May 2019
Text by J. White

Image: © Halfpoint/istockphoto.com

Women in the tech sector

The statistics leave no doubt: Women are still underrepresented in the tech sector, particularly in managerial roles. To make matters worse, they quite often take on management tasks without being paid or acknowledged for them.

If you type the words "women" and "tech" into a search engine, you will most likely end up with a variety of articles or research papers on the improvements being made in the sector or the way in which women are still lagging behind their male counterparts. These articles and papers are almost always decontextualized and consist of a plethora of statistics, graphs, arrows and stylized gender icons. The gender icons will usually show multiple rows of male icons in trousers and then one or two – or sometimes two and a half – female icons in dresses tacked onto the end, to indicate the female element within the sector. Depending on your point of view, these statistics can be read as depressing, or as an "encouraging start". Some might even interpret these few female icons as frightening harbingers of a legion of Valkyrie-like women just waiting to descend, take over and ruin the sector.

 

Still a man’s world

For me, as a woman working in technology, the articles and statistics provide a rough picture I clearly recognize. When I read articles on women in tech, I read the statistics, observe the trends and say "Yes, I recognize the broad validity of what is displayed here."

What I barely recognize, however, are the shiny press releases or classy web pages produced by the companies themselves, aimed at displaying a brave new world in which women in power suits shake hands over boardroom deals with their male counterparts. Granted, in most large tech companies you can find some of these women. However, the fact that even today you can count them on one hand indicates more than the fancy power suit and refined rhetoric, in terms of the reality that women face in this sector. And that reality is: Women in the tech sector, and particularly in management roles, are such an anomaly as to be statistically irrelevant.   

I recently had coffee with a former female colleague, who had just retired from a large tech company after over 40 years of service. I asked her how things had been back in the 1970s and how things had changed during her time with the company. She explained that as the only female in her whole graduating class, she had always been aware that she was the odd one out and that sexist comments, lower pay and limited promotional opportunities were par for the course. She noted that, over time, things had changed – not really in terms of increased opportunities, but rather with a growing awareness among male colleagues and management in general that the gender barrier, while still existing, can no longer be specifically referenced. In other words, the sexism is still there, the promotional opportunities are still limited, and a clear pay differential still exists. However, this pay gap is cloaked in subtle, hard-to-prove, linguistic differences in job descriptions and by generally overlooking women for promotion.

After 40 years of service for the company, she left as she had started: a general employee with no management or team-leadership role. In contrast, the men with whom she had joined the company were all in middle and senior management. I attended her farewell and, from listening to the speeches from male managers, it was clear she was well liked, highly regarded and extremely competent. Not recognizing the irony of what he was saying, one even noted that she knew far more about the product than her male colleagues. I would argue that such glowing references for any man would have led to steady promotion and monetary advancement over his 40 years in the company. In contrast, her years of service earned her little more than a nice morning tea and an expensive farewell gift.

 

Why we don’t challenge the status quo

When I asked her if she felt resentment about this state of affairs, she shrugged and asked what she could have done to change matters. I found this response a classic indicator of how gender (and other) biases are maintained in the tech sector, and business in general. When those being disadvantaged can recognize their structural disadvantage but see themselves as too insignificant to challenge it, they become accessories to their own maltreatment. Indeed, women who accept this state of affairs often look at the new generation of women making their way in the sector and try to dissuade them from challenging sexist behavior in the workplace. While agreeing that it is unacceptable, they stress that it can only end badly in terms of being viewed as a difficult, stroppy woman and ultimately being unofficially blacklisted when it comes to opportunities. The irony is that, in an unofficial sense, these younger women are already promotionally blacklisted by virtue of their gender, so it could be argued that they have little to lose and much to gain by actively challenging the old attitudes, behaviors and treatments.

 

Are we suffering from nurse syndrome?

While women clearly have a greater presence in tech compared to the past, this presence is comparable to the situation of women in the medical sector in previous decades: Yes, women were represented in medicine – but almost exclusively as nurses. To coin a phrase, women in the tech sector in 2019 are suffering from what I might call "nurse syndrome": they are in the industry, but in less influential, less respected, less technical (and therefore, less well-paid) positions. These are the areas considered non-technical, particularly technical writing, administration and HR. Having worked as a technical writer at a large multinational company for the best part of a decade, I am all too aware that my area is one of the few where women are gaining ground. This fact is quite obvious on a simple walk through our building. We have testers, developers, any number of engineering specialists, a whole floor of senior managers… and then… the technical writing department.

Floor after floor, the few women you see are either secretaries or cleaners. Then, suddenly, BANG: You arrive at our department where females outnumber male colleagues by approximately 6 to 1. But when you do the calculations for technical leads and departmental managers, the status quo kicks in and you note that none of the management roles are held by women. This is in spite of the fact that some of the women in our department are outstanding, in terms of attitude, experience and ability. The backhanded compliment often paid to these women is that their male bosses divest themselves of large parts of their job description, trusting these women to take these tasks on. They are essentially fulfilling a large part of the management role without the respective salary.

You might ask why these women would accept such a state of affairs and, if you are a man, it might be difficult to fathom. However, ask any traditional underclass and they will most likely give you the same answer: Having been brought up expecting to miss out on opportunities, when given such responsibility, the honor of being chosen is often perceived as payment in and of itself. In some instances, the women are so grateful that they will happily take on the role gratis. In other cases, they might take on the role thinking "I will show them how brilliant I am and then they will have to pay me or promote me!" This is naturally a naïve ploy that rarely leads to the desired result and which no one from the dominant group (largely middle-class, white, male) would be likely to employ as a methodology for advancement in the workplace. 

