The technology industry leads the world in innovation, but it is one of the worst sectors for gender inequality.
Historically, women have been some of the most innovative and pioneering people in technology. Yet there is a serious shortage of women working in tech companies today, and many schools report low interest from girls in technology-related subjects. Here are just a few key statistics that reflect the under-representation of women in the tech industry:
- Only 5% of tech start-ups in the US are owned by women
- In the UK, only 5% of women are in a technology leadership role
- 3% of British high school students say they would choose a career in the technology sector
- 16% of women report having had a technology career suggested to them
Why is this the case?
Catherine Ashcraft, Director of Research and Senior Research Scientist for the National Centre for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) has researched this topic thoroughly.
For the last 12 years, she has helped to further the cause and grow the role of women in technology. Her study has helped define the underlying issues associated with low numbers of women working in technology. Ashcraft has identified three key issues which have caused a lack of women in technology-specific roles. They are:
Societal influences and biases: Traditionally, there’s been a perception that girls aren’t suited to technology-based roles. Gender-bias is instilled in girls from school age in many ways. For example, pioneering female technology innovators are rarely discussed. Most technology roles are already dominated by men, which perpetuates the myth that women aren’t suited to these roles.
School education: Societal biases have also permeated school curricula and teaching. Computer science (CS) subjects don’t generally consider how girls can become more involved and interested. The study suggests that subjects that garner the interest of girls generally involve problems and issues that appeal to them. Many girls who do have an interest in technology-related subjects tend to be gradually deterred because they don’t find it relatable.
Workplace systems: Whether consciously or not, many technology workplaces still have the same biases towards women that have existed traditionally; a perception that they are not suitable for technology careers or they will not be able to contribute to the company in a tech-orientated role. Naturally, this deters many women from working in the sector and has resulted in the low numbers of women currently in tech roles, compared to men.
Is ethnicity a factor?
There has been some research which suggests that ethnicity may play a role in affecting girls’ interest and participation in IT and tech careers.
Ashcraft references a survey of 852 girls of different ethnicities which found that African American and Hispanic girls were more interested in CS and IT than White girls, at 47%, 47% and 36%, respectively.
African American and Hispanic girls were also more interested in certain aspects of IT than White girls, including understanding how things are built, problem-solving and creating videos, apps or computer games.
But despite the higher rates of interest, African American and Hispanic girls had lower exposure to STEM careers and less adult support of STEM careers than White girls. These girls were also more aware of the gender barriers present in STEM fields. They reported a high reliance on their own personal attributes, like self-confidence and a desire to overcome problems, to support their interest in STEM fields.
Ashcraft also references another survey of 1,434 introductory computer science students, of which African American female respondents were more likely to cite an “interest in helping people or society” as the main reason for choosing a major or minor in computer science.
Socio-economic status intersects with ethnicity too and accounts for some of these differences. Hispanic and African American girls show a stronger financial motivation for choosing a STEM career than White girls surveyed.
How can the participation rate of women in the tech industry be improved?
Ashcraft suggests that there is not a ‘single’ thing that can break down the barriers to girls’ participation in tech careers. Instead, a combination of factors involving multiple change agents and a multifaceted approach to changing the way girls view tech careers will be most effective in boosting participation rates of women in the industry.
The three key issues identified in Ashcraft’s study must be addressed in order to increase the number of women working in the sector, meaning change needs to take place as early as at school.
Computer science subjects need to be made more compelling to girls, and pioneering women in IT and technology need to be highlighted more. The curriculum needs to be tailored so that it demonstrates how computer science can be used to improve lives and solve social issues. Using collaboration and active learning strategies will also help attract and retain a diverse group of students. The more women can develop and command these education environments, the better; this would presumably make girls and women feel more comfortable in their education or work setting and make a career in tech a more attainable – and inspirational – goal.
Another way to improve participation is by addressing the pay/skills gap and hiring more women in tech and IT companies. However, some people think that this approach is superficial and would only address the problem on the surface, by boosting numbers. It would not address nor resolve any of the issues which caused the low female participation rate to begin with.
How can systemic change be implemented?
Ashcraft presents a model which depicts how systemic change can occur, and the people and elements needed for change to happen.
At the centre, are girls’ perceptions, interests, self-confidence and career choices. Ashcraft’s model suggests that these are influenced currently by education, media, popular culture, peers, family, friends, community and role models. The portrayal of tech and IT by all the influencing factors listed needs to change for girls’ perception of tech to change.
There are also other agents which influence the perception of IT by girls. They are parents, teachers, researchers, administrators, the curriculum, decision-makers, school counsellors, policy-makers, industry professionals and legislators.
These institutions and agents play an integral part in how tech and IT careers are presented to girls. The way they speak about and present careers in technology directly impacts how girls feel about pursuing such a career, and their suitability to working in tech.
Change needs to happen in each of these areas so that girls don’t decide at school age that they can’t – or don’t want to – pursue a career in IT.
If these issues are addressed, and the traditional perception of IT as a male-dominated industry is challenged, women working in tech and IT will hopefully become the new ‘normal’.
Girls in IT: The Facts. Catherine Ashcraft, Elizabeth Eger, and Michelle Friend. National Center for Women and Information Technology. 2012
Generation STEM: What Girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The Girls Scout Research Institute. 2012.
A statewide survey on computing education pathways and influences: factors in broadening participation in computing. Mark Guzdial, Barbara J. Ericson, Tom McKlin, and Shelly Engelman. ICER ’12 Proceedings of the ninth annual international conference on International computing education research. Pages 143-150.
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