Why has gender equality not improved in the technology sector in the last ten years?
And why is it now getting worse?

Technology is booming. Gender equality at an all time high. Why has gender disparity not improved in the technology sector in the last ten years? And why will there be further reductions of women in technology following the pandemic?

For the past decade women in technology have accounted for 17% of staff(3). While the world is improving it’s gender equality at work, more needs to be done to diversify the technology industry.

Rose McCarter-Field

By Rose McCarter-Field

In the UK alone, technology firms attract billions in venture capital funding every year. Technology is a fast growing innovative industry, continually creating new jobs and launching revolutionary products and services. Yet, while other industries across the world are improving their gender equality, at all levels, the technology industry seems to have stagnated. There has been no increase in female staff in the past 10 years.

The vast majority of job applicants in the technology sector are still male. Does part of the problem still start at school? Vanessa Vallely, founder of WeAreTechWomen, believes education is still a limiting factor in the connection between gender and the careers people aspire towards. Gender identity and how people identify careers that suit them, starts at a very young age. Even basic factors such as everyday language used to identify tasks as male or female have a significant influence on the roles people see themselves filling.

Perhaps the domination of male role models in technology is important? Mountain moving women such as Grace Hopper, The Queen of Code, have shown us that technology doesn’t have to be a man’s industry. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos are the technology leaders inspiring our generation. But people are inspired into action by those they can relate to. Is it easier for a man to see himself as Elon Musk than a woman? And are women more likely to go into an industry with female role models, that they can more easily relate to? 

Research by Harvard Business Review shows that another part of the challenge is women leaving the industry soon after joining. Women working in science, engineering and technology (SET) fields in the U.S. are 45% more likely to quit the industry within a year of starting than their male counterparts(5). The reasons for such a high rate of women leaving the industry so quickly is not certain. Though a lack of sponsorship from people in senior positions has been identified as one significant factor(3). Career progression is often accompanied by internal support and sponsorship is often triggered by a leader seeing something of themselves in a younger person. However, the people in senior positions are typically men. If they want gender equality, these leaders need to sponsor people of all genders to support their progression.

Overt misogyny is sadly still prevalent. There is also the less obvious and often unintentional day-to-day gender bias. Maddy Cross, talent director of Notion, which specialises in investing in technology businesses, thinks men in authority still have a huge role to play in changing attitudes and culture(3).“… micro-sexism happen[s] in business every day,” Cross says(3). Until there is gender equality in leadership, it will be difficult to break down cultures of sexism. And until gender equality is a reality in the workplace, it will be difficult to identify and confront sexist behaviours.

It may not just be externally imposed sexism in the workplace that is the cause of the gender disparity. Nicola Anderson, Chief Marketing Officer at MyTutor, has found that women in technology often won’t apply for a job if they don’t feel they have exactly the right experience(3). As a result, women are hesitating more than men to put themselves forward for promotion. This same self-hindering behaviour has been reported in other industries(11). Why are women more likely to hesitate? I do not believe it is a lack of ambition or determination. 

The Harvard Business Review’s report found a culture in SET that made women feel isolated. When 72% of SET women perceive a bias in performance evaluation, it is no surprise that they might hesitate to apply for promotion. Nearly one-third of senior leaders in the U.S. and more than half in China and India expressed a belief that a woman would never achieve a top position at their company, no matter how able or high-performing. 

chart showing data on women in tech

The 2020 TrustRadius Women in Tech Report included 600 tech professionals, including 270 women, 315 men, 5 non-binary respondents, and 6 respondents who chose to not identify their gender. The report found that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, women in technology are 1.6 times more likely to be laid off or furloughed than their male counterparts. This gender disparity has been identified as a consequence of women being more likely to hold entry level jobs and junior positions4. As a result, in the coming months, we could see the striking 83% male dominance of the technology sector increase even further. Furthermore, Stephen Rooney, Director of STEM Women, reports that diversity initiatives are being put on hold while companies respond to the pandemic.

chart showing data on women in tech

Despite the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap is a persistent issue. Glassdoor research in the U.S. shows women in the technology industry earning 94.6 cents for every dollar earned by a man(2). Whereas in Biotech and Pharmaceuticals women earn 97.8 cents for every dollar earned by a man. This is a challenge across all sectors and the technology sector comes below average, which is another deterring factor for women joining the industry.