 

Going beyond diversity initiatives

A common feature in most tech companies, which is always pointed to as "proof" that women are a valued part of the organization, is the initiative for identifying potential leadership skills in female employees. The results are women’s groups that not only provide opportunities for networking, but also invite guest speakers, set up conferences, and organize "girls' day" (or "take our daughters to work day"), an annual event where school girls are encouraged to come to the local plant to kindle their interest in a career in the tech sector. These events usually consist of photo opportunities where girls are encouraged to don a lab coat and a hard hat, and stand in front of an impressively sophisticated piece of hardware. On a superficial level, these initiatives all look very good and they allow companies to put a big tick in the box for "diversity initiatives". However, speaking frankly, these initiatives come across as little more than a cynical attempt to be seen as doing something, rather than actually doing something.

One of my colleagues serves on the national executive board of our company’s women’s initiative. She devotes a few hours a week to this role but, although this work is sanctioned and sponsored by the company, her manager and other men in the department regularly complain about her activity. They see the group as a cozy club for pushy women who want an unfair advantage. Interestingly enough, some of these men are also local union representatives. The apparent irony was not lost on me. Trade unions were established in the 1800s because workers recognized that they were being exploited and underpaid. These early unionists realized that the bosses would not improve their lives and working conditions purely out of the goodness of their hearts. They had to be held to account. Well over 100 years later, it might be argued that the life of a worker in Western culture has greatly improved – yet, unions still exist because the working man recognizes that advances can never be taken for granted and there is always more to be done. I assume that this is the reason the aforementioned colleagues are involved in the union. Colleagues often say that women don’t need these initiatives as:

 

  • Trade unions fulfill the role of looking after their interests,
  • Women already have equality in the workplace,

 to which I would respond: "Really?"

I am firmly convinced that if our sector’s unions were truly concerned about the gendered pay and promotion gap, these gaps would be narrowing.

 

The myth about women’s quotas

As indicated above, one of the key reactive responses to female initiatives in the tech sector is to view them as creating an unfair advantage. The quickest way to find out if one’s colleagues truly grasp the issue of equality within tech is to mention "women’s quotas". This is the litmus test regarding the level of enlightenment and commitment to increasing the number of women in technology. The most common complaint is that, with a women’s quota, the best person won’t get the job. Naturally, this is based on the premise that the best person is still a man. I also often hear the resentful comment that every job given to a woman in the sector is a job stolen from a man.  

The fact that men, and sadly many women as well, feel comfortable saying these things out loud, clearly indicates that we still have a problem. Every time these comments are uttered, I say: "Look around you, look at 5,000 years of men’s quotas in action! How many women missed out on the job they would have been perfect for due to an entrenched, publicly supported men’s quota?" When a man receives a promotion, no one claims that he got that job because he is a man. But if you stop and reflect, in a sense he did – because his whole life long, he and those on the appointment committee, have been schooled to think that this promotion, any promotion, will most likely go to a man. If this is your underlying assumption, it is most likely that you will end up with this result.

So, coming back to my central thesis, that in spite of what the sector claims about increased gender equality, based on the anecdotal experience of many women, there is still a massive gap between appearance and reality. Women are underrepresented in almost all technology sub-sectors, particularly in the area of management. Subliminally gender-impacted appointments mean that women are still the exception in tech, and that they are still significantly less likely to attain promotions than their male colleagues.

 

The need for female role models

The fact that areas such as engineering are still heavily dominated by men is naturally a result of what is happening in schools and universities. Clearly, as a culture, we still have blind spots when it comes to encouraging our daughters to take on those subjects and degrees that lead directly into hardware and software development. To achieve meaningful change, we need more than pictures of girls in hard hats and lab coats. Our sector needs to actively and practically engage with schools and universities, inspiring girls to view a future in tech as viable and attainable. As we all know, you cannot become what you do not see. Unless we have female Bill Gates and Steve Jobs figures as role models, girls will always be at a disadvantage. Just as many men won’t watch a film or read a book with a female protagonist because they cannot relate to her, many girls and women cannot relate to the male icons within the sector. So how do we solve this? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it is not by mocking women’s quotas, or making shiny videos paying lip service to the concept of women in tech, or sticking a token woman on the board and assigning her the role of the diversity spokesperson because you couldn’t think of anything else for her to do. As a sector, we miss out on talent when we purposely or subliminally exclude one gender from significant parts of the industry.

As long as women are viewed as exotic in tech, they will never be granted the respect and opportunities they deserve as colleagues. Think about it metaphorically: In a room full of cats, a zebra stands out. As long as the cats are thinking "that’s a zebra in the room", they are not listening to what the zebra is saying. The minute there are three or four or six or ten zebras, their input becomes more important than their biology. In most meetings I attend, I am the only zebra in the room.

Therefore, we need to encourage girls to view ICT and engineering as viable careers. As women, we need to apply for promotions when they become available. We all, male and female colleagues alike, need to query injustice when we perceive it. We need to challenge inappropriate gender-based comments and actions where we see them. We need to stop discouraging female colleagues from speaking out or stepping up. This does not mean that we should unthinkingly support any female colleague applying for a promotion for which she is not suited. Rather, we should support those few women who do find themselves in leadership roles to mentor, guide and inspire women of the next generation whenever possible. Through truly supporting the notion of equality of opportunity in the tech sector, we do not hamper our industry. Instead, we make it richer and more diverse, thus improving it.