The world recently celebrated International Women’s Day and I believe this day presents the perfect opportunity for the technology industry to do some introspection concerning the underrepresentation of women within our industry. I had the recent pleasure of watching the award-winning film, Hidden Figures, a true life story based in the United States in the 1960’s, depicting the lives of three African American women, who through utilising their mathematical and mechanical skills and overcoming numerous societal barriers, went on to be part of the team responsible for engineering astronaut, John Glenn’s, first orbit around the earth. Decades later, it is apparent that there are still a number of barriers women are required to conquer, barriers that do not apply to men, in order to build a career within this industry. The effects of this have resulted in the gender gap which is not just detrimental for the industry, but for society as a whole.
The discernible effect of lacking diversity in the workforce when creating products expected to be used by the majority of the population should not be the order of the day. The impact of not utilizing the value of diversity, especially gender diversity, will negatively impact technology companies in terms of both consumer adoption and growth. A key contribution found to be missing from companies that do not reflect the correct demographics is a loss in innovation. Being an industry leader within the technology space requires a certain level of innovativeness and it has been revealed that female leadership tends to facilitate higher levels of innovation. The same applies to problem solving; a study by the Anita Borg Institute revealed that; “diverse groups tend to perform better than homogenous ones, even if the members of the homogenous groups are individually more capable, and that the diverse group almost always outperforms the group of the best (homogeneous groups) by a substantial margin.”
So what are the barriers keeping women out of this industry and what can be done to dismantle them? ISACA, the international professional association focused on IT governance released their report, The Future Tech Workforce: Breaking Gender Barriers, on International Women’s Day. The report highlighted that the top five barriers keeping woman out of the tech field to be:
- A lack of mentors
- A lack of female role models within the field
- Unequal growth opportunities compared to men
- Unequal pay for the same skills
- Gender bias within the workplace
The good thing about the current predicament the industry faces is that it has been placed under the spotlight during the past few years and there now seems to be an active movement to rectify this imbalance both locally and internationally. In South Africa in recent years, a number of programs at both undergraduate and postgraduate level have been launched in order to encourage more women to enroll for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. The result of this saw the largest share of the National Research Foundation (NRF) bursary support in 2016 going to black women. Some of the barriers identified in the report were connected more to the workplace environment rather than access to education.
Combatting this bias involves creating social networks to gain support and inspiration from peers and role models as a powerful motivator to young women in the workplace. Creating a more inclusive tech culture also involves a variety of activities, which break down the stereotypes keeping women out, examples of some of these initiatives is one by Girls Who Code and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who provided mentorship to girls planning to enter the industry. The program has taught more than 10 000 girls how to code, with 90% of its alumni going on to study Computer Science. Corporate Involvement is also required in fixing this imbalance and a great example of a company who embraces this is Intuit. They do this by investing in recruitment and retention of women in the workforce through cultivating women recruits for leadership roles as they start to build their careers.
There is still a long way to go until the barriers are completely dismantled but it is good to see that there is a common goal in dismantling them and eradicating the presence of the “Hidden Figures” within this industry. It is essential that every leader, individual and organization play their part in fighting this battle if we want to progress as an industry.