In the 60s Dame Steve Shirley cheated the overt gender bias of her time. She was a coding legend and philanthropist who changed her name from ‘Stephanie’ to ‘Steve’ to aid her career. When she signed business letters as ‘Steve’ rather than ‘Stephanie’ she started to get responses and found trading was made possible. She hired hundreds of female programmers to work on projects such as programming the Concorde’s black box flight recorder, all under her adopted masculine name ‘Steve’. Though gender equality has improved greatly since the 60s, arguably not so much in the technology sector.

Harvard Business Review research shows that regardless of gender, behaving like a man is still beneficial in progressing one’s career in SET. Multiple studies show that classic male attributes such as a low voice, being tall, and having a symmetrical chiselled jaw are still an effective means to predict a person’s rise into a leadership position [examples: Business Insider(1) & Psychology Today(6)]. There is however no link between these attributes and predicting a person’s effectiveness as a leader.

chart showing data on women in tech

Our experiences tell us that a person in SET is more likely to be male and that someone with stereotypically masculine attributes is more likely to be promoted. Historically, the success of women in these fields has been shadowed by their male counterparts. Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize nomination was initially awarded to her husband. Our experience makes it easier to instinctively imagine a successful male in these roles. Until gender equality becomes the norm, our inbuilt stereotypes and conscious or subconscious biases will not change. Until we have a real mix of types of people across all roles in the technology industry, breaking down current ‘masculine’ stereotypes, we can not break this inbuilt bias.

It is up to the leaders in technology to notice the extent of the gender equality in their company, to sponsor and promote skilled people of all genders. It is up to the leaders in technology to understand and breakdown their own biases towards stereotypically male behaviours. We need to see people of all genders excelling, with their own personalities, not having to become masculine to succeed. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg “I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the supreme court] and I say, ‘when there are nine,’ people are shocked. But they’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

As a reminder of what is possible, here are just a few inspirational women that have changed history:

Jane Goodall: Jane’s research in chimpanzees triggered a redefinition of the term ‘human’.

Florence Nightingale: A pioneer in data visualisation with the use of infographics, effectively using graphical presentations of statistical data. As well as being “The Lady with the Lamp”.

Margaret Hamilton: An American computer scientist, systems engineer, and business owner. She was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo program.

Sally Ride: An American astronaut and physicist. Born in Los Angeles, she joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983.

Grace Hopper: “The Queen of Code” An American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. One of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, she was a pioneer of computer programming who invented one of the first linkers.

Valentina Tereshkova: Engineer and former cosmonaut. The first and youngest woman to have flown in space with a solo mission on the Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963.

Mae Jemison: An American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She became the first black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley: IT pioneer, businesswoman and philanthropist. Steve founded the Xansa plc software company, who hired hundreds of female programmers.

    1. Business Insider 2014 https://www.businessinsider.com/physical-attributes-of-leaders-2014-10?r=US&IR=T
    2. Glassdoor 2019 https://www.glassdoor.com/research/app/uploads/sites/2/2019/03/Gender-Pay-Gap-2019-Research-Report-1.pdf 
    3. Guardian 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2020/jan/02/ten-years-on-why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-tech 
    4. Guardian 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2020/jun/18/everything-has-been-pushed-back-how-covid-19-is-dampening-techs-drive-for-gender-parity
    5. Harvard Business Review 2014 https://hbr.org/2014/03/whats-holding-women-back-in-science-and-technology-industries 
    6. Phycology Today 2017 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201708/the-look-leader 
    7. STEMWOMEN 2021 https://www.stemwomen.co.uk
    8. TrustRadius Report 2020  https://www.trustradius.com/buyer-blog/women-in-tech-report
    9. TrustRadius Report update 2020 (post COVID) – https://www.trustradius.com/vendor-blog/covid-19-women-in-tech
    10. WeAreTechWomen 2020 https://wearetechwomen.com 
    11. Women and Higher Education Leadership 2013 https://www.ses.unam.mx/curso2015/pdf/23oct-Morley.pdf