International Women's Day: We've come a long way, but there's still an awfully long way to go
Human Resources

International Women's Day: We've come a long way, but there's still an awfully long way to go

International Women's Day is held annually on March 8th to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women whilst providing a call to action for accelerating gender parity. This year, IDG Connect has interviewed women from across the world who work in the technology sector to find out more about the current global landscape for Women in Tech.

Silicon Valley is often considered to be the centre of the technology universe, providing a home for some of the biggest names in the global tech market. Thousands of startups have flocked to the region in hopes of finding the kind of success already afforded to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Symantec; all of which have headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, when it comes to similarities, these corporations have more in common than just location: workforces which under-represent female and minority ethnic employees. Of the Silicon Valley companies that were asked to release their government-mandated EE0-1 reports to the Center for Investigative Reporting, only 22 out of 211 companies complied with the request.

Of those 22 companies, only 7 reported a workforce that was over 40% female. When it comes to the percentage of female executives in those same 22 companies, 23&Me was the only organisation above that same 40% threshold. The data also showed that, with the exception of Airbnb, all other 21 companies have a male-dominated management team of which more than half are white.

While Silicon Valley is only one (rather large) part of the US tech landscape, it is undoubtedly a microcosm of the rest of the country. Women make up less than 20 percent of tech jobs in the United States, even though they make up more than half of the US workforce. Even more surprising is the fact that fewer women today hold jobs in computer science than they did in the 1980's.

Despite these continuing inequalities, it's not all bad news. In the last decade, technology companies of all sizes across the United States have started to run initiatives to help promote the increased recruitment and retention of female staff in the tech sector. Furthermore, many companies are starting to tackle the inherent biases that continue to permeate working culture; addressing the pay gap and offering flexible work policies so women no longer have to choose been employment and care-giving.

To find out more about what it's like to be a woman working at a US tech company, we spoke to Joan Pepin, CISO and VP of Operations at Auth0. Here, she talks about what we can do to improve workplace opportunities for diverse employees and her experiences of being a trans woman working in the cybersecurity industry.

 

What first attracted you to the technology sector?

I've always been enthusiastic about computers and technology. I went to a computer summer camp when I was eight years old, and growing up, I used a Mac Plus. Around my senior year of high school, I started to get interested in InfoSec. In college, I socialised with a group of hackers - the typical 2600/cDc sort of crowd. When financial circumstances forced me to drop out of college, InfoSec was a way to earn a decent salary without the degree I had been working toward.

 

What was your route into your current job?

I have more than 22 years of experience in InfoSec under my belt, so I have been lucky enough to witness technology transforming fast. Prior to Auth0, I worked at Nike as their Business Information Security Officer (BISO), responsible for the security of Nike's digital business unit and direct-to-consumer portfolio. Before Nike, I was CISO and employee number 11 at SumoLogic.

 

What has been your experience as a woman working in the technology sector in the United States? Please share any positive or negative examples if you are happy to do so.

As a trans woman, I've been fortunate to have worked for many supportive companies. When I first came out, I had the support of a HR business partner who had gone through a transition with an employee at a previous job and helped me navigate issues in the workplace.

That's not to say that there haven't been some real challenges and issues. It's often hard to tease apart how much of the issues are because of my trans status as opposed to just being a woman in technology. I'd say that probably the majority of the issues are the same issues that most women in tech deal with anyway. The trans-specific discrimination and poor treatment has diminished over the years for a variety of reasons, but it can still be a huge issue especially for people early in their transition.

In general, the issues that trans women in technology face are special cases of general-purpose sexism and misogyny. Trans misogyny is a special case of general-purpose misogyny.

 

What changes have you seen in the diversity of workplaces over the course of your career?

The attitude towards diversity has changed significantly over the last 10 years. It is definitely discussed much more now, and people are paying more attention to an organisation's diversity policies. Last year, the RSA Conference, one of the biggest cybersecurity events, caused outrage when at first there was only one woman on its line-up of keynote speakers. The organisers have pledged to ban all-male panels and urge their sponsors to send keynote speakers from diverse backgrounds. It feels like the technology world can no longer get away with discrimination as easily as it used to.

 

Do you think organisations are doing enough to ensure they hire a diverse workforce?

It very much depends on the individual organisation. Some of them are well educated on how diverse teams are more effective and deliver better business outcomes. A strong leader needs to educate and convince that diversity is good for business. Even without one, and even if your company doesn't care about doing the right thing, there's plenty of data about improvement of business outcomes that can be brought to bear. Someone should be taking that charge and making sure exec/BOD understand and believe in the benefits.

 

Why do you think the technology industry still struggles to represent women in leadership roles?

We've come a long way, but there's still an awfully long way to go. I'm encouraged by some Silicon Valley venture capitalists, board members and senior executives who evangelise diversity, and the nuts and bolts business value that it brings. We are starting to get people in very powerful positions who understand. While there's still a lot of work to do, I think we've started to crack through that top layer that will help us accelerate change.

 

What are the biggest roadblocks facing women entering the technology industry?

Fundamentally, it's the inability of some senior executives to recognise the business value of diversity. As a result, companies don't commit to interviewing women and minorities. If they aren't applying, executives should examine their pipeline, make changes to recruiting practices, and consider sponsoring a coding bootcamp or advertising for the talent they want. Only then do we have hope of closing the massive gender and skills gap in technology.

 

What can we do to improve workplace opportunities for women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ employees and disabled employees?

First and foremost, companies need to bring in an educator or educate themselves on the issues, so they can answer initial questions, instead of leaving it to the specific people to be the spokespeople for their community. When a trans employee comes out, for example, it's important for leaders and managers to have a discussion without the person present, so teammates can ask questions that might otherwise be awkward or sensitive. Having someone make the announcement for you and establish the rules of engagement makes the process tremendously easier: for example, "this is the person's new name and pronouns, and we expect you to use them."

Companies also need to do a better job of encouraging people to apply for jobs in the first place. Show up at local LGBTQ and women-centric events. Make sure your job postings aren't biased. Bring T-shirts in appropriate sizes. These are all ways to show you're able to walk the walk, and diversity isn't just a checkbox.

 

What does the future look like for women in tech?

Things are definitely changing for women in technology as more and more mission-driven companies, associations and events enter the spotlight. The more female technology professionals are recognised, the easier it will become to close the skills gap, and open the door to a greater number of women in technology.

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Charlotte Trueman

Charlotte is Staff Writer at IDG Connect. She is particularly interested in the impact technology will have on the future of work and promoting gender diversity throughout the tech industry.

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