Category:
Digital Fluency

Where are all the women in tech?

In January 2021, New Zealand’s Digital Skills Forum prepared the report Digital Skills for our Digital Future. Based on data in the Digital Skills Survey completed in 2020, the report analyses data across the entire digital skills pipeline, from school to tertiary education, from education to employment, from within the market and from immigration. 

Reading the report, what rose to the surface for me was the shockingly low number of women working in our tech industry. Even more shocking is the number of Māori and Pasifika in the tech industry. It’s 2021 and we’ve come so far, yet these numbers tell a different story… 

Only 27% of the industry is female? Yet women make up 50.8% of the population in Aotearoa. So why do men dominate this industry and what are the implications of this inequality?

There are three reasons I believe contribute to this, all of which I’m going to dive a little deeper into: 

  1. Women don’t see a place for themselves in the industry
  2. ‘Tech’ is often seen as coding only 
  3. The tech industry changes rapidly 

Women don’t see a place for themselves in the industry

Let me start by asking a question…

What person do you first think of when you hear the word ‘technology’ or ‘digital’? Steve Jobs? Elon Musk? Mark Zuckerberg? The stereotype of a ‘geeky’ man? And a ‘geeky’ white man at that! If you are a woman, do you see a place for yourself amongst that? 

There is a significant lack of female CEOs and women running and leading technology companies and therefore a lack of leadership and role models for young women entering the workforce. We simply can’t picture that as a gender diverse industry, and so it continues in the same patterns it always has done.

‘Tech’ is often seen as coding only 

Tech = coding… right? It is worth clarifying, you do not have to be an innovator or an entrepreneur to be in the tech industry. Nor do you have to be a coder or software developer or business analyst. 

General Manager of The Mind Lab & Tech Futures Lab, Fiona Webby says:

“The job opportunities are endless in tech and that’s what I want people to know. There are jobs for every different type of skill set and mind – it is no longer an industry of hidden skills and talents. You could be creative, a problem-solver, analytical, process-driven, experience-driven, systems thinker – the list is endless, there are roles for everyone across the sector.”

The tech industry is super broad – roles include product design, user experience, project management, social media. Not only that but a tech company is still a company – and all companies need human resources, recruitment, accountants, marketing departments, lawyers, office managers … the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong, women can definitely be coders, and excellent ones at that, and many are. However we need to broaden the scope of what we think of when we think of tech to shift the dial. 

The tech industry changes rapidly

We also know that the tech industry changes at a rapid pace. Technology itself is changing every day and we’re on the brink of some huge achievements whether that’s robotics, aerospace tech, VR, AR or AI. 

And I can see how that could be daunting, especially for women who might also hope to have a family, or for women that are caregivers and might not be looking for full-time roles. Taking time off for maternity leave poses the question of “how far behind will I be?”, “what will I miss?” and “will I be able to keep up?”.

This is where industry change needs to happen. Accepting that people may choose to take time off for their whānau should just mean we ensure learning opportunities are constant, and always available. We’re in 2021, a short stint away from the computer screen should be seen as an opportunity for fresh thinking on return. New tech and skills can be learned, if the space and time is given.

And it’s also on us, as women, to push ourselves and be open to catching up if and when we need to. If the industry won’t change for us, let’s change how we’re seen. Women have been balancing multiple responsibilities for centuries, it’s our super power. Let’s be more driven and more future-focused, because that will be hard to ignore.

These are just some of the reasons women might be outnumbered and underrepresented in the tech workforce in Aotearoa. Now let’s talk about the dangers of this, if the trend continues. Because we know how much we rely on technology and how will tech serve women when it wasn’t designed by us or even with us? 

I came across this book last year and literally couldn’t put it down. Every chapter left me with my jaw on the ground and equally enraged by the seemingly endless examples of what Caroline terms the “gender data gap”. 

To give a global example, did you know that speech-recognition software is trained on recordings of male voices? Google’s version alone is 70% more likely to understand men than women. One woman reported that her car’s voice-command system only listened to her husband, even when he was sitting in the passenger seat. This week I was about to watch a movie with my partner and tried using the dictation feature on the Amazon firestick and after three failed attempts, he got it in one try. (Admittedly, this might be partly due to my thick New Zealand accent versus his ‘normal’ American one!)

You might think, okay that’s frustrating if Alexa or Siri only listens to my husband, but so what? Well how about this. Although men are more likely to crash a car, women involved in collisions are nearly 50% more likely to be seriously hurt. Why? Because cars are designed around the body of “Reference Man”. And when finally someone thought it’d be good to consider women, all they did was make a smaller sized version of the same dummy. 

When women are not included in the process, they are harmed by sheer ignorance. 

Take a moment to ponder that…

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Caroline also includes a fair share of success stories of when women were involved in the planning and decision making and the literal life-changing results that we can see around the world. 

One example comes out of Sweden where they pondered the question “Is snow-clearing sexist?”. You wouldn’t think it, but yes – it was. Main arterials and highways were being cleared first (as men would drive their cars from home to work) with bicycle and pedestrian paths last. They switched the priority and found that pedestrian accidents and injuries dramatically reduced, most of which were women. Not only did injury rates for women drop, but the healthcare system noticed a decrease in expenses treating said injuries. 

So you don’t have to be Steve Jobs, or invent the next big tech start-up to consider a career in tech. Participate. Educate. Tell your friends, your colleagues, your daughters and your daughter’s friends to pick Technology or Digital Technologies as a subject in school. To seek out female role models and celebrate women in the tech industry. To create nurturing work spaces that are suitable for all women. 

“We live in a world where we need more problem solvers, people who think outside the box to ensure that we evolve. The wonderful thing about tech is that it allows us to be even more human with what we are innately built to do – to build our soft skills – to be more empathetic, great communicators , brilliant creatives and innovators!  We need more females in tech – don’t be afraid to look into tech, trust me, you won’t regret it”

Fee Webby

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Here at The Mind Lab, I feel very lucky. As an organisation, we have a female CEO, a female General Manager and a number of women in our leadership team and throughout our organisation. 

I’m thrilled to be facilitating a free panel kōrero (part of Techweek21) with some of these incredible and inspiring colleagues who want to share their thoughts, experiences and challenges around women in tech. We’d love you to join us on Wednesday 26th May, 7:30am-9:00am on Zoom. 

View the event webpage for all the details and to register for the Zoom link.

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