The need to address the under-representation of women in technology roles should not be an ongoing discussion, but it is. There is, however, a new sense of urgency to address this, which is related in part to the current rate of technological change. Those technology companies that have embraced diversity are better able to adapt to change, see opportunities, and evolve, while those that have not are left behind.
The issue begins with education. According to the UNESCO report Cracking the code: Girls' and women's STEM education, only 35% of STEM students in higher education worldwide are female. There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from the perpetuation of stereotypes about the subjects girls study to a lack of positive encouragement from teachers to help girls pursue STEM subjects.
Because of this lack of representation, there are fewer women in technology roles. Women technologists now account for 29% of the tech workforce. According to AnitaB.org data, if current trends continue, it could take 12 years for women to achieve equal representation in technology. We can't afford to wait that long.
For far too long, a lack of role models, as well as a lack of transparency and flexibility in recruitment and retention, has discouraged many women from applying for positions. In addition, far too few women advance to positions of leadership in the industry. Indeed, according to a 2020 study conducted by Accenture and Girls Who Code, the two primary reasons for women's underrepresentation in technology are a lack of mentors (cited by 48% of respondents) and a lack of female role models in the field (42 per cent).
To address these issues, there is a need for a global workforce strategy. Society, including the government and the education system, must play its part. The government can start by encouraging schools to start championing girls from a young age to dream big and provide them with education and resources that don’t limit their aspirations. It can start encouraging schools to do more to break down the negative stereotypes that continue to characterise technology subjects as more relevant to males.
While schools educating girls in the importance of technology subjects will bring long-term benefits, it would take a number of years to see the impact of this and a generation gap would exist which is why education alone is not the answer. Gender diversity levels within technology management will need to improve as an urgent priority and governments should be incentivising tech firms to retrain women with the necessary skillsets from other industries into technology roles.
Aside from what governments can offer to improve gender diversity, there is much that technology companies should take responsibility for. Many companies have the resources and expertise, particularly in human resources, to take proactive action and begin to integrate a more gender-diverse approach into the way they work today. For example, by making the path back into work clear, accessible, and supported, programmes to retrain women who have taken career breaks can encourage more female senior management.
HR leaders play a critical role in initiating change, and HR as a whole must be committed to bringing about change. HR plays an important role in training managers in areas such as goal setting, performance management, and annual reviews to ensure that the gender diversity agenda is taken into account throughout. Line managers must be instructed to have these open and honest conversations with female members of their teams, as well as to ask pertinent questions such as, "Are there any opportunities you feel aren't available to you?" 'Is there anything you believe is impeding your progress or development?' ’. Asking these questions will spark a conversation that would otherwise go unnoticed.
In line with this, the company, with HR at the helm, must always ensure that communication is clear, especially during the recruitment process. Candidates must understand the level of flexibility supported by the company, including maternity policies, as well as its approach to hybrid working. HR departments must move away from job descriptions that mention 37.5-hour, five-day work weeks. If they don't want to discourage talented female candidates, they must be willing to consider part-time or compressed work weeks. Too many talented young women today leave the technology field when they have children.
All of this, of course, does not diminish the importance of women taking action to disrupt the status quo in technology businesses and raising their voices to initiate change. Mentoring, whether formal or informal, is an important component of this. Every woman who advances to a certain level in a technology organisation should aspire to be an educator, passing on her knowledge and understanding to others.
The end goal of gender diversity is difficult to achieve. Making progress requires societal involvement from education through government and on into business. Business can’t operate in a vacuum but, with HR at the helm, there is much it can do to drive through change from breaking down stereotypes to supporting flexible and hybrid working.