Women in tech: pursuing a career in ICT

By Josh Graff, UK Country Manager, LinkedIn

One of LinkedIn’s fantastic software engineers, Ya Xu, recently returned from a visit to the university where she studied Computer Science and became aware of a very prominent issue – the number of women taking the class hadn’t improved since she left. In fact, it had declined.

When we conducted a new analysis of LinkedIn data to mark this year’s Girls in ICT Day, we discovered that this was no coincidence.

The proportion of female ICT graduates is decreasing – dropping to just 19% in 2018. Whereas 9% of all male graduates now enter the sector, only 2% of female graduates do. ICT is becoming more attractive to young men but less attractive to young women.

A recent study by LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum revealed that women make up only 22% of professionals worldwide working in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and that their share of active AI development roles is even lower. Not only is
this excluding women from one of the most important growth sectors of the global economy, but it’s also excluding them from the development of technology that will shape the lives of both genders moving forward.

We desperately need more women pursuing careers in ICT – but the trend is moving in the opposite direction.

The missing link – where do female STEM students go?

The issue of women in tech comes after years of effort to encourage more young women in school to take Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. These efforts haven’t been in vain. The proportion of STEM graduates who are women has been steadily rising, reaching 33% in 2018.

The problem is that an increase in STEM participation isn’t translating into an increase in ICT participation. It’s long been assumed that more young women qualifying in STEM would automatically mean more young women being
attracted to opportunities in technology, software engineering and AI. Our data shows that this isn’t the case.

Young women taking STEM subjects are overwhelmingly going on to choose careers in the Life Sciences like zoology, biology, biophysics and behavioural science, over careers in ICT. In fact, 62% of all female STEM graduates are now leaving with Life Science degrees. These women are choosing the careers that they consider the most stimulating, exciting – and open to them.
As a society and a tech industry, we have to ask ourselves why so few are seeing those opportunities in ICT.

The perceptions keeping women away from ICT

When we talk to LinkedIn’s own female software engineers about their career choices, they speak about their desire to work collaboratively, and the importance of choosing a career that makes a clear and definite contribution to the greater good.
But the thing is, women who choose careers in ICT often find that this is, in fact, the reality of working in our sector.

AI and machine learning involve working on projects with the potential for hugely positive social impact. Progress depends on collaborative working and emotional intelligence. The problem is that, from the outside, the stereotype of ICT involves male
entrepreneurs and engineers working alone, competing aggressively, and being motivated largely by the promise of wealth.

It’s a very unattractive package, and the unfortunate consequence is that it leads to too few young women discovering how rewarding a career in tech can be.

Thinking differently about where to find female tech talent

So, how do we change things? My female colleagues believe that stronger female role models in ICT can make a big difference. It just so happens that exactly such a role model emerged last month. Dr. Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led the software engineering team that made it possible for a network of eight telescopes to capture the first ever image of a black hole.

The coverage that followed this breakthrough showed Dr. Bouman to be innovative, collaborative and inclusive. In short, she’s exactly the type of role model that women choosing their degree courses need.

However, we can’t afford just to wait for more role models like Dr. Bouman to come along. Our data warns us that if we do, we’ll soon find them even harder to come by.

We need to be more proactive about revealing the reality of the industry and consciously addressing the stereotypes that media coverage tends to create. We also need to create pathways for women with the right skills to find tech roles, whether they graduated with Computer Science degrees or not.

When female students graduate with Life Science degrees that shouldn’t mean they are lost to ICT. We need to focus not just on attracting these graduates into our industry – but on making careers in tech more accessible to them.

At LinkedIn, for example, we’re developing an AI Academy Programme that is designed specifically to help people in related STEM fields make the transition into AI careers. It’s part of our wider Women in Tech initiative, a programme driven by our employees themselves, which aims to address the gender imbalance among software engineers and other tech roles.

Initiatives like this are essential for closing the gender gap in ICT. We have to work with the choices that young female STEM students are making. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and wait for the supply of talent to change.

Every female role model in ICT is an opportunity to address the barriers that keep too many young women away from our sector. We need to do a better job of empowering and elevating those that we have. However, we also need to take a broader view of where female tech talent can come from, in order to ensure a supply of role models in the future.

The rise in young women graduating with STEM degrees gives us a talent pool that we can work with. Now we have to start working harder to help them make the transition to ICT – and make the case for why they should.