There is great interest in understanding why the technology industry and wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields have low participation by women. In this guest post, Lucy Wright summarizes some key studies that address this disparity and offer solutions to increase diversity.
Much has been written about the dearth of women working in the technology industry. From an apparent low interest in technology-related subjects at school through to the small number of women employees in tech companies today, there is a serious and undeniable under-representation of women in the tech industry. This is despite the fact, that women have been some of the most innovative pioneers of technology historically.
Key statistics are below:
- Women own only 5% of start-ups in the US
- In the UK, only 5% of women are in a technology leadership role
- Only 3% of British high school students say they would choose the technology sector as a career choice
- Only 16% of women have had a career in tech suggested to them
What are the issues underlying this?
An in-depth study was performed by Catherine Ashcraft, Director of Research and Senior Research Scientist for the National Centre for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) in the US. Over the last 12 years, Catherine has helped to grow the role of women in technology and has documented the process. Her study has been critical in identifying and evaluating the underlying issues.
According to Ashcraft’s study, there are three primary issues which have resulted in the lack of women in technology-specific roles. The reasons are:
Societal influences and biases – There has been a manufactured perception that girls are not suitable for technology-based roles. Yet, a report commissioned by the Girl Scout Research Institute based on a survey of 852 teen girls in the US found 74% of them professed interest in STEM and that these girls were significantly more interested in creative and problem solving skills than girls who were not interested in STEM. Unfortunately, gender bias is instilled in girls from school age in several ways, for example, pioneering women in technology are rarely mentioned or discussed. Going further, most technology-related roles are dominated by men, which also feeds into the narrative that women aren’t suited for technology-focused careers.
School education – Societal biases have seeped into school curricula and teaching. The focus of computer science (CS) subjects doesn’t consider how girls can be more involved and interested in such topics. The study suggests that subjects that pique the interest of girls generally do so because they involve problems and issues that appeal to them. Over time, girls who do have an interest in technology-related subjects tend to be put off because they don’t find it relatable.
Workplace systems – Technology workplaces carry the same biases that have existed traditionally; that women are not suitable for technology careers or they will not be able to bring anything to the company if they are in a tech-orientated role. This has resulted in the poor statistics of women in technology roles.
Does ethnicity play a role?
Some research suggests that ethnicity affects girls’ interest in, perceptions of and planned future participation in tech/IT careers. Ashcraft references a survey of 852 girls of different ethnicities, which found that African American and Hispanic girls expressed greater interest in CS and IT than White girls surveyed, at 47%, 47% and 36% respectively.
Of the girls surveyed, African American and Hispanic girls showed more interest in certain aspects of STEM than White girls, including understanding how things are built, solving puzzles and problems, and creating an app, video or computer game.
However, compared to White girls, African American and Hispanic girls reported lower exposure to STEM careers and lower adult support of STEM careers. Interestingly, these girls were significantly more aware of gender barriers in STEM fields. They reported a high reliance on internal assets, including self-confidence and desire to overcome obstacles, which supports and complements their high interest in STEM fields. Ashcroft also refers to a survey of 1,434 introductory computer science students in which female respondents, and more specifically African American students, were more likely to cite an “interest in helping people or society” as the primary reason for choosing a computer science major/minor.
It is worth noting that socio-economic status intersects with ethnicity to account for some of these differences. African American and Hispanic girls show stronger financial motivation in choosing career path and this presents opportunities to market STEM careers to girls.
What can be done to improve participation by women in the technology industry?
Ashcraft’s report suggests that there is not one ‘single’ thing that can be done to break down the barriers to girls’ participation in tech and IT careers. Rather, a combination of factors which involves multiple change agents and a multi-faceted approach to changing the way girls and women view tech careers will be most effective in encouraging participation in the sector.
To truly improve the number of women working in IT and technology, the three key issues identified by Ashcraft et al. need to be addressed. This means making computer science subjects more compelling to girls, highlighting the women pioneers of technology in computer science classes, and showcasing problems of interest to girls. For example, a curriculum that shows how computer science can improve people’s lives and solve social problems, and uses collaboration and active learning strategies will attract and retain a more diverse group of students. Having women themselves create and develop these educational environments will help in making girls and women feel more comfortable in their educational or working setting.
The focus on improving participation by women in the technology industry is also centred around hiring women and addressing the pay/skills gap. However, there is an opinion which suggests that this approach would only superficially address the matter – the underlying issues outlined above will continue to exist.
How can systemic change occur?
Ashcraft presents a model which depicts the people and elements needed for systemic change to occur. At the centre of the model is girls’ perceptions, interests, confidence and career decisions. The model suggests that these are directly influenced by formal and informal education, media and popular culture, peer influences and the influence of family, community and role models. So, in order for girls’ perceptions of tech and IT to change, the portrayal and perception of tech and IT, by and in all of the surrounding influences, also needs to change.
Influencing both the girls’ and their direct influencers perceptions of tech and IT, are a number of other agents and factors. They are: researchers, parent and families, teachers, administrators, curriculum and decision-makers, school counsellors, legislators and policy makers, higher education faculties, industry professionals and researchers. The way in which tech and IT, and more specifically, careers in tech and IT, are portrayed and presented by these individuals and institutions is intrinsically linked to the way in which girls perceive the subjects, and their suitability and desire to pursue a career in the industry. Change must be seen in each of these areas to permeate the perception of the sector by girls, before they decide that they can’t – or don’t want to – pursue a career in IT.
It’s hoped that, as these issues are addressed and the traditional view of IT and technology as a male-dominated industry is challenged, it will become the norm for women to work in tech, instead of the exception.
Girls in IT: The Facts. Catherine Ashcraft, Elizabeth Eger, and Michelle Friend. National Center for Women and Information Technology. 2012
Generation STEM: What Girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The Girls Scout Research Institute. 2012.
A statewide survey on computing education pathways and influences: factors in broadening participation in computing. Mark Guzdial, Barbara J. Ericson, Tom McKlin, and Shelly Engelman. ICER ’12 Proceedings of the ninth annual international conference on International computing education research. Pages 143-150.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wocintechchat/albums/72157664006621903
About the Author
Lucy Wright is Senior Copywriter at Core, a London-based managed IT service provider with customers in more than 50 countries. As Senior Copywriter, she is responsible for creating content within the Marketing team and promoting Core’s IT services through digital content, blogs and social media. She began her copywriting career in B2C ecommerce before moving to the IT sector. A journalism graduate, Lucy has written for publications in Spain, China and the UK. You can Tweet to Core @CoreGB.