Deborah Thomas, Chief Communications Officer (CCO) at Exasol spoke to Business Leader about the challenges that women in tech are facing in 2021.
In 1995, pioneering computer scientist Anita Borg challenged the technology industry to achieve an equal representation of women in tech by 2020. Twenty-six years on, we’re still very far from that goal as women account for just 17% of employees working in technology companies in the UK. On top of that only 5% of leadership positions are held by women in the technology sector. While I don’t have a technical role per se, I do work in the technology industry (and have done for over 25 years) as do thousands of women covering business functions such as HR, legal, sales, etc.
Statistics like this not only make you question how we can encourage more women to enter the industry but also what needs to be done to attract women into senior and leadership positions because both the workforce and board-level have an under-representation of women.
That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made at all over the years. As an industry, we’re in a much better position than we were a few years ago in terms of speaking about the importance of gender equality. Conversations around diversity and inclusion are becoming engrained within company cultures and initiatives are being introduced to support the progression of women working in technology. But while this is encouraging, more needs to be done to close that gender gap even further.
Erin Teague, Director of Product Management at Google raises a great point on how we can achieve this: “Being a woman…on a team of all men, means that you are going to have a unique voice. It’s important to embrace that.” This is a powerful statement that should inspire women across all industries, not just technology, to trust in their own power and voice. Embracing our differences and having self-belief is one way that we, as women, can fight for equality.
Education is also a critical factor. In order to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry, diversity and inclusion should be taught at schools. Teaching how to be more inclusive shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise for Ofsted – it should be formalised, as part of the curriculum, from nursery age onwards.
In this article, I share my experiences of working in the technology industry – shining a light on the barriers that still exist for women as well as offering some advice on how we can overcome these challenges as we strive for equal representation.
Eradicate gender perception
According to the Women in Tech Survey report, over half of women sadly cited “gender perceptions” – a sad preconception about the characteristics or roles that are or ought to be possessed by a man or woman – as the biggest challenge they face within the industry, and reported that their careers often progress slower than those of men because of gender stereotypes.
In male-dominated industries, like technology, gender bias in the workplace can often mean that women are passed over for promotions and given less responsibility. It can mean that their ideas and comments aren’t heard as often. And, when there is only one woman in a room full of men, she may feel unable to speak out and give her insights.
This is something I’ve experienced when I started my career – I would often walk into a room dominated by dismissive ‘old school’ men who would talk down to me. At the time, that was (sadly) the norm.
I’ve since discovered my own power and voice and have the confidence to stick up for myself and fight for what is right. I urge all women across technology, and other industries, to uncover their power and own it. This will go a long way in eradicating gender perceptions and stereotypes.
Equality shouldn’t cost a thing
Another ongoing challenge is of course the gender pay gap, with around 78% of large organisations admitting to having a gender pay gap in the technology sector. This research found that men were earning more than women and that these women were earning up to 28% less than their male colleagues in the same technology roles.
Women should never feel guilty for asking for a pay rise. I had gone almost two years at a company without a pay rise, despite doing well and getting heaps of recognition. I was worried and nervous about asking for one, so when I finally did it, I did it quietly with loads of justifications. The amazing boss I had at the time said to me “Deb, never, ever feel guilty or hesitant in asking for your worth”. He took the case on and delivered, and then some.
I learnt a solid lesson. One reason why women often get paid less than men is because they are less likely to ask. You should never feel bad about asking for what you’re worth.
Education is key
While using your power and voice to fight for equality in the workplace is one way to overcome these challenges, it’s also important that diversity and inclusion is taught at schools.
What students learn in their early years will heavily influence them long after they have left education, even in ways they may not realise. As teachers and educators, there is a duty to prepare students for the world ahead of them. It’s vital to teach children to understand how our differences do not define us but how we treat others in regards to our differences can.
If the values of individual freedom, mutual respect and acceptance are meaningfully practised in schools, then society, as a whole, will reap the rewards of it in the years to come.
By taking steps now to ensure that more women not only enter the industry but progress in it, we’ll see women become a guiding light that will inspire future generations. We need to continue reversing gender stereotypes, shaking up organisational structures and shifting cultural attitudes so that true gender equality can be reached in the months ahead.