Confronting the lack of women in technology

By Christopher Burke | 15 March 2017

Christopher Burke, CEO, Brickendon

The absence of women in technology – and other senior and executive management roles for that matter – remains a source of controversy and debate. Famous figures such as Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Virginia Rometty are widely celebrated as role models – demonstrating that women can make it to the very top in a competitive and predominantly male industry. So why is it that women are underrepresented in this thriving sector and what can be done to enact change?

British women have historically played a key role in the development and success of our national technology prowess. The first computer programmer is thought to have been Ada Lovelace while Steve Shirley (Dame Stephanie Shirley) founded her company Xansa in 1962, hiring mostly female programmers.1 In spite of these remarkable figures – in addition to the fact that women constitute half the available talent pool – women only occupy 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) roles.

Faring slightly better in finance, women account for over 40% of employees in the securities, investment banking and commodities industries. But in financial technology (fintech) – a sector championed for its innovation and progress – the statistics are stark. Europe’s top 50 fintech companies have only one female chief executive between them while women make up fewer than five percent of executive roles.

This means it has never been more vital to promote genuine diversity and create a technology sector that reflects the modern world.

The lack of women

Although it’s known that diverse groups are more creative, innovative and financially outperform less diverse businesses, the absence of women in technology is affecting the way we live and work. For instance, the launch of the Apple Health Kit received criticism for not including women’s health – while some recognition software programmes have not been configured to recognise female voices. If more women working in technology was the norm it’s likely these problems would not have arisen in the first place as female innovators tend to emphasise integration and collaboration. This lack of gender diversity is to the detriment of many companies who lose a range of different perspectives and creativity – which can then affect financial performance as they fail to meet the needs of their consumers.

That said, fostering diversity in technology cannot be achieved just at an executive level. Instead we need to also look at the grassroots.

Dismantling gender roles

According to a report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, women are being deterred from careers in science due to the pressures of family life alongside “biases” in the workplace. Others argue that the reasons for this are more deep-seated.

Girls are often taught about gender from a young age, assets Maria Tamboukou, Professor of feminist studies at the University of East London. Children’s toys and clothes are normally categorised by gender while girls’ toys usually revolve around motherhood and the importance of beauty. Similarly boys are typically labelled as adventurous and brave. According to Maria, more needs to be done to address these issues, such as promoting more role models to help girls consider their position while changing the way our children consider careers and traditional roles. Although girls are more likely to outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE Level, the number continuing these subjects at a higher education level drops off. As a result only 8.5% of UK engineers are female.

Image can also have an important role in discouraging women from pursuing a career in technology. Stereotypes can portray a men-only club where members discuss the latest computer games in a manner similar to the characters from Channel 4’s IT Crowd.

Progress in the sector

That said, there are many reason to be optimistic with new initiatives being made to encourage women into the technology sector. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee suggested that the government prioritise apprenticeships to persuade women to pursue a career in the technology industry, while organisations and lobby groups have created to raise awareness of women in technology. One such group is Stemettes – founded to inspire the next generation of females in STEM fields. It has set a target of raising the number of women in the STEM workforce to 30 per cent by 2020.

Another solution is to look at the companies who have successfully embraced 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 men where applicable – to better balance between work and family life.

Moreover, the technology industry is not lacking in inspiring female role models. Three of the most powerful technology companies in the world are led 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. Let’s look forward to a transformation over the coming years with a new generation of women working throughout the technology sector.