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Gender equality in tech: it’s time for businesses to start turning words into actions

Thu 6 Jun 2019 | Sara Daqiq

Initiatives and board-level discussions are important. But for more tangible change to happen, a shift needs to occur before people enter the workplace, writes Okta software developer Sara Daqiq

When looking back at the impact that figures such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper had on computer programming, the state of female representation within STEM in 2019 seems at odds. Tech remains a male-dominated industry, with men occupying more than 75 per cent of roles in STEM in the UK.

When we consider that every company is becoming a tech company, the implications become even more perilous. From healthcare to retail to manufacturing, technology powers and influences it all. Yet, only one in every 10 developers is a woman, the Pearson Frank Java and PHP Salary Survey found. Bringing more women into these fields will not only help ensure that gender prejudice is kept firmly out of future products and systems, but also inject fresh perspectives and creative capabilities to developing technologies.

Turning words into actions

In the public eye, many businesses are vocal about the steps they are taking to increase diversity in technical positions, keen to publish in-depth reports on barriers women are facing and the lack of women in technical roles. Although this shows some desire to improve the situation, the verdict is still out on whether these words are materialising to tangible actions.

According to PWC, only five per cent of leadership positions in STEM are held by women. In addition, 60 per cent of women in IT feel that they have been held back from progressing in their career because of their gender. It was only at the end of 2018 that one of the magic circle law firms, Linklaters, finally made the pledge to join the Tech Talent Charter, a government initiative which aims to drive diversity and address gender imbalance in tech.

Of course top line initiatives, board-level discussions and business objectives are important and necessary cogs in the wheel to achieving greater equality within tech roles. But, for more tangible change to happen, a shift needs to occur before people enter the workplace.

Driving change from the ground-up

“Bringing more women into the sector is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do”

In the UK, only 15 percent of Engineering graduates are female. This is not because women are inherently less interested in STEM or less able, but is the result of years of women being discouraged from pursuing such subjects because it doesn’t “fit” with the stereotypical image of femininity. Unconsciously, society pushes boys towards these subjects because they are seen as better or more suited for coding, mathematics and science. This has resulted in a situation where there are not enough qualified women for businesses to recruit.

It is paramount for businesses, institutions and schools, to implement and drive change from the ground-up and be the vehicles to encourage women into the sector. Having worked with Girls Who Code, a non-profit organisation that aims to achieve this, it’s clear to see how coding can advance lives. The alumni, who were given the opportunity to attend a free after school programme, went on to major in computer science at 15 times the national average. Inspiring the next generation of women in tech will require an investment and focus on education in software programming, especially in areas where learning is limited. In developing countries, educating women in STEM has a real ability to give women the power to gain financial independence, an agent for changing lives for the better.

It’s in businesses’ best interests, too

Bringing more women into the sector is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing. As technologies such as AI and ML begin to take off, the importance and capacity of data and its frameworks is growing. In the past, data was an outcome, however, data is now implemented within technologies, responsible for informing systems, and this is where potential data bias can evolve.

Several research centres, such as the AI Now Institute, have reported that voice and speech recognition systems performed worse for women. Most recently, YouGov found that close to two-thirds of women say voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa have difficulties responding to their commands, because they are built predominantly by men.

“It is paramount for businesses, institutions and schools, to implement and drive change from the ground-up and be the vehicles to encourage women into the sector”

Facial recognition systems have also been more error-bound with female faces, while bias has been found within AI recruiting tools, which led to Amazon eventually being forced to abandon its in-house recruiting engine. It’s clear to see how bringing more women into the industry is in technology companies’ best interests; a balanced developer-base will be key to developing robust, neutral frameworks and anticipating future challenges, helping to create successful end-products which work equally well for both men and women.

As tech continues to become a more influential part of every organisation, it will only highlight the need for more women to be part of this movement. We should be encouraging kids of any gender to excel in STEM subjects, and pursue degrees and careers relevant to these fields. With the current talent gap that exists within software development, it’s time to work harder to attract the brilliant minds that the tech industry has been missing out on.

Experts featured:

Sara Daqiq

Software Developer
OKTA

Tags:

equality skills talent
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