Women in Tech on thriving in the industry and how to close STEM’s gender gap

There simply aren’t enough women in tech. A recent study from the Executive Women’s Forum (EWF) revealed that only 11% of cybersecurity workers worldwide are women. Similarly, a 2017 WES survey found that 11% of the engineering workforce is female. That figure has risen up from 9% in 2015, but is still painfully low.

However, there are promising glimmers of change occurring. Reports collected by Fresh Student Living found women in the UK are 35% more likely to go to university than men and that the employment rate of women aged 25 to 54 is at a record-high.

We still have a long way to go to alter the culture of the tech industry and champion inclusivity and opportunity for women.  

In celebration of International Day of the Girl and Ada Lovelace day which fell   this week, I caught up with female founders and women who are doing amazing things to tech to find out what life is really like for women in the field, and how we can get more women in the industry.

It starts at school

Hilary Stephenson, founder and MD at Sigma stresses the importance of intervention in early education to inspire future STEM workers: “For me, the priority needs to start at education level to tackle stereotyping and begin changing the perceptions of a career in tech at a young age

“Experiences in the classroom play a transformative role in a child’s development, from their personality, to their general habits and behaviours, right the way through to their career choices. Sadly, only a third of ICT A-level students, and less than a tenth of Computer Studies students are female.”

Stats indicates that young girls aren’t choosing careers or subjects in STEM as frequently as boys. But why?

It’s complex, but research from Microsoft points to a lack of female role models in the industry and not enough practical, hands-on experience in primary and high school. The Tech Giant surveyed 11,500 women between the ages of 11 and 30 in 12 countries across Europe about their attitudes to STEM.

Just 42% of girls surveyed said they would consider a STEM-related career while 60% admitted they would feel more confident pursuing a career in STEM fields if they knew men and women were equally employed in those professions.

To start closing the gender gap, businesses can employ more women in tech in order to encourage the younger generation to follow suit. Thankfully, there are many female founders who are doing great, inspiring work. And it’s not all doom and gloom; According to new research from Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the number of women in tech has risen from 18% to 23.4% in the last two years, and has more than doubled in the last eight.

Julie Grieve, Founder and CEO at travel tech firm Criton, commented on this: “It’s great to hear that women now represent nearly a quarter of those working within the technology sector. Diversity needs to be a business goal which is regularly measured so adjustments can be made accordingly.”

Bridget Kenyon, Global CISO, Thales eSecurity, agrees. “It is crucial that the next generation of girls have visible, successful role models in influential positions across the world of business. Looking further back into history to the work of figures like Ada Lovelace is just as inspirational. Her legacy lives on in emphasising the crucial role that women play in shaping the science and technology that dominates our modern world.”

The pressure of being a role model

But this puts a lot of pressure on women to be a champion for their gender and inspire the next generation. Rebecca Rae-Evans, co-founder and host at Tech for Good Live, shares some of the anxieties that come with her job: “We have the whole weight of our gender on our shoulders every time we make a decision, or take an action. If we get it wrong, it’s not just because ‘Bex made a bad decision’ it’s because ‘women are bad at tech’ – my mistake affects half of the population. I feel a responsibility to be a spokesperson, mentor and role model to other women, even when I don’t feel like it, because I know that kind of thing helps.” 

She isn’t satisfied with the largely stagnant figures of gender diversity, either. “I feel slightly fatigued by it all. For over 10 years I’ve been championing women in tech but it’s not getting better, I even sometimes feel guilty for encouraging girls into tech, because I know how hard it can be. It is a systemic problem and we need radical change to really make a difference. I’m going to keep on fighting. And want to say thank you for others doing the same.”

