Women in Tech

Flags from around the world hang high above an alleyway

Earlier this year, I spoke at Readify as part of their International Women’s Day events held around the country.  This is what I said.

I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet; the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It is upon their ancestral lands on which we meet. I pay my respects to any elders, past, present and emerging. As we celebrate the courage and resilience of women and gender minorities on this International Women’s Day, may we also pay respect to the traditional gender balance, leadership and innovation of Aboriginal people, embedded forever within their Custodianship of Country.

Today I’m going to start of by setting the scene with a quick snapshot of women in the tech sector, which I’m sure you’re all well aware of. I’m going to focus a little more on the solutions that come from the empirical evidence about what works in lifting up women in the workplace. I won’t talk too long, so we can have a bit more a discussion about what initiatives have worked well here or in other places where you’ve worked, or if there’s anything else you want to dive into.

Women in tech

While the number of women in other sciences has equalised at the junior levels, the number of women in senior roles remains under 20% for all science, technology and maths – or STEM – areas. Some disciplines do better than others. Engineering and computer science degrees have actually become worse since the 1980s, despite the boom in these industries. While women make up around 60% of women undergraduate students in the life sciences, women make up only 16% of Bachelor-level students in information technology degrees.

When we’re thinking about the academic workforce, at the postgraduate levels, it gets slightly more promising, with 27% of IT students completing a PhD being women, but this still pales in comparison to their male counterparts. The proportion drops again amongst senior IT academics, with only 16% of professors being women (34 women, compared to 174 men).

Graph of gender disparity among IT academics. 16% of Bachelor students; 27% of PhD students; 24% of junior academics; 16% of senior professors are women
Student completions and academic staff – Information Technology 2014. Source: SAGE

Thinking about the situation outside academia, women make up around 46% of the entire Australian workforce, but less than one third of employees in technology roles. To be more concrete, computer system design was the top industry employing men in 2016 (122,500 men), but women only make up a quarter of this same industry (40,348 women or 24.8%) (see ABS 2017.0, Table 6). The gender paygap in tech is improving incrementally, however the disparity is still alarming, and the lack of diversity in tech is seen by industry leaders as a ‘crisis.’

You know the situation is not great, so I won’t dwell too much on these figures. I do want to focus on solutions.

End ‘fix the women’ approaches

Many initiatives to support women in the workforce focus on individual-level solutions (Zevallos 2018 forthcoming). Many of these can be very powerful where they help women feel better supported. But many of these approaches miss the fact that asking individual women to do most of the work on equality doesn’t really change the system. Many women are already doing lots of daily things to challenge the status quo.

For example, there is a lot of effort on mentoring programs, as well as other initiatives which I call, “fix the women.” For example, training on how to ask for promotions; being told to be more confident in meetings; and other similar strategies that make gender equality women’s responsibility. Many of these programs have been a hangover from the 1960s and 1970s. Newer focus on manager training, such as on unconscious bias, are not necessarily pitched at the right level.

Nationally representative data show that these initiatives have limited capacity to transform gender imbalance. If they worked, our workplaces would already look more equitable and diverse.

The work of Professors Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin and Erin Kelly show longitudinal trends over the past 30 years. These data tell us that the old training aimed at the people who are experiencing inequality do little to fix the systemic issues that minority women experience. A lot of programs aim to increase the hiring of women, but they are not as concerned with promotion and retention. This means that people with decision-making power has changed relatively little over time.

Where a few women do manage to make it to the top, they are still largely expected to model masculine ways of managing, and they are conditioned in other ways to stop women operating at their best. For example, being punished for their style of leadership where they are seen as too collaborative (that is, too focused on team building and support for staff). 

Structual reform

Tall building at 1 Castlereagh Street Sydney
Readify offices on International Women’s Day

Initiatives that work more effectively are focused on changing institutions, not individual women. In particular, the culprit of inequality is workplace culture. Solutions that work for women’s equity and diversity include not simply a gender equity committee that meets to discuss issues and reports upwards. But instead being more proactive, such as creating a diversity task force that includes executives and managers who have clear goals that they are examined against, or bias interruptors that involve continually measuring, addressing and evaluating proactive steps to battle inequality.

Targets and quotas are also important because they work to increase diversity, and, in turn, lead to greater profit and productivity. The old myths that these strategies are unfair towards men presumes that the current model of meritocracy is value-neutral. It is not. The type of work that is seen, recognised and rewarded is the work that men do, or that men have greater access to. The work that women are often tasked with, especially administrative duties, committees that aren’t recognised during promotions rounds – including gender equity and diversity committees – as well as all the additional mentoring that women do informally is not properly remunerated by workplaces.

