Will the tech industry ever get over its gender problem?

We speak to women working in tech about how to narrow the gender gap

With big name technology companies employing few women and educators struggling to increase the number of girls studying STEM subjects, the future for women in technology appears uncertain.

However, plenty of 'women in tech' news is making the headlines, such as the resignation of Reddit's first female CEO, Ellen Pao, last month, with a board member highlighting the "sickening" abuse she faced from users of the social forum, as well as positive news stories like firms establishing support programmes for women embarking on careers in tech.

But is media coverage an indicator of change? Probably not on its own, and stories from women in the industry range from inspiring to demoralising, covering everything in between.

"There has definitely been a shift in terms of the media trying to highlight the great work that women are doing and giving them more of a voice and platform to talk about their achievements," Anastasia Emmanuel, head of UK tech for Indiegogo tells IT Pro.

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"Whilst there is still clearly a gender imbalance in most industries in terms of equal pay, the glass ceiling, etc, I think now more than ever there is a spotlight on companies and organisations to recognise their female workforce and empower them."

She adds: "We need men to be part of the conversation as they are half the population and their voice is needed."

Government data reveals there are actually fewer women working in tech than there were ten years ago - in 2012, 26 per cent of workers in the sector were female, which is lower than the national average of 47 per cent.

And women IT professionals believe that the very idea of the tech industry being a 'boys' club' is holding women back from even considering their desired career, with stereotypes and preconceptions as damaging to gender diversity as the barriers themselves.

"By constantly thinking of the challenges women face in a 'male-dominated' industry, it's possible to spend more time being held back mentally, rather than exerting that extra energy to achieve far beyond what you imagined possible," says Vidhya Ranganathan, SVP of mobile security at Accellion.

"Hopefully the less women allow stereotypes to hold them back, the closer we'll get to eliminating gender labels on any profession. A woman in IT is an outlier, but it shouldn't be that way."

What can we do to improve things?

So what can be done? One oft-cited solution is for schools and universities to encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects as much as their male peers do, but this might be easier said than done.

Claire Vyvyan, VP of enterprise solutions at Dell EMEA, says: "It's not enough to encourage more women to join the IT industry, nor to support them once they are involved. We need to focus on getting girls to study STEM subjects at school in the first place.

"UK classes focusing on the sciences or mathematics easily see an 80/20 split in the numbers of male and female students respectively. This is far lower than other countries across the world, with the likes of the US seeing higher participation rates for girls."

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Dell itself runs the IT is not Just for Geeks' programme, encouraging students to change their view of technology and IT careers while still in school.

A study by e-skills UK in 2014 showed that just 12 per cent of applicants to computer science and IT-related courses were female, down from 14 per cent in 2007. In the same year, BCS reported that only 16 per cent of the UK IT workforce and 13 per cent of GCSE computer science entrants were female.

"Unfortunately some of these challenges are cultural and young girls are often 'turned off' by STEM careers due to their preconceptions of what defines a career in STEM," Sian John, Symantec's chief EMEA security strategist tells IT Pro.

"What's clear is that more needs to be done to educate young women about the variety of STEM careers available now that technology (and science) are becoming increasingly mainstream."

Studies have shown that mixed-gender teams produce better results, but this simply can't happen if half of the talent aren't even part of the game. Availability of on-site childcare can't be underestimated as an incentive, but women can also be tempted by the simple promise of professional development and equal opportunity.

Julie Baxter, VP of support EMEA at CA Technologies, said: "We want and need to see greater diversity in the technology industry so we benefit from a wide pool of talent... Working as a woman in a very male dominated environment can be intimidating but a good company will always encourage diversity by creating an environment which is ultimately accommodating and welcoming."

There's a role for the government to play in this, though what that role consists of remains part of the discussion. Government-backed campaigns such as Your Life could encourage more school-age girls to pursue STEM subjects but, until this translates into greater equality in the workplace, it's impact could be limited.

Another solution is for women in tech to set up social networks in order to inspire the next generation, as suggested to IT Pro by Tamsyn Attiwell, VP of global services at SaaS billing, commerce and finance firm Zuora.

"Social networking is another way of inspiring change," she contends. "Grouping students and professionals together at special events and on forums to discuss the industry and its work culture, or to get voices heard on a particular topic. It can be so uplifting and powerful.

"It means there is a better change of pointing out gender inequality, and in turn make improvements where they are needed most. In the technology and IT industries, change is 'the constant'. If you can adapt and embrace this change, it makes it a very exciting climate in which to work."

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Mentors in the industry are an indispensable resource, and the more women break through the glass ceiling, the more there are to encourage those in education and entering the workplace.

Elizabeth Eastaugh, director of technology at Expedia, tells IT Pro: "As more and more women come to the forefront of technology as we have seen over the last 10 years, our position will continue to grow stronger. My experience ten years ago was simply [that] there were just so few of us that it was difficult to find a mentor or leader who would help me navigate my career."

It's not all bad despite reports of a still-significant gender pay gap and evidence that fewer women are entering the industry at all, increased awareness and the issues may have improved conditions for the industry's existing female employees.

"A decade ago, women were being listened to far less frequently," says Lindsey Armstrong, CVP of international strategy at InsideSales.com. "Today, there is a general recognition that excluding 50 per cent of the population from jobs, promotions, or opportunities doesn't make good business sense.

Armstrong, along with many of her peers, believes that start-ups and established enterprise companies take the issue on in different ways, with different mentalities.

She continues: "An enterprise company generally has a greater capability to on-board, train and develop employees. Start-ups don't have that luxury due to their size. However, what they do have is a working environment where people who have the skills, capability and drive can climb up the career ladder and be rewarded more quickly."

Woman using iPad

Solving the problem with start-ups

Many women are looking to start-ups for the opportunities larger companies have denied them, even if, as Tracy Pound, founder and MD of Maximity and director of IT industry body CompTIA, says, the situation still looks bleak.

"Start-ups don't come with so many preconceived ideas about what should or shouldn't work they're in a cycle of change and open to ideas and support that enables them to survive and succeed," she explains.

"Large enterprises have many people used to men in senior positions who don't naturally associate women with being high achievers so unless they have a specific diversity drive, subconscious programming keeps organisations holding onto their old norms."

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Sadly, big companies like Facebook do little to buck the trend and set an example, with a recent diversity report revealing that 68 per cent of the social network's workforce is male. In the technology division, just 16 per cent of employees is female.

"Everyone knows the decision to hire more women in STEM or any industry is the right thing to do, however many organisations don't consider the pragmatic benefits of doing so," points out Samantha Wallace, market leader of technology practice at recruitment business Futurestep.

"They need to remove these partitions to increase supply, yet too many organisations are waiting for governments or even competitors to do something to address it, which, ultimately, results in nothing being done."

She adds: "It is vital that corporations suffering with the STEM shortage step up and proactively work to find their own solution to the skills gap, which could lead to a collective resolution later down the line."

One thing is for sure action must be taken for change to occur, as things will not improve on their own. Perhaps organisations are waiting for the culture to change, and not enough are taking steps to kick-start that change themselves.

The answer may lie in start-ups, SMBs and the refreshed attitude smaller businesses are generally able to sport, or by increasing focus on young girls in education.

But as these accounts from these women living in the thick of the problem attest, though there may have been improvements made in recent years, the battle is far from over.

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