women in STEM
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Anjali Arora, SVP and Chief Product Officer, Rocket Software

A recently resurfaced 1958 issue of an American magazine entitled 129 Ways To Get A Husband suggests searching the census reports for places with the most single men.

It’s 2019, and if you are in the market for a husband, you stand a good chance of finding him in a tech company. A Statista chart based on various tech companies’ diversity reports shows that women only make up 19 per cent of tech employees at Microsoft, and 20 per cent at Google, just to name two of the large industry players. With men currently holding 76 per cent of technical jobs, a lack of diversity is harming the tech industry in more ways than one.

Employing more women in tech is not just a question of ethics but, simply, a question of money. According to a study conducted by The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) gender-balanced companies have a higher productivity rate and perform better financially, particularly when women occupy a significant proportion of top management positions. Furthermore, companies with women on their executive boards outperformed companies with all-male executive boards. The evidence is there as has been for some time – we need more women in the tech industry.

What’s the problem?

So, what’s holding women back? Firstly, there are simply not enough girls entering the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Secondly, those who do are not progressing as much as their male colleagues. Female software developers in the 35+ age group are 3.5 times more likely to be in a junior position than their male counterparts.

We’re STILL not doing enough

Despite the fact that girls are outperforming boys in maths and science at GCSE, a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that girls are deterred from taking these subject at a higher level due to a lack of confidence in their own ability compared to their male counterparts. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy – if girls hear it long enough, this gender-restrictive way of thinking might just become their reality. It’s an attitude that continues into the adult world; many of us might still remember THAT internal memo, where James Damore, now ex-employee at Google, made the assertion that women’s biology is to blame for their lack of tech abilities.

The reality is, of course, different. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), boys and girls performed similarly in the OECD science test, but more boys consider a STEM career than girls. And a report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution measured men’s and women’s digital scores and found that women had stronger skills than men do.

Yet schools and the industry itself are still not doing enough. The results of a PWC study suggest that most girls don’t even consider tech as a career. There is a lack of information about what jobs in the sector involve, and few are putting tech subjects forward as an option. When choosing A-level courses, a lack of confidence is a major issue preventing girls from taking Physics. A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed that over half of girls were worrying about difficult classes or poor grades, despite being predicted 7-9 (A or A*) at GCSE level. The same study showed that two-thirds of high-achieving girls believe STEM jobs are male-dominated – another factor that may be putting people off these subjects. By the time they reach university, just 30 per cent of female students are studying STEM subjects compared with 52 per cent of males.

If you can see it, you can be it

If the image of both STEM subjects and the careers they can lead to is addressed at an early stage in girls’ education, a real impact can be made to bridge the gender gap. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has published a new policy review on improving diversity and inclusion in STEM, with key recommendations for government to improve career guidance and a strategy to increase female take-up of STEM. Ideally, schools need programmes designed specifically to generate and maintain girls’ interest in these subjects if they are to make a real difference.

One way to increase the number of girls wanting a career in tech is to change the image of the industry by shining the spotlight on strong female role models. The PWC study reveals almost 80 per cent of students can’t name a famous female working in technology, while over two thirds can name a famous man. Women who achieve success in the tech sector can share their experiences by teaching a STEM or tech class in school, or by participating in careers events and providing a living demonstration of how rewarding the profession can be.

The Brogrammer culture

The second challenge is getting women into the right jobs and moving up the ladder when they get there. We aren’t going to have role models for young girls until enough people are getting their foot in the door of tech companies, and even this is no mean feat, according to a study by the American Sociology Review. The study revealed that hiring managers have a tendency to employ staff that are culturally similar to themselves, a trend known as “in-group favouritism” which is holding female applicants back and adding to the well-publicised “brogrammer” culture.

This culture persists once a woman does embark on a career in tech. The NCWIT research indicates women in the 25-34 age group are dissatisfied with IT career prospects due to unsupportive working environments and the necessity to make excessive sacrifices in their personal lives. With many women leaving the sector before they make it to the top it’s little wonder there are so few role models to inspire the next generation.

Closing the gap

The gender disparity in STEM is a reality and completely closing the gender gap will continue to be a tall order. But by addressing the image of STEM subjects and tech careers at an early stage in education, by encouraging strong role models to illustrate what a career in tech might look like, and by promoting open and supportive working environments, we might just start to bridge the gap and prove that we have left the mindset of the 50s well and truly behind.