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PA OPINION

How can we improve gender diversity in tech? Reflections from a woman in tech

It’s well known that women remain underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). In the UK, just 15 per cent of STEM employees are women. It often surprises people that the situation wasn't always this bad. In the 1970s and early 1980s, 37 per cent of US women were pursuing degrees in computer science – nearly twice the number recorded in 2015.

When you consider BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled women in STEM, the current situation is even worse. For example, LGBTQ+ scientists are quitting their jobs due to discrimination and disabled women have a lower chance of being employed after finishing their STEM degrees.

It’s frustrating and hard to pinpoint why this is the case. Maybe it started with the media hype around archetypal ‘male tech geniuses’, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or because we started valuing assertion and ambition over empathy and teamwork in tech.

Of course, it will partly be down to the issues facing women across industries – the challenge of maintaining work/life balance in a world that still puts most domestic tasks on women while blocking our career development, which, in turn, slashes our confidence and visibility.

No matter the specific cause in tech careers, unconscious bias will be at the root. One of the most damaging forms of unconscious bias for women is gendered microaggressions, brief exchanges that communicate sexist denigration and slights toward women. One example is using gendered language when it doesn’t apply, such as job descriptions that use the pronoun ‘he’ to describe software engineers. A survey on what deters women from applying to male-dominated professions found that this sort of wording on job postings was a key factor.

How can we support more women into STEM careers?

Recruitment will be key to addressing the gender balance in the tech industry. Removing names and gender indicators on applications and setting targets for recruiting women are a great start. Positive action and quotas have made ground-breaking progress in other sectors.

For example, all-women shortlists for MP candidates mean 51 per cent of elected Labour MPs at the last UK general election were women. By comparison, the Conservative party has no explicit system for increasing the proportion of female candidates, so less than a quarter of Tory MPs are women.

Education will also be key – not just giving women the necessary tech skills, but also showing them that tech careers aren’t just for men. The Women in Tech group at PA is doing some fantastic work on this front. For the last three years, we’ve partnered with Code First: Girls (CFG), a social enterprise aiming to teach 20,000 more women to code by the end of 2020. Last month saw the conclusion of our popular free eight-week courses in web development and Python programming for beginner coders. These are fantastic events that encourage women into the tech world and give them the start they need.

By focusing on recruitment and education, we can achieve a 50:50 gender balance in tech. Doing so isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business – more diverse teams create better solutions.

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