Reprogramming the System for Gender Diversity in Tech
We constantly hear that today’s technology companies have a hard time finding and retaining industry talent. Perhaps there’s an untapped resource that can be regenerated by looking at the industry’s historical members. Many of the pioneer computer programmers were female, the very first being Ada Lovelace.
During World War II, while some Rosies were riveting others were computing. Grace Murray Hopper designed programming for the Harvard Mark I computer. Hedy Lamarr created a communication system to guide torpedoes toward their targets, introducing the wireless transmission technology that led to the foundation of WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
By the time computer science started gaining speed in the 1960s and beyond, women became less and less represented in the field. In recent years, an increase of women have joined the world of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), but the tech industry continues to lag behind its counterparts in gender diversity.
Females made up almost half of the U.S. labor force in 2019 at 46.8%, a number that’s slowly but steadily increased over the last two decades. However, women continue to be significantly less represented in tech jobs, even at some of the largest tech companies in the world. According to company reports from Statista, females currently hold only 20% of tech roles at Microsoft and 23% each at Google, Apple, and Facebook. We ran our own company report at TenFour that showed we have similar numbers, with females comprising 24.5% of our tech roles.
Remarkably, while opportunities are improving by leaps and bounds for women in other career fields, IT is seeing a much smaller trend of female representation. There’s a broad spectrum of possible reasons behind this underrepresentation, many of which often go deeper than surface-level discrimination at male-dominated corporations. If tech wants to catch up on gender diversity and perhaps find some of that sought-after talent, the industry needs to reprogram how it engages with and appeals to females of all ages.
Why Gender Diversity in Tech Matters
It’s better for the company. Data from a recent McKinsey & Company report including statistics from over 1,000 companies in 15 countries shows that businesses with a diverse executive team perform better than their less diverse peers. “Our 2019 analysis finds that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile—up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014.” Additionally, the measure of this business success improves in parallel with the level of diversity. “Companies with more than 30% women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all. A substantial differential likelihood of outperformance—48%—separates the most from the least gender-diverse companies.” Business experience and problem solving has taught us that two heads are better than one; the next lesson is two genders are better than one.
It’s better for the world. Thinking outside the box (or walls) of a single company, achieving gender equality in IT could expand the possibilities of technology itself. The evidence is clear in that more women on your business team is better for your company, but we think more women in tech is better for the world. During Ginni Rometty’s recent tenure as CEO of IBM, the company excelled with a record-breaking 9,043 patents in 2017, creating advancements in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, cloud computing, blockchain, and quantum computing. In Rometty’s words, “IBM’s patent leadership has changed the way the world works with advancements critical to the modern era of computing.”
When you peel away all of the coding and scientific terminology, the main purpose of technology is to advance human capabilities or solve societal problems. Tech workers are the creators that build and maintain the tools that enhance life in one way or another. Given the relationship between technology and human interest, it makes sense to take a diversified approach in the creation of products that power the world. A historic example can be found in Marie Van Brittan Brown’s invention of the first home security system in 1966, paired with the first closed-circuit television. Living in New York City, Brown was concerned with high crime rates and the delayed response time of neighborhood police, which motivated her to find a personal solution for her family’s safety.
Regardless of gender, ethnicity, or background, the tech industry is responsible for the products that the world needs to survive and thrive. A diverse workforce translates to higher quality products, cross-cultural applications, and wider spread satisfaction. Simply put, if only one demographic is creating a tool, the outcome will significantly benefit that same demographic among its consumers. A diverse creative team can build tools that are beneficial to a much wider customer base, simultaneously increasing profitability.
The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) states “In computing and technology careers, greater inclusion lifts individual futures and entire communities. Yet many groups are underrepresented. Too many voices—and their winning ideas—go unheard. Unquestionably, the will for change exists, but turning awareness into outcomes requires strategies for action.”
Diversity vs. Inclusion
Keep in mind that a company that succeeds in diversity can still lack in inclusion, as while the terms are often conflated, they are not synonymous. Diversity, by itself, is simply the existence of differing elements or qualities. Inclusion is the act of incorporating, accommodating, and valuing those different elements. Diversity can exist without inclusion, but it cannot thrive.
Instilling an inclusive culture in the workplace strengthens a company’s ability to both sustain gender diversity as well as increase the opportunities for female employees to succeed within the environment. When trying to create a more diverse team, a company’s attention and effort predominantly go toward the recruitment and hiring processes. This method is beneficial in achieving diversity but will not ensure inclusion, as there are still many hurdles, road blocks, and remnants of the glass ceiling that can hold women back after securing the job.
“Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough,” warns McKinsey & Company, “it’s the workplace experience that shapes whether people remain and thrive.” Many tech companies struggle with female employee retention, which can be due in part to a hostile (read: exclusive) work environment. To instill both diversity and inclusion, the “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters” report instructs companies to take steps to increase representation, strengthen leadership accountability, enable equality through fairness, promote openness, and foster belonging.
Making Deeper Changes
As with any deep-seated, historical divide, the solution to gender diversity in tech lies in making systemic changes at the earliest stage—i.e., female representation for children. Just as seeing a female CEO would attract a young woman to apply for a job at a certain company, having a female computer teacher or activity director will help attract young girls to the classes, clubs, and camps in computer science and IT. Providing positive female role models is the preliminary step to changing the future of gender diversity in computing and technology. Today’s females who have gone against the grain and solidified a career in IT are perfectly positioned—and dare we say responsible—to inspire and recruit younger generations.
British entrepreneur Belinda Parmar is a leading example of women-in-tech mentorship, with her Little Miss Geek campaign working to inspire young females to pursue careers in technology. More tech females taking up the role model responsibility include Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, with her book Lean In, and Dorcas Muthoni’s organization AfChix. This mentor visibility needs to be widespread and available at all levels, in education from elementary to college and in career from hiring to promotion.
Additionally, let’s take steps to break the perception of IT and computer science as boring or impersonal. We hear tech outsiders label computing as dry, mundane cubicle work that speaks a foreign language of math codes and formulas. In reality, it can be found in every corner of today’s world. A tech-focused degree can lead to an inventive career in programming intelligent vehicles for safer transportation, discovering life-saving medical technology, or standardizing eco-friendly agricultural enhancements. Every modernized industry requires a knowledgeable IT contributor at one stage or another.
As we further examine the underrepresentation of women in IT, it’s impossible to ignore society’s past ideology of traditional gender roles. There still exist some cultural beliefs and gender psychologists that suggest females experience an innate desire to help others, which may explain why women have historically flocked to nurturing careers such as teaching, social work, and nursing. This trend seemingly stays true even as gender diversity climbs in STEM areas. “More women pursue science-oriented degrees than engineering-focused ones, and the healthcare industry in general has tended to attract more women than the tech sector,” according to Silicon Valley Bank’s annual Startup Outlook Survey.
Does this trend exist because of natural inclination or because the industries to which females tend to gravitate were the only ones left open to them by male workers? It’s difficult to say, but the fact is the modern tech industry is a human-focused one and women belong in it, whether they are inclined to a nurturing instinct or not.
On the surface, working with computers may not seem to be inherently helping people; but as we said before, the goal of technology is to create tools that enhance human abilities or experiences. It wouldn’t be outlandish to say that computer science is the foundation of all technology that helps humans do things better or enables them to achieve what they otherwise couldn’t.
In August 2020, the US celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. One hundred years later, TenFour continues to strategize, reach for, and celebrate gender equality in our own field, and we encourage our customers and colleagues to do the same. Not only is gender inclusivity a win for the business, it’s a win for all.