Tech's gender imbalance: Is progress being made?

Despite decades of progress towards workplace equality, women remain hugely underrepresented in the UK's technology workforce. The technology sector should do more to support women, and arguably, is best placed to do so. So what needs to be done?

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Women continue to be woefully underrepresented in the UK's technology workforce ­– figures from WISE, the campaign for greater diversity in STEM, show that women account for just 17% of IT professionals. To better understand the current landscape, including what qualifications tech employees hold as well as employers training requirements and best practices, the organisation is inviting people working at all levels of the technology sector to tell them about their experiences in a new survey.  

According to its Communications Director Ruth Blanco, the proportion of tech roles filled by women has flatlined in the last ten years, and given how fast technology is moving, and that technology roles currently account for over a quarter of core science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) roles, we cannot afford another lost decade. 

Joanna Burkey, CISO of HP, believes that cybersecurity has one of the worst gender imbalances within the overall tech sector, which she puts down to a perception that the sector is more highly-technical and masculine.

"Although it's something the industry is working on, the popular myth of the cybersecurity worker as a hoodie-clad male prodigy is ingrained at a young age and perpetuated across TV and film. As if this isn't enough, some in the security industry have been actively discriminatory towards women, with complaints of harassment putting others off joining," she notes.

The importance of gender diversity in the technology sector

Some may argue that the figures show that women simply aren't as interested in working in the technology sector, and if that's the case, why push them to join? But it's not that simple. Half of the world's technology users are women and therefore it's vital that they're represented in all facets of technology.

"Having women enter the profession contributes to diversity of thought and opens society to potential engineering and technology breakthroughs that we might not otherwise have had," points out Jo Foster, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

"When it comes to designing products it's important that women and other diversity strands are represented so that they can bring about a perspective that could enhance that product.

"When Apple created the Health app it didn't include a menstruation tracker. I don't know that the reason for this was a lack of diversity, but if [more] women were involved in the design perhaps this would have been included to begin with."

Is there a root cause?

There doesn't appear to be a single root cause behind that lack of female IT professionals, but many cite an absence of female role models as part of the problem. This is backed up by a PWC report that found just 22% of students can name a famous woman working in the sector.

"People can only name the male leaders from 'superstar' tech organisations like Apple and Facebook," says Tanaz Gould, Sales and Solutions Director at Claranet. "From my own research in schools I've learnt that children are often influenced by TV shows and the media and you hardly see any examples of female tech entrepreneurs, and the techie characters are always male. They just don't see women in tech and without those role models are less likely to be inspired to go into the industry when they grow up."

As much as representation in the media needs to improve, business also has a role to play in inspiring young women, by providing opportunities like open days and work experience. Many already have initiatives underway, such as AWS, which runs GetIT, a programme that invites girls aged 12-13 to take part in an app-building competition to solve real issues faced by their school or community.

In addition, a third of Tech Talent Charter signatories have specific programmes to increase gender diversity. This demonstrates that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies are increasingly important to tech firms, "but we can't stop there," says Burkey. "Once diverse talent is hired, the next step is to retain, and facilitate grown and development."

"We need to make progression pathways clearer, show women how they can progress. Having a family shouldn't be a block to career progression ­– we need to get better at supporting them throughout different stages in their career and should be creating a culture that's inclusive and encourages women into more leadership positions. This is already happening, but perhaps not to the extent it should," adds Gould.

What needs to be done

Experts agree the industry needs to work harder to highlight the variety of roles available within technology, as technical roles make up less than a third of a cybersecurity organisation notes Burkey.

"Business acumen, risk expertise and the ability to communicate clearly and concisely are all in high demand. Organisations should consider reaching out to higher and further education disciplines beyond computer science such as business, communications, marketing and financial degree programmes," she highlights.

"Finding a role in this sector isn't purely about coding and hacking," agrees Carla Baker, Senior Director, Government Affairs UK&I at Palo Alto Networks. "I wouldn't describe myself as a traditional techie, but I understand technical concepts. There really is a diverse range of opportunities requiring an array of different skills."

The importance of male allies shouldn't be overlooked either. Blanco says she's seen more men attend WISE conferences and events year on year; "a positive sign that gender balance isn't about women's rights, it's about good business," she says.

She goes on to say that allies help dispel the myths, sexism and outdated attitudes within the sector, and she would love to see more male leaders speaking publicly about the business benefits of diversity and calling out inappropriate behaviour.

There may still be much work to be done, but those already working in the sector are positive about the future.

"We're not there yet, but I have to say I'm seeing more women in my day-to-day working life," says Gould. "We are seeing more participation from women and in general tech is becoming less 'geeky'. It's becoming mainstream: it touches every aspect of our lives from grocery shopping and listening to music through to driving a car or watching a show. Just by virtue of it being everywhere I believe it will become more normalised for schoolgirls, and more women will continue to join the sector," she concludes.