Design
Career advice

The tech sector has long had an uncomfortable relationship with gender equality. If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine someone furiously coding in a dark room, face aglow from the screen, you’d inevitably imagine that face to be male. And there’s good reason for that, because the hard numbers very much back up this archetypal view.

According to this report from McKinsey & Company, women in tech make up just over a third (37%) of those who hold entry level jobs, and the numbers just get worse and worse as you climb that slippery corporate ladder. The percentage of women who occupy managerial tech positions is 30%, falling to 25% for the senior manager/director roles, 20% for vice presidential openings, and just 15% for tech CEOs.

But why?

The Deep-Seated Issues

The feeder fields of tech – the areas of interest that are conducive to a young person becoming interested in all things digital – are traditionally maths and science. These are two subjects that have stereotypically displayed a male bias, even if that stereotype is often disconnected from reality. The story goes that men are good at the hard numbers, the quantifiable stuff, the clearly defined rights and wrongs inherent in these fields. Women are better at the more whimsical, subjective stuff, don’t you know. Art, poetry, music; these are the female strengths, not formulae and code.

We now know that this line of thought is completely groundless, but unfortunately it seems this pervasive and persistent stain is a hard one to scrub from the minds of those in tech. It doesn’t help that the public consciousness is still pushed down this path – just look at the cast of The Big Bang Theory.

Essentially the women in tech candle is being burnt from both ends. Girls with an interest in tech are deemed incapable or actively discouraged in school, while at the top end of town, every single tech figurehead – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk – owns a Y chromosome.

The Responsibility to Change

Whether it is willing to admit it or not, the tech industry has what might be termed ‘unresolved issues with sexism’. The #gamergate controversy of the last few years has shown a truly ugly side of the industry’s gender bias, where female game developers were mercilessly targeted – to the point of stalking and death threats – for pointing out the obvious discrepancies within the field. This veritable horror show served to highlight the fact that women alone can’t change the culture; with the bulk of the field being made up of men, it’s the responsibility of this silent majority to make a stand.

Such an omnipresent problem can only be solved by an equally omnipresent solution. Both a bottom-up and a top-down approach will be required if the numbers are going to be evened out in the near future. In schools, a focus needs to be put on breaking down the stereotypes of boy vs girl in the classroom. This may need to extend to an active effort being made to get girls interested, rather than simply adopting a more equal mindset.

Those at the pointy end of the tech industry need to seriously analyse their own preconceptions too, and put concerted effort into identifying women who could hold high positions. Inspiration can be taken from Yahoo and YouTube, both of whom have relatively long-serving female CEOs that have taken the companies from strength to strength.

One thing that should not be overlooked is the role men will play, they don’t have to be shut out. This is not just a female issue, and men will be needed to proactively drive the change in the workplace environments. We know many that care about the issue – and they too should be allowed a voice.

Many organisations form all-women groups to collectively discuss the issues, but can change not be driven more powerfully if it comes from a balanced voice?

Like any act of progress, patience will be rewarded. But if we wait for things to organically change, we could find ourselves waiting decades for a generation of #gamergate type individuals to leave the industry. A broad, concerted effort is required, and while gender parity may seem some way off at the moment, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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