Is sexism really worse in tech?

Sexism is getting a lot of media attention at the moment, but are things really worse in tech? We source opinion.

Over the last couple of years there have been a large number of studies about the lack of women in IT and technology jobs. But probably the most damning study of all – entitled Elephant in the Valley – was released this January.

Based on responses from over 200 women with at least ten years’ experience, this showed that 60% of these had received unwanted sexual advances. While 84% had been told they were too “aggressive” and 66% felt excluded from key social/ networking opportunities because of their gender.

Sarah Luxford, Co-Founder, Tech London Advocates Women in Tech says: “I empathise with the report; these figures are shocking yet unsurprising to me.” Yet the truth is, these types of statistics are being released for numerous industries. And it is proving to be an extremely divisive issue everywhere.  

A research study we produced in early 2013 showed 22% of male respondents and 8% of female respondents believed the IT gender imbalance was a good thing. At the time the comments we received on this site were intensely negative towards professional women.

Yet over the last three years, a lot of awareness has been raised around this topic. Big tech companies have been clamouring to redress the balance. And there have even been some hairy moments, on social media at least, where the argument has swung so far the other way it has entered the equally unhelpful arena of man-bashing.

Equality is important. Everyone should have a fair chance based on merit irrespective of gender. But this should not come at the expense of anyone. There are also a number of areas to this debate.

“When I worked with Lloyds Bank I was the only man in the team of eight and the graphic stories the women in my pod would share would make you wince,” says Ross Tavendale, a partner at Ideas Made Digital at the more flippant end of things. He is not complaining but offered up this titbit together along with descriptions of more traditionally negative male environments.

“I think it's more to do with the culture of the people and the place, rather than set rules for the genders,” he says. 

So, where are we at with diversity these days? “The last 18 months have seen diversity propelled to the forefront as a subject of importance, with countless studies demonstrating a diverse workforce increases productivity, innovation and commercial success,” says Luxford. “We’ve talked, highlighted and proved diversity’s benefits as a business case but not connected it necessarily to the benefit of the individual.”

Perhaps one of the real challenges for the tech industry though is that a lot of different organisations can make a claim to be “tech”. For example, any company that relies on an app can call itself a “tech company” and it can even be argued that anyone who works in any kind of digital environment is, on some level included. This all muddies the waters of what is really going on and makes it even harder to determine if things are worse than elsewhere.

Interestingly, when we crowdsourced opinion, the spectrum of results we had back was very balanced. 

“Sexism isn’t any worse in the tech industry,” suggests Debbie Davenport is Client Services Director at Rethink Talent Management. “I think it is found in most professional sectors, finance, banking and law to name a few, and so I’m not sure it’s an industry-led challenge, more a challenge the industry suffers because of a historical bias towards men and technology, which has resulted in there being a lot less women in the sector.”

“We know that teaching our next generation that women can succeed in technology will be imperative to changing the bias that exists,” she adds. “We are often asked by our clients to secure a female for technology positions, particularly development, and if we could find them then we could place them!”

“Personally, I think that the IT and tech sector is rather progressive in terms of gender equality,” says Emily Clark, digital PR executive at Bring Digital. “I am actively encouraged to undertake training that will advance my technical knowledge and have previously attended Women in Digital events which really gave me confidence that females are an asset to the sector.”

“I will not pretend that sexism in the workplace is not a real issue for some businesses,” she adds, “but I do disagree that it is sector specific. The very fact that there are Women in Digital events and social groups suggests to me that the sector is well aware of the need for gender equality and this, in and of itself, is puts the industry ahead of any others.”

Georgina Calvert Lee, Senior Litigation Counsel at law firm McAllister Olivarius, is more specific: “STEM continues to feature a boys-club culture that excludes women and minorities from participation, inhibiting career progress. Beyond examples that no one could miss, including co-workers with roaming hands and online harassment – there are lots of less blatant ways in which women are made to feel second class.”

She lists these as business meetings conducted on guys-only bonding trips, or when they dismiss female colleagues’ proposals or behaviour – often as “too aggressive” or “abrasive” - or even making women get the coffee. “These are the thousand tiny cuts that frame attitudes about what women can and should be doing at work and restrict their opportunities,” she says.

“Leaders play a key role in establishing diversity as a strategic imperative for their business and setting the appropriate work culture to embrace this,” says Luxford of Tech London Advocates Women in Tech. “Marc Benioff’s recent decision to review the gender pay gap within Salesforce sent ripples through the tech industry but more importantly he stood for change.” 

This is a very valid point. And as Kathy Schneider, SVP Product and Marketing EMEA, at network solutions provider Level 3 Communications points out: “While there’s still work to do, it’s important to focus on the progress made in companies’ efforts to support gender equality and career development.”

There is no denying this and Antonia Watson, Avanade UK’s COO, believes continued proactivity is key. “It’s imperative that business leaders in the tech world work towards creating a gender-diverse workplace, rather than burying their heads in the sand. Simple steps can be taken to ensure the support of female employees in any company, like mentorships.”

“Diversity and gender discrimination are not women’s issues,” she concludes. “Men and women alike should become allies to women in their organisation and support their growth in the business. Ultimately diversity drives creativity and innovation, and without it organisations cannot deliver their best solutions to clients.”

So, where are we now in 2016? It is very hard to say – like in any traditionally male dominated environment sexism has been a serious issue in tech and IT – but so much work being done to counteract this in recent times, things definitely seem to have improved. What do you think? Please share your comments below.