The tech industry is booming. Even a global pandemic cannot impede the sector’s growth.  UK technology companies attracted a record $15bn (£11.2bn) in venture capital funding over the course of 2020.  Indeed, 2020 saw the creation of 7 new “unicorn” firms valued at more than $1bn.   The UK is now home to more unicorns than any other European country.  It has more than Germany, Netherlands, and France combined.

But despite this mushroom cloud of prosperity, women are still hugely underrepresented within the tech sector.

It hasn’t always been this way. During the Second World War and for a couple of decades afterward, computer programming was seen as women’s work.  From the 1950s-1970s, many women worked on building software, while men typically built hardware.  Throughout this period though, programming was seen as a menial occupation. The 1980s changed this. Seismic shifts to computer software meant men shifted their focus from hardware to software.  Tech giants such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs revolutionised computers, while in popular culture and advertising, computers and video games were targeted at boys and men.

Fast forward 40 years and the gap hasn’t ceased to widen.  Whether you work in the UK’s tech industry or in Silicon Valley, women are hugely outnumbered by their male counterparts by roughly 5:1.  Women make up just 17% of IT specialists in the UK.  What’s more, a survey conducted last year shows that the number of women in the tech sector has barely moved in the past decade despite an industry-wide effort to reverse statistics such as these.

So, if tech has never had it so good, where are all the girls and why might they be so underrepresented?

Back to School.

It has been pointed out that we may need to look back to education to explain the shortfall of female IT leaders.  Historically, girls do not study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in the same volume as boys. On top of this, when they do, they are less likely to continue their studies to advanced levels.  By default, this weakens the pipeline of young women into tech-related industries.

According to education campaign group WISE, just 9% of female graduates in 2018-19 studied a core STEM subject, and when they did, female students tended to opt to travel the Physical Sciences route, rather than down a road toward Computer science.

Of the graduates in the academic year of 2015-2016, data from UCAS informs that 16% (2,925) of Computer Science graduates were female.  In the following two years, this number dropped to 15%, and then rose again in 2018-19 back up to 16% with numbers reaching 3,490 graduates.  On the surface, the numbers do suggest some success. The overall number of computer science graduates who are female has actually seen an increase year-on-year, although the percentage has remained static due to more men also opting to study the subject.

Why the low numbers?

Girls and women need role models.

If you were asked to name a famous female working in technology, could you do it?  If so, then you would be in the minority.

A study of 2000 A-level and university students conducted by PWC revealed that only 22% of students interviewed could name a famous female tech ambassador.  In contrast, 66% could name a famous man.

Indeed, the same study goes on to confirm that the gender gap in technology starts at school and carries on through every stage of girls’ and women’s lives.  When being spoken to at school or college, only 16% of female students have had a career in tech or IT suggested to them, compared to 33% of males.  Perhaps, as a result, just 3% of females say a career in technology would be their first choice.  It is interesting to consider how these numbers may look if names such as Spärck Jones, Lane Fox, Muthoni, and Rometty were as easy to recall as Musk, Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg.

Women in the IT workforce.

Using data from the 2019 Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey, we can take a closer look at where females sit within the IT workforce.

Overall, it can be determined that the STEM sector is continuing to grow at a rapid rate.  Comparing the 2019 data with the same study conducted in 2017, core STEM employment had increased by 6.3%.  This equates to more than 6 times that of the total rise in the UK’s overall employment rate.

In 2019 too, women reach a milestone moment.  Government data showed that there are now one million women working in core STEM occupations.  This meant that women make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK.  Furthermore, using the data trends from the past decade, WISE has estimated that by 2030, women will make up over 29% of the STEM workforce.

IT Girls.

If we are to consider IT in isolation, the numbers give us two sets of data: IT Professionals and IT Technicians.

Looking more closely at the IT Professionals numbers, we actually see a downward trend.  In 2016, 18% (183,149) of the workforce were women who held a role in this field.  In 2019, this number dropped to 16% with an actual number of 180,600 female employees.

IT Technician numbers tell a slightly different story.  In 2016, 19% (43,087) of the workforce were female.  In 2019, this proportion is 21% (53,400).

So, it would appear that in the technician category the numbers are improving, but females in ‘professional’ roles are not.  In fact, they are lessening.  How can we explain this trend?

A male-dominated industry.

Tech is a world notoriously dominated by men.  As the data suggests, board-level females are few and far between.  Indeed, if we look to the $1bn Unicorns, women in tech Unicorns are nearly as rare as the mythical beasts themselves.

One study has identified that the average tenure for female leaders at B2B tech Unicorns is just 1.78 years.  This is nearly half of the average tenure for male leaders which is 2.66 years.  Additionally, on average just 21% of leaders at B2B Unicorns are women, with women making up just 34% of the overall staff population.

At its worst, the tech sector has cultivated a toxic “bro culture”; one exemplified by Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick.  Back in 2017, Kalanick was forced to step down as CEO after it was found he had been accused of creating a sexist work culture that discriminated against female members of staff.