Whilst we encourage more Women into tech, we must be aware of the obstacles that women face in the industry. Firstly, women receive less funding than men. 99 Designs surveyed over 3,000 entrepreneurs from around the world and found that men are almost twice as likely to raise at least $100K or more in funding than women (15 versus 28 per cent). This puts women at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Why is this happening? Sexist language could play a part. Researchers at Harvard Business School analysed the language used to describe male and female entrepreneurs behind closed doors at those all-important venture capital decision-making meetings. Female entrepreneurs were labelled with stereotypical qualities (“weak”, “worried”, “too cautious”) that are opposite to those considered important for an entrepreneur, while male entrepreneurs benefit from stereotypes that reinforce their entrepreneurial potential (“arrogant”, “aggressive”, “very driven”). Words are important, and they reveal an industry that still has ways to go in promoting diversity.

It was also revealed this summer that the UK holds the top spot for VC funding in Europe, which sounds great for our economy, but not if you’re one of the hundreds of female-led startups that receive just 2.7% of the global, billion pound/euro/dollar investment pool. And for women of colour, this measly share drops further – to an alarming 0.0006% of received funding since 2009.

A toxic workplace

Business woes aside, women are still more likely to be subjected to harassment in the workplace than male colleagues. Women Who Tech partnered with polling firm Lincoln Park Strategies to anonymously survey 950 tech employees, founders, and investors in the US on their experiences in the tech sector. Of the 731 total women surveyed, 53% of female tech employees experienced harassment at work, versus just 16% of men. The most common perpetrator of harassment, as reported by women, was another employee and 41% of women tech employees were harassed by their supervisors . Allyson Kapin, the founder of Women Who Tech, described this as “a misuse of a position of power and privilege.” 

This cannot be ignored. We drastically need to tackle the inherent sexism within the industry. Kapin argues that there are many simple steps that companies can take to recruit more women in tech, such as diversifying your network and understanding your unconscious and conscious biases.  “We need this because diverse engineers, founders, are the key to unlocking tech innovation,” Kapin said. “When we create products, we create them for the masses, which are quite diverse. The tech sector can’t continue to thrive by creating products only through the lens of white men.”

Sculpting a diverse future

It isn’t just alienating half of the population, a lack of diversity is also bad for business. Bringing in the brightest minds, regardless of gender, can help a company to thrive. “Those who do not champion equal representation are missing out on a big opportunity to maintain their competitive edge and outperform their peers,” Kneuven warns. “Now is the time for women to use this momentum to press for equal footing across science and technology. It’s the twenty-first century and barriers to employment — whether it’s gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or physical ability — should not exist.”

There’s much work left to do, but let’s not despair – and remember how far we’ve come already. The progress can only continue. Lynn Elwood, VP of Cloud & Services Solutions, OpenText, shares her advice for women who are considering a career change:  “Let yourself step outside your comfort zone. In my career, I’ve taken many leaps. As women, I think we can sometimes lack confidence to take on new challenges; but saying “yes”, excelling in a role you feel passionate about and working with diverse teams is often the key to success.”

Women who have worked in the industry for years have also noticed a positive shift. Kate Kuehn, the US CEO at Senseon, says she’s proud of the strides that have been made in tech diversity over the course of her career.  “When I started, over 20 years ago, the idea of a female CEO was still revolutionary. Today, the support for women who want to take leadership roles, showcase their technical prowess and grow in innovative ways is getting stronger every day. We need to remember how short a time it has been, focus on the positive strides we have made, and not always get mired in the negativity often associated with the lack of diversity.”

There is definitely still a way to go. Firstly, companies need to not only look for talent everywhere, but celebrate and support it. Secondly, women in job shares and flexible working scenarios have the ability to fill much of the skills shortage we currently face in cyber security and beyond. Companies that employ these practices on average have a much higher employee satisfaction score, and will have a far greater impact on the industry in the long-term, Kuehn argues. 

Days like Ada Lovelace day and the International Day of the Girl are important for raising awareness of women in STEM, but to change the boy’s club culture requires a dynamic shift in ideals and practices. 

Guita Blake, SVP and Head, Europe, Mindtree, summed it up: “Ada Lovelace day is significant for the global STEM sector, but we need to do more to celebrate female role models in STEM every day. With better education and more encouragement, we can chip away at out-dated biases and create a healthier gender balance in this rewarding and exciting industry.”