Women in Tech: Why So Few?

October 12, 2016 By Janie Kliever 0 Comments

women in tech

It’s no secret that the technology industry has a problem with women. IBM reports that women make up less than 20% of the tech workforce worldwide, but this gender gap is only the tip of the iceberg. From stereotypes that discourage young women from considering career paths in computer science and IT to outright hostility in tech work environments, it’s no wonder many female tech professionals look around at meetings and conferences to find themselves the only woman in the room.

In an industry that’s experiencing an unprecedented talent shortage already, tech companies can’t afford not to hire women. As June Sugiyama writes at TechCrunch, the fact that there are so few women in tech “should be alarming to an industry so desperate for talent that its hiring practices have led to much-publicized ‘talent wars’ and legal action.”

While the reasons that women choose not to pursue a career in technology or leave the industry are varied, statistics as well as personal anecdotes from women in the field reveal some common denominators about what’s behind the gender gap.

 

By the numbers: tech's gender gap

It’s not just that progress has been slow in educating, hiring, and welcoming more women into the tech workforce. According to some statistics, the progress has been nonexistent: we’re actually moving backwards. Here are some key findings from recent studies:

 

Backwards progress for women in tech 

The number of women in the tech industry peaked in 1990. It seems almost absurd that there were more women in tech in 1990—when the Internet was in its infancy and we had far fewer opportunities to work with technology than we do now—than there are today.

But according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau analysis of 2014 data, women filled 31% of the nation’s tech workforce in 1990, but that number had dropped to 25% by 2014. This is in spite of the fact that technology is one of the fastest growing occupation categories, and that the number of women in all occupations has climbed from 38% in 1970 to 47% in 2014.

The number of women pursuing computer science degrees has dropped by nearly half since 1984. This backwards progress also extends to higher education. Girls Who Code, an organization that helps equip young women with technical skills and learning opportunities, reports that in 1984, 30% of computer science graduates were women. Now, only 18% are.

 

Underrepresentation in leadership positions

Corporate advisory firm Korn Ferry recently released results from a June 2016 study about women in leadership. The analysis of data from 1,000 top U.S. companies found that women make up only 11% of CIOs and 5% of CEOs in technology companies.

women in leadership roles

Image source: Korn Ferry

Of the results of the analysis, Peggy Hazard, Korn Ferry’s Managing Principal, said that “study after study shows that diverse senior teams provide better corporate results. . . . However, the needle is not moving as quickly as any of us would like to see.”

 

What's discouraging women from entering (and staying in) the tech industry?

Why isn’t that needle moving? Now that we’ve seen some of the hard numbers, let’s dig a little deeper to discover some of the potential reasons why the tech industry has gotten to this point.

 

Gender Stereotypes

The root of technology’s gender gap certainly doesn’t begin in the adult world of hiring practices and fair play in the workplace. It likely goes back much further. When kids first start to think seriously about their hobbies and career aspirations, many look around for a role model for inspiration and ways to explore their interests.

But what if they can’t find this kind of validation? For bright young women with an interest science, technology, engineering, or technology, what happens when those STEM disciplines are seen and represented as a male domain? Research suggests that interest in these subjects fades.

The chart below from Girls Who Code demonstrates how the number of girls and young women interested and enrolled in computer science programs drops off dramatically according to age range. You could argue that as girls grow up, they become convinced that the obstacles for women entering the tech industry look pretty daunting.

female students in computer science programs

Image source: Girls Who Code

Organizations like Girls Who Code and Girls in Tech are trying to combat the stereotypes and provide educational opportunities, mentorship, and encouragement to help young women get off to a good start and know they have support when they enter the field.

 

The "Boys' Club" Attitude

Many women in the technology sector have expressed frustration with a pervasive problem: feeling excluded by male bosses, colleagues, and customers who act as if the industry is a boys-only club. These are attitudes that belong on a playground, not in the office.

In her essay “Dumb Widdle Girls in Tech,” Elizabeth Spiers sums up the situation:

When we talk about the dearth of women and minorities in technology, we can point to a variety of systemic reasons that don’t help, and this is one of them: if women do make it into the field, men express surprise that they’re there.

Sometimes they even frame it as a compliment — a pat on the head for doing exactly the same thing your male counterparts did to achieve exactly the same results. If they were being more direct . . .You’re really smart — for a girl.

By all accounts, this kind of behavior isn’t just from a few bad apples who haven’t joined the rest of us in the 21st century. It’s a systemic problem, one that has been thoroughly documented by initiatives like “Elephant in the Valley,” a collection of stories and data from women working in Silicon Valley.

The women surveyed experienced a variety of behaviors in their workplaces, from demeaning comments from male colleagues (87%) to unwanted sexual advances (60%). You’ll notice that the percentages of women reporting these occurrences are well into the range of the majority—which means women in tech experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and harassment is a disturbing pattern rather than an unfortunate anomaly.

 
Income Inequality

While hardly limited to the technology sector, income inequality persists even in an industry that pays more to both genders than many other occupations. The U.S. Census Bureau study mentioned earlier also found that, on average, male tech workers make $10,000 more a year than their female counterparts.

income inequality in tech industry

Image source: Census.gov

When organizing the data by job position, the study revealed that wage gaps existed between men and women for a majority of tech-focused roles, with some of the highest gaps being for database administrators, software developers, and information security analysts.

 

What women are looking for in a career in technology

Given the statistics and stories we’ve covered here, it’s probably not too surprising that many women are leaving the technology industry.

Recruiting firm Battalia Winston’s “Closing the Gender Gap” survey of women in engineering roles found that 44% of respondents had left a job in the last five years. Of those, 55% said a company culture that was unwelcoming to women had contributed to the decision to leave. They described their workplaces as having a “strong ‘brogrammer’ culture,” being “patronizing,” and feeling like an “all boys club.”

On the flip side, the survey also collected women’s opinions about what they’re looking for in a job and what considerations contribute to their decision to stay with a role. These were their top priorities, in order of importance:

  1. work-life balance
  2. company culture
  3. compensation
  4. challenging roles
  5. leadership development
  6. flexible schedules

These are the types of career opportunities women are looking for—but far too many aren’t finding them. Technology companies and other businesses that hire for tech-focused roles have a big challenge ahead of them in both encouraging women to enter the tech industry and keeping them there. And while coding camps specifically for girls and other similar educational initiatives are helping show young women that the tech industry is open to them, the industry as a whole clearly has a long way to go in making technology a welcoming, equal-opportunity career path for women.

 
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