An equity and diversity task force would be not just collecting data about the number of men, women and gender minorities at different levels, but instead evaluate more meaningful data about what is working and not working in terms of career satisfaction; not just collecting data on workplace culture, but acting on this regularly. Questions to ensure inclusion of White women and minorities might include:

  • Do people from underrepresented backgrounds feel welcome?
  • Is the culture hostile to White women and minorities?
  • What concrete steps will companies take to do things differently based on staff feedback?

Policies that promote equity and diversity are good, but they only meet the bare minimum of legal requirements. Sometimes companies can become complacent, thinking that if no one has made any complaints, there must not be a problem. Policies that are routinely reviewed are more effective. Organisations should ask themselves:

Do our policies work for the people they’re intended to help?

Transparency is a key tool to women’s empowerment in tech and in other industries. We need managers and executives to walk the talk. It’s not enough to simply say they believe in equality. How will they actively work towards it? Well, as I’ve noted, research shows that having key performance indicators for managers that have clear and measurable goals for equity and diversity make a big difference.

Women in hijab sit chatting outdoors. Text reads: Do minorities & White women feel welcome? Do policies work for those they intend to help? What will companies do differently to recruit & promote minorities & White women?
How to recruit and promote minorities & White women

Equity and diversity training is important because this provides all workers and managers with a basic level of awareness about our individual rights and responsibilities. Unconscious bias training is a useful framework for people to unpack their biases and belief systems which they may not be aware of, as they may be unwittingly contributing towards a hostile work environment for White women and minorities. But evidence shows the effects of attending these courses can be fleeting, particularly when courses and training don’t give people clear actions they can work on. It’s not enough to know we all hold internal prejudices. We need to know how to counter these in positive, every day ways in the workplace. As Joanne Lipman puts it:

For men as well as women, it doesn’t matter how sincere companies are in embracing diversity if their own policies work against it–and in particular if they make it impossible to balance work with family.

The other flawed aspect of training-centric approaches is that men are not part of the solution. Women must change themselves: be more confident, be more assertive. But research shows us that managers are more likely to react negatively when women are assertive. An assertive man is seen as a go-getter. An assertive women is a trouble maker, she’s rude, she’s aggressive. In short, women are often trained up to exhibit some masculine traits, presuming that these traits are normal and best for the organisation. This is simply not true.

Valuing women’s diversity

Research shows that managers undervalue women’s focus on team work. This is often seen as a weakness. Women are more likely to use the pronoun, “We achieved this outcome,” whereas men say, “I achieved this outcome.” The presumption is that men are more confident. But this undervalues the importance of team harmony and the skills involved in making teams work productively.

Where mentoring is the default strategy to help women, this is only useful to a small number of White middle class women who are more readily poised to get along with the types of mentors they are matched with: namely, other White middle class women. Mentoring can be fraught for minorities, especially when mentors are not culturally aware of how to best support minority women.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and other minority women of colour need sponsors. They need advocates who can link them in with extensive job networks, and who will actively make introductions that might lead to new career opportunities. Sponsors make minority women’s success at work their personal and professional mission.

There are other useful tips for making workplaces more supportive of women that benefit other people with caring responsibilities. For example, actively promoting flexibility and work/life balance. Does the workplace have core hours that are useful for carers? For example, a standing rule that no important meetings happen before 9.30am or after 3.30pm. This is especially useful for women who do the bulk of childcare, so they are not constantly rushing after dropping off and picking up dependents. Of course this also benefits men and other gender minorities who also have caring responsibilites.

Research shows that simple changes, such as greying out calendars outside of core hours, is an effective technique to discourage meetings at unfriendly times, and thus entices people to be more flexible in their start and end times. Making sure that all calendar time spots before 9am and after 5pm are greyed out has been shown to significantly reduce people scheduling unnecessary meetings and working overly long hours.

Finally, let’s think about how organisations value the work that White women and minorities often take on to make their workplaces and the world a better place. Many companies might encourage or expect women to join diversity committees, and these are seen as corporate roles. But they are not rewarded come promotion time. They are not resourced properly – these committees are done on volunteers’ time without a budget. What’s more, equity and diversity work is like ‘banging your head against a brick wall,’ as Professor Sara Ahmed shows. It can zap women’s emotional energy, by undermining their authority to act on inequalities they witness. Women are left ‘scratching the surface,’ but with little power to make real change.

Innovation requires investment. Equity and diversity initiatives that recognise the talents, professional needs and career satisfaction of White women and minorities require a similar level of investment. Organisations eagerly invest in the latest technologies and regularly update their systems to stay ahead of the game. Why don’t they invest in women’s potential in the same way?

A Black woman and a White women dressed in suits sit together laughing. Text reads: Organisations eagerly invest in the latest technologies and update their systems to stay ahead of the game. Why don't they invest in women's potential in the same way?
Invest in women in tech

Note: I gave this talk at the Readify offices in Sydney on 8 March 2018.

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