In addition, it has been found that if more of the leadership team is female, female leaders then typically stay with the organisation for longer.  This culture seems to have a knock-on effect.  Broadly speaking, a female-led enterprise will have an employee population with a higher percentage who are women, the data has revealed.

Interestingly, the same research found that 23% of female leaders had been promoted into the senior teams of their organisation versus just 19% of men.  This seems to suggest that in order to reach a higher position, women need to begin their careers in a more junior role. Forced to ‘prove themselves’ and earn their corner office, so to speak.

Research from Harvard Business Review seems to support this.  It indicated that women in the US working in science, engineering and technology fields are 45% more likely than their male colleagues to resign within a year of taking a job.

Vanessa Vallely, founder of membership organisation WeAreTechWomen echoes the view that this is down to the lack of progression for women.  She says, “There’s a real lack of sponsorship, people in senior positions – typically men – supporting women’s work and efforts… if they (companies) want the right balance in the room, they need to help women at the middle level to progress.”

A lack of confidence.

There is some thought that women suffer from a lack of professional confidence in general when it comes to employment.

Nicola Anderson is chief marketing officer at MyTutor, a London-based edtech firm.  She has worked in various tech businesses over the past 20 years and recognises the barriers her industry can pose to women.

She says, “women in tech often won’t apply for a job if they don’t feel they’re 100% qualified or have exactly the right experience”, and as a result, “women end up moving horizontally where their male peers progress.”

Alongside her day job, Anderson is a coach and mentor.  She now helps women to overcome their professional insecurities.

Through her work and talking to women throughout the application process, she has found that the tech industry has a reputation for having long hours with little flexibility regarding working models.  In some organisations, there was also a belief that benefits have been more about having beers one day of the week or providing table tennis in the office than pensions provision, healthcare, or flexible working for parents.

It is these long-held and often misaligned conceptions that she believes have put women off.  Over recent years, the industry has matured.  Here at Ignite we too have borne witness to this evolution; home working, part-time roles, and flexibility are commonplace in IT job descriptions.

She has also identified that women have a level of self-doubt over their ability to be technical.  There is a misconception that to work in IT you have to be a coder or a developer. In actual fact though, IT professionals come in all different guises.  She says, “There are lots of different roles and many women have great transferable skills, if only they knew it.”

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The gender pay gap.

Mercer conducted a study looking into the gender pay gap in the UK high-technology sector covering 66,000 employees across 153 companies.  The findings revealed that men in high-tech companies earned 25% more than women. Whilst this is not a trait exclusive to the tech industry, it is a more notable difference; the gap gender pay gap across the UK spanning all sectors is 18%.

Furthermore, men were found to be twice as likely to have reached management level and receive 20% more in terms of bonuses.

Women in IT. What is being done?

More businesses are trying to address gender imbalance and hundreds have signed up to the Tech Talent Charter.  This is a government-backed initiative wherein participants commit to adopting recruitment and retention practices that create a more diverse tech workforce.  The initial aim was to reach 600 signatories by 2020, with big names including Capgemini, Vodafone and Lloyds Banking Group signing up, as well as many medium-sized tech firms and startups.

A change from within.

There has been a push from within the tech sector itself to make industry-wide changes.

Of this, MyTutor’s Anderson comments,

“Hiring talent in tech is incredibly competitive and potential employees choose businesses based on the employer brand and how much they value culture, diversity and work-life balance. Companies not focusing on these things are missing out on hiring the best people.”

According to research, 80% of female millennials seek out employers with a strong record on diversity, equality and inclusion.  While this push from the bottom is having an impact, it is not the complete solution.

Maddy Cross, talent director of venture capital firm Notion, which specialises in investing in tech businesses, thinks men in top table roles still have a huge part to play in changing attitudes and culture.

She remarks,

“Men at the top have to believe and support their female employees and peers when they highlight the micro-sexism happening in business every day”.

In so doing, the industry itself is helping to create new talent, not just move women horizontally from business to business.

In conclusion.

Looking at both the quantitative and qualitative data, it is clear that there is still a mountain to climb to reduce the gender gap in STEM fields.

Broadly speaking, the percentage of female graduates with core STEM degrees is steadily growing, however, the split is still just 26%.

Unsurprisingly, these inequalities then transcend down into the female STEM workforce, with women making up just 24% of the workforce.

Work needs to be done to encourage women to both study these subjects, and transition into the workforce.

Both theorists and the statistics point to a lack of female role models as playing an active role in the belief that technology and IT is not a sector in which women are welcome and can thrive.  Businesses have a responsibility to actively redress the balance.  Culture, salary, bonus, and benefits systems need to reflect diversity, welcome and encourage inclusion.  There also needs to be more females at top-tier desks to improve the retention of women and encourage their application in the first instance.

The girls are out there.

May we teach them. May we work with them. May we work for them.

About the author: I manage the recruitment for a range of digital roles for my clients on both a retained and contingency basis. I specialise in senior and confidential appointments, always giving a first class representation of a client’s employer brand.

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