August 20, 2019

Barriers, not the pipeline, prevent gender equality in tech

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TL:DR;

  • Technical, social, and policy measures are needed to improve workplace satisfaction for women... but these approaches are not one-size-fits-all.

The argument that the education pipeline does not produce enough qualified women to take up positions in science and technology-related industries does not hold water. In the US, labour force data show that the number of women working in computing and other digital technology jobs is disproportionately lower than the number of women graduating from relevant academic programs. While globally women and girls are less likely than men and boys to aspire to or pursue technology careers, women who do acquire the necessary qualifications are still marginalized in the industry — much more so than other scientific fields such as medicine. And research shows that women report high levels of work dissatisfaction, and leave science and technology jobs at much higher rates than men.

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Although there has been a lowering of the gender-related barriers to science and technology education, once women enter the technology workplace, a new set of obstacle courses comes into play that sets up barriers to women’s professional advancement, whether as employees or entrepreneurs. These barriers typically fall into one or more of three intermingled categories.

Discrimination

Gender-based discrimination emanates from conscious and unconscious biases about women’s aptitude and ability in technical fields. These biases affect the entire career experience, from recruitment to performance evaluation, salary levels, mentoring and career development opportunities. For example, job vacancy ads might have subtle cues about the gender of the ideal candidate; research from the US and the UK shows unexplained gender pay gaps for technology workers; and women tend to be promoted into less influential staff — rather than line — management roles.

Safety and security

To make matters worse, tech industry workplaces have developed a reputation for macho-masculine and/or geeky work environments that are hostile towards women. Though concrete research data is hard to come by, indications are that unwelcoming environments, including overt and covert forms of harassment, compromise women’s sense of safety and comfort in the workplace, leading to high turnover rates or high psychological costs of staying.

Social, cultural and institutional contexts

Finally, the broader social context can affect a woman’s ability to be “successful” as a professional. Amongst other things, norms about gender roles in the home; the higher economic value placed on “work devotion” (typically expected of men) compared to “family devotion” (typically expected of women); or perceptions about what is feminine versus masculine behaviour either make it difficult for a woman to be a “good worker” or exert high personal cost.

The combined effect of these barriers threatens to negate all the effort put into encouraging women and girls to pursue technology careers. To rectify this trend, organizations can start by developing technical, social and policy measures to improve women’s experience in the technology workplace.

Technical measures could include:

  • Creative job design to reduce the influence of gender stereotypes.
  • Software to identify gender biases in recruitment processes.
  • Mechanisms to protect victims of harassment.

Social measures include:

  • Promoting a change in organizational culture to be more inclusive and less discriminatory.
  • Encouraging and valuing less masculine-oriented definitions of an ideal worker.
  • Fostering greater work/life balance for all employees.

Policy measures include:

  • Signing on to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of guidelines for businesses to analyse their practices and take steps towards gender equality.
  • Establishing diversity goals, increasing transparency of administrative processes, and assigning managerial responsibility to ensure accountability.
  • Collecting, monitoring and openly sharing gender disaggregated data on recruitment and other company trends.

However, care should be taken when deciding to use any of these measures. Some solutions (e.g. diversity training) are relatively easy to implement, but may be less effective than other more demanding measures (e.g. mentorship programs). Furthermore, well-meant actions can have unintended consequences; such as women being further concentrated in low-level positions due to taking advantage of family-friendly policies like paid leave and part-time employment. Diversity initiatives should also be approached in an inclusive manner so as not to alienate men in the workplace or overlook other disadvantaged populations, which can lead to backlash.


These and other recommendations are discussed in detail in the EQUALS Research Group report released by the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society on March 15, 2019.

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