For more women in tech we need to start with the education pipeline
Technology is a male coded sector not just in terms of attracting female talent but retaining them as well
The number of young women in tech, those completing engineering and technology programs, has dropped significantly in the past 30 years. In the 60s, tech vet Naomi Bloom told a group of women at HRTechWorld in Paris, that in her corporate programmer trainee class, women made up 50% of the group. “Today women are significantly underrepresented in technology-related jobs.” This is especially in hands-on tech roles and at leadership levels. So, what is happening in the education pipeline that is causing it to dry up?
And by the education pipeline I mean every way we teach ourselves and our children. Not just formal education from aged 4-25. As with any trend it is a complex mix of social and cultural factors as well as the education process itself. Harriet Minter wrote in the Guardian:
“Instead of finger-pointing, companies need to take responsibility for hiring women rather than creating workforce’s that are just boys’ clubs”
This makes for good copy but doesn’t cover the whole picture. Companies can indeed do a lot more and many are trying out new programmes. It is a male coded sector not just in terms of attracting female talent, but retaining them as well. As I have written before tech needs to disrupt itself. But it’s more than that.
Talent pipeline starts early
The talent pipeline for women in tech starts way before any job application process and even university entry. It’s starts in the education pipeline. Popular culture and socialization during early childhood channel girls into liberal arts or ‘soft subjects’. From the earliest age many girls are encouraged to be “princesses.” Although this isn’t an absolute barrier, I’m sure there are some women in tech who are princesses. But it doesn’t help them on the road to becoming women with technical qualifications.
T-shirts with slogans such as “I’m too pretty to do homework” or “Allergic to algebra” were readily available on the market until 5 years ago. It took a public backlash to get them withdrawn. By that time part of a generation of teenage girls had been fully indoctrinated and had possibly missed a key moment. The education pipeline is already beginning to dry up for that demographic. The teen fashion market is huge (the back to school teen market in the US generates $70 billion) so is unlikely to change its gender-based marketing policies. At a time when girls more than anything want to blend in, this causes a cultural disconnect and confusion.
Their favourite cartoons show their heroines with less speaking parts than the male roles – even when the movie is about girls! Yep even the Little Mermaid. Can you believe that? Tech successes and computer scientists are portrayed in the media and movies as being geeky, scruffy and slightly “on the spectrum” in a garage somewhere. This is in stark contrast to the way girls are encouraged to behave and perceive themselves elsewhere.
Stereotyping & gender norms
“At puberty both boys and girls tend to conform to the stereotype of their gender that they see around them and the stereotype for women tends to be against the kind of woman who chooses to pursue physical sciences and engineering.”
This also occurs at a time when they start to drop out of sport. The U.S. Women’s Sports Association confirms that social stigma plays a role:
“ Despite recent progress, discrimination based on the real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of female athletes persists. Girls in sports may experience bullying, social isolation, negative performance evaluations, or the loss of their starting position. During socially fragile adolescence, the fear of being tagged “gay” is strong enough to push many girls out of the game. “
Girls are not raised to want to stand out and shifting from gender expected roles, produces blow-back as being “unfeminine.” Very often the teasing and bullying can come from other girls. When women display traits, behaviours and interests that are not in line with gender norms, the greatest push back can be from their female class mates. This behaviour travels seamlessly into the workplace. Schools themselves also need to be mindful of their own implicit bias both in their teaching staff and the school’s culture and the way they channel both girls and boys .
“By the end of the schooling process the education pipeline has been reduced to a trickle.”
Single sex schools
However, the type of school attended is also a key factor. Somewhat surprisingly single-sex schools tend to have higher numbers of girls who study scientific subjects. According to NAPPSE the body promoting single sex public education in the US:
When girls and boys are together, they tend to exaggerate the gender differences: this is a very robust phenomenon referred to as either “gender intensification” or more generally “group contrast effects.”
This strong behavioural tendency referred to as either “gender intensification” or more generally “group contrast effects” is pronounced in co-ed schools. So if girls want to become scientists as things stand, separation from the boys seems the best solution currently. Interestingly girls attending single sex schools are also more likely to participate in competitive sports.
Sending female role models into primary schools would be a good place to start. “Women can’t be what they can’t see and hear.”
But single sex education seems artificial given that at some point men and women must work together.
We should also acknowledge that the education pipeline is an ongoing process and doesn’t stop at 21. Creating opportunities to women to retrain at affordable rates or even scholarships offered by companies are all educational options. Organisations can also provide in-house training opportunities. Just because a woman didn’t study tech subjects as a teenager, doesn’t mean to say she lacks competences as an adult to absorb and apply that knowledge.
The bottom line is busting stereotyping myths must come from every element of society and our culture, families, schools, universities, media and our wider culture. All play a role in enforcing stereotypes and perpetuating tech as a boys club. Where Harriet Minter is absolutely right is with skill set deficits in tech at an all time high, the culture that is blocking women playing a greater role will be forced to change. It will have to disrupt itself.
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