three women in tech working on laptops, gender diversityThe past 12 months has challenged humanity in ways not seen since World War II. But with the devastation comes a wave of opportunity to solve problems that matter.

Today is the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and I want to share my thoughts on why we shouldn’t lose this historic moment to think about the future of women in tech, and why there’s never been a better time to spark a generational change.

Busting the myths that hold women back

While COVID-19 has impacted everyone, there’s no doubt it has hurt women the most. McKinsey & Company’s annual Women in the Workplace study found that women in the United States—especially women of colour—were more likely to have been laid off or furloughed in 2020, stalling their careers and jeopardising their financial security. But COVID-19 has also triggered a transformation, busting long-held myths that have traditionally held women back from taking on roles in the tech sector.

The first of those is the myth that where you live defines what you do. Before COVID-19, it sometimes felt like the tech sector was incredibly exclusive. You needed to live in places like San Francisco or Singapore or London to network with the right people and access enough tech roles to build a thriving career. Of course, only a certain class of people with certain lifestyles want or can afford to live in those cities. COVID-19 has triggered a huge uplift in remote working and it doesn’t look like the trend will reverse anytime soon. In fact, a Gartner study found that 74% of CFOs intend to make remote working permanent for some employees.

This trend has removed many of the geographical barriers to a tech career, which in turn means access to a larger and more diverse pool of candidates. It also applies to education. In the past, you had to go to a lecture hall or classroom to gain a qualification. Now we know that as long as you have internet access, you can dial in from anywhere in the world and learn in a virtual room. Where you live no longer defines your access to good jobs and education. This ultimately benefits women who don’t live in cities with tech hubs, or can’t physically attend classes at reputable education institutions.

The uplift in remote working has also busted the myth that managers need to see you to know you’re working. We busted this a long time ago at Xero, but it’s something that has continued to pervade the industry. Many companies still have a manufacturing mindset, where they believe that hours equals value. It’s that old notion that if a manager can see you sitting at your desk for eight hours a day, it must mean you’re producing work that’s valuable. It’s not only untrue, but also forces women—who are often caregivers and need flexible working arrangements—out of the tech industry.

Moving towards an outcomes mindset

If we ditch the manufacturing mindset, what we’re left with is an outcomes mindset. A workplace that values outcomes over hours. In 2020, our teams reported feeling more productive at work than normal (before COVID-19), and yet flexibility was far greater. We know you may have a sick child at home and need to work around their needs. Or maybe you need to take half an hour every afternoon to pick them up from school. Maybe you want to spend time on a personal hobby in the morning, and work a little later. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the outcomes you produce, not the hours you do.

COVID-19 has taught us that we can still achieve our goals, without having to take time off or negotiate a shorter working week (and it’s important to note that for many women, negotiating less paid hours does not necessarily mean they do less work than their colleagues, in either hours or outcomes). My hope is that other companies realise that remote and flexible working does not equate to lower productivity or reduced outcomes. And that women in tech approach their manager and get super clear on the outcomes they’re expected to deliver, rather than focus on the hours they work.

Solving the right tech problems

An outcomes mindset isn’t just about giving women in tech the flexibility to do the best work of their life. It’s also about bringing more women into the industry at all stages of their career (from new grads to experienced leaders), so we can think deeply about the kind of problems we want to solve. Technology impacts every aspect of society and almost every community across the globe, but we cannot possibly identify the most important problems that need to be solved if we don’t have a balanced and representative workforce.

The tech sector has made so many advancements in recent years, from space travel to electric cars. But the key players who decide where the money will be spent and what problems are solved are still a fairly homogenous bunch. It makes me wonder: what if they weren’t? What kind of problems could we identify and solve if we had a range of genders and ages and backgrounds making decisions at the highest levels? What if the advancements we’ve already made are just the tip of the iceberg?

With a more diverse workforce, maybe we could use technology to help women feel safer at night, or solve mental health issues, or bring people out of poverty and connect them to meaningful work. Maybe we could create new forms of community care, or solve the enduring challenge of having a career and caring for children. The possibilities are endless, and yet without equal participation in the workforce, the problems we solve are only ever going to help a small portion of the community. It’s time to make sure that women in tech have a seat at the table and a voice in the decisions being made.

Sparking curiosity about a tech career

So how do we bring more women into the tech sector? There’s no simple answer. But you can’t be what you can’t see. Early on in my career, someone asked me what women in tech influenced me, and I had to scratch my head to even think of one. Thankfully, there are a few more of us now. I’m proud that 50% of my product leadership team at Xero are women, and that we have programs in place to foster an inclusive and equitable workplace. It’s why Xero is included in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for the second consecutive year. But all women in tech need a clear path in front of them and role models to follow.

The second obvious solution is education. Knowing what problems we should be solving is one thing, but we also need women to have the technical skills to be able to jump in and help us solve them. We are blessed to live in an age where there are a huge number of courses that women can take to upskill in tech (and I should note that when I talk about tech, I don’t just mean learning how to code. The breadth of roles available in tech is enormous—we need women doing everything from product design and research to data science and business insights).

Many of these courses are available online for free on sites like Coursera or Skillshare. And as long as you have access to the internet, you have an opportunity to join the tech sector. We need to show women the variety of career paths available to them in tech. We need to encourage them to upskill in those areas, and—importantly—we need to keep them in the workforce with diversity and inclusion policies, and flexible working arrangements. There has never been a better time to seize this opportunity, and make sure that we are challenging the status quo.

Talking to the women in your life

Tech will enable us to solve most of the challenges that the world currently faces. But if we don’t act now and get more women into the tech sector, the gender gap in tech will become irreversible in our lifetime. The McKinsey Global Institute once suggested that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global growth. But then COVID-19 hit, and in the US alone it has set working women back by more than three decades—to levels of labour force participation last seen in 1988.

So this UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I challenge you to have a conversation with the women in your life. Women of all ages and in all stages of their career. Women of all cultures and backgrounds. Women of all skills and abilities. Tell them about the possibilities that a career in tech offers—an opportunity to solve real problems and make a positive impact on people around the world. Because the more women that understand what’s possible, the more women we’ll have in tech to help us make the world a better place.

About the author

Anna Curzon is the Chief Product Officer of Xero, a global small business platform that has changed the game for its 2.45 million global small business subscribers. She has recently been appointed to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council, by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern.

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