Women in technology: Does 2019 look better?
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
At first it seems stunning, on closer look it probably isn’t. It’s 2019, and things for women in technology still progress all too slow. At Consonna, we have already discussed mobile and tech struggling with gender and diversity. In part, it was in anticipation of what MWC19, world’s central mobile event, could bring in that regard.
Expectation from this year’s Women4Tech Summit, held as part of MWC conference program, was high. Discourse was expected to evolve, topics to expand, insights and awareness to widen - and they did in many ways. Yet, last year’s promises that the summit could be held on the first day of MWC, instead of last, didn’t come true. Day 1 could have brought some more attention to the gathering, but in the grand scheme of world’s biggest mobile show, the topics of women in technology and STEM didn't really get a boost.
Change doesn’t come easy
And it’s a missed opportunity, because numbers are not great, regardless of the angle we choose to look at the topic. Regional differences and disparities are huge. Women make up only 24.5% of the labor force in India, compared to 46% in the EU. Norway has introduced a quota, requiring that at least 40% of director positions should be occupied by women. Many countries appear to be decades away from introducing such measures. In the U.S. there is 0 days of paid maternity leave.
Women remain heavily underrepresented in top levels of corporate management. According to CNNMoney, Fortune 500 only has 24 women CEOs in its ranks, and women hold only 5% of the CEO jobs in the S&P 500. Last year’s GSMA reports reveal that only around 24% of MWC attendees were women, and the number didn’t change much this year.
Lauded for their innovation and agility, mobile and tech are still slow when it comes to improving things for women, and making the industry more diverse. Of course, there have been commendable efforts and great programs implemented in the last couple of years. Companies like Accenture and Synchronoss are leading the way in promoting diversity and closing the gender gap in their organizations. Accenture recently said that only 32% of their executives are women. As Julie Sweet, Accenture CEO for North America stressed, they want to achieve gender parity across their organization by 2025.
Yet, people’s behaviors are not always in tune with the desired goals and outcomes. Old assumptions and bias still shape action and communication on many corporate levels, and change doesn’t come easy.
Is it a question of having it all?
One of the questions examined at the Summit was - can we have it all? It eludes a straight answer, panelists suggested, because the very concept of having it all is subjective. It implies one’s own vision and purpose of life. For some, it could mean having a satisfying job while also having family and children. For others, it could be about a healthy life-work balance, with enough time for hobbies and entertainment. Things like health, love, money, success and well-being will likely rank high.
Today, more than ever, women are facing new opportunities and embracing new challenges in STEM. Fields like engineering, product design, artificial intelligence and data science emerge as new areas where women can seek and find their growth and career opportunities.
Yet, the state of having it all, no matter how we choose to define it, will be more difficult to attain for women. It is still way more challenging for women to have both a career and a family. Societal expectations and pressures will steer many of them away from career plans. There’s a belief that when women work for money, children will suffer. Unpaid work done by women in household and care also plays a big part in the equation.
From quality assurance to leadership and visionary
For sure, there is a gender gap in technology and STEM. However, some IT companies do have up to 40% of female employees, although only a small percentage occupies positions in engineering, R&D or management. Any improvement in numbers should be welcomed, but it’s also wise to use some caution when applauding companies and initiatives for achievements in this area.
This year, an award for industry leadership was given for a program which resulted in 100 women being employed as test specialists, after completing a training program. Some eyebrows were raised at this, and comments made in surprise. "We can do much more than quality assurance. We can do AI and research", a female scientist remarked.
A study by the University of Washington was one of the first to analyze the causes of gender inequality in STEM fields. Published in the Psychological Bulletin journal, the paper identified 3 main factors, but the most predominant is the male culture that gives women the impression that they are not welcome in these sectors.
Women make up 37% of STEM graduates in the United States, but their representation varies by discipline. 40% of women have a degree in mathematics, while in computer science, this figure decreases to 18%. As many studies suggest, this is mostly due to a lack of pre-university experience, clichés about women's abilities in these sectors and a male culture.
Women tend to say that they are less good at math than men, but there are more women in mathematics compared to other STEM sectors. Gender discrimination in recruitment and other opportunities does not fully explain the level of variability. The number of computer science graduates has dropped drastically since the 1980s, and that's because there were more and more men coming into the sector than women. Cultural historians attribute this change to the phenomenon of the personal computer and the belief about the man as a computer genius.
An inclusive culture is crucial for boosting women's participation in STEM. This involves changing classroom environments and overcoming negative assumptions which still impact thinking and decision-making across the board.