Gender Equity in Technology
“Role models? Where would I get those?”
This was a quote from a research project done by the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) in 2004. The project studied advancement and retention for women in technology roles in companies in Southeast Michigan.
Fast forward ten years, and while MCWT has been making measurable progress in Southeast Michigan, the issue still exists.
Fortunately, there is a growing visibility around the lingering gender bias in technology companies and tech jobs across the country, sparked by the almost entirely white male makeup of new and leading technology companies in California. Throughout the United States, less than 20% of tech jobs are held by women, and this number has been stuck for decades. The rapidly growing, unmet need for high tech workers is driving a national push for action.
Focusing on highly visible companies with very imbalanced work forces shines a spotlight on the issue and opens the opportunity to fix serious challenges in workplace culture that cause hiring inequities and massive dropout rates for women in tech jobs.
In addition, as MCWT learned, the pipeline problem needs to be addressed. Less than one half of one percent of incoming female university freshmen declare a major in engineering or technology. Cultural challenges start when girls are very young, and continue throughout their educational years, driving them away from STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Math) education and jobs. The fact that a majority of declarations (and graduations) in human and animal medicine programs are from women demonstrates that there is female interest and ability in very technical careers. Clearly this is not a genetic or “the way we’re made” issue.
Anyone who has worked in the tech industry for a while, or has been reading the news about inequities and horrific sexist behavior by some tech startup leaders, can see palpable gender bias in many tech-oriented workplaces or companies.
The 2008 HBR Research Report, The Athena Factor1, describes research that shows a 52% dropout rate for women in tech jobs. The research points to primarily hostile macho cultures causing this. Women are marginalized by geek workplace cultures that are often exclusionary and predatory. Even without overt harassment, this results in feelings of isolation, an inability to find mentors or sponsors — limiting job advancement opportunities. Added to that, there is also a culture that rewards more risk and “cowboy-like” behavior among startups; a culture with which women are often uncomfortable. The intense pressure to work longer hours, particularly in global environments also brings conflict to people who own the primary responsibility for home and family. That is usually women. A 2014 Catalyst report2 reinforces the HBR research and adds that only 36% of women in tech jobs who get an MBA stay in or return to tech industry jobs, demonstrating a wide-spread desire to get out and stay out. This report highlights isolation as the primary driver, as well as unclear or restricted advancement opportunities and a lack of role models.
On the pipeline side of the problem, a tiny fraction (0.4%) of incoming college freshmen women declare a computer science major.
Young girls are very interested in technology, along with everything else, but are turned off as they near middle school age, where girls are discouraged from being smart or geeky and encouraged to focus on gender appeal and appearance.
Adults continue to allow girls not to work hard and get good grades in math and science, implying or stating that it’s not important for girls to know these subjects. There is also a lack of understanding among teachers and counselors of what technical careers are actually like. Girls often prefer careers that have a social relevance such as medicine, and they do not see or hear any evidence of that in technology career paths.
If young girls are encouraged to pursue science and math, with good quality STEM teaching that prepares them, and they are still interested by the time they get to high school and college, they then have to survive isolationism and teasing or other types of sexism.
For the 0.4% who are still motivated to study tech in college, and the 20% of them who graduate with a technical degree, they are then into the workplace, with its dropout rate of over 50%. Think about that when you next you meet a women in a technical job!
“I was planning to study marketing and business in college, but I had so much fun with this that now I’m going into engineering”. This comment was made to me a few years back by a high school girl on a robotics team that was sponsored by the MCWT. The hair on the back of my neck rose. This was our first year of sponsoring girls’ robotics teams and we had immediate feedback reinforcing what we’d read. Research defines the problem and gives us well defined ways to solve the gender equity crisis in technology – and we were watching it happen!
What YOU can do!
Contact the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (www.mcwt.org) for a copy of their report, Best Practices for the Advancement and Retention of Women in Technology for more specific actionable ideas.
We do understand much about the problem of gender equity in tech and there are proven actionable steps that can be taken now to move forward. Time to take some action!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rosemary Bayer is one of the founders of the Michigan Council of Women in Technology and a past president of the MCWT Foundation. She also co-founded and is the Chief Inspiration Officer (CEO) for ardentCause L3C, a database and analytics software and technical services company dedicated to serving the nonprofit, philanthropic and education sectors.
ABOUT MCWT: The Michigan Council of Women in Technology strives to inspire and grow women in technology fields, with an aspirational vision to make Michigan the No. 1 state for women in technology. The organization supports Michigan’s female IT workforce, students, corporate partners, schools and the overall community with networking, learning, mentoring, and technology experiences for professionals and students. Through its Foundation, it also provides programs and funds supporting the education and orientation of young women throughout school and fostering women in various stages of their professional lives. Find more information at www.mcwt.org and connect via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and www.mcwtblog.org.
1The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology June 2008
By Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, Lisa J. Servon, Laura Sherbin, Peggy Shiller, Eytan Sosnovich, and Karen Sumberg. Center for Work-Life Policy
2Beninger, Anna. High Potentials in Tech-Intensive Industries: The Gender Divide in Business Roles. New York: Catalyst, October 23, 2014.
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