International Women’s Day: Where now for women in tech?

Women have a long history of making strides in technology, yet recognition – and fair treatment – remain elusive

On International Women’s Day last year, I argued – perhaps provocatively – that it was time to get rid of women in tech, at least as a concept.

My argument was that if women in tech are to be treated equally then they need to be thought of equally, much like the police rank Women Police Constable, which was dropped in 2018 in favour of Police Constable being used across the board, irrespective of gender.

Increasingly, though, I think I was wrong. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year, it’s that there’s still a mountain to climb for women working in the tech industry.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to think of women leaders in tech. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is of course a standout and has frequently spoken and written about the challenges women face in business in general, not just the tech industry.

In the past, I would have pointed also to Meg Whitman and Ginny Rometty, the CEOs of HPE and IBM respectively. But with Whitman retiring in 2018 and Rometty following suit in 2020, and both being replaced by men, the number of role models has dwindled sharply.

That’s not to say there are no women in tech and all hope is lost – we’ve spoken to a number of women on the IT Pro Podcast who are doing some really interesting work, including trying to bridge the data gap, penetration testing, and digitising the Natural History Museum’s extensive collection. But as for leading lights, they are few and far between

Prejudice that goes deeper

Of course one of the biggest stories of the past 12 months when it comes to women in tech – or, rather, the treatment of women in tech – is Google’s firing of ethical AI expert Timnit Gebru in December 2020.

The treatment of Gebru hits on a less talked about and less well understood issue within the tech space, intersectionality. Gebru was a double minority at Google; she is a woman and she is also black. Indeed, some of her key research into AI ethics has focused on how bad facial recognition software is at recognising darker-skinned women, and at an AI conference with over 8,000 attendees led her to co-found Black in AI.

Her firing stemmed from an email she wrote (published in full by Platformer) to an internal group for women and allies, expressing her frustration with the way that women and minorities are treated within the organisation. She points to the fact that while one colleague had taken it upon himself to hire more women into his team, there was no incentive to do so. She also accused the company of “silencing” the black researchers who had attended an all-hands meeting that was characterised by “an emotional show of exasperation”.

Her experience made headlines thanks to her status within the AI and tech industry and the profile of her now former workplace. But it’s far from unique – indeed, getting women into STEM careers increasingly isn’t a problem, but retention once they arrive in a still male dominated workplace with a culture that often works against them is another question entirely.

For once, this is something the many, many emails in my inbox offering comment for International Women’s Day are actually addressing. Yes, we should celebrate the improvements that have already been made, but recognising there’s more to be done – and that real change demands more than pretty words and empty pledges – is what we should all be focussing on now.

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