Overcoming bias in the tech industry


Article provided by Emma Sayle, Founder and CEO Killing Kittens, Safedate and Sistr

It is a stark fact that the tech industry – like so many industries linked to science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM) – remain disproportionately represented by men.

Just 16 per cent of computer science undergraduates in the UK are women, which means there is an automatic gender bias on graduates reaching the big tech companies. This bias continues deep into the economy, with only one fifth of UK businesses currently run by women and only a third of all UK entrepreneurs are female.  Balancing the books on gender is one of the most important challenges facing our society today because without equal opportunities, we put creativity, growth and diversity at risk.

The lack of female business owners and entrepreneurs is not due to lack of talent or aptitude.  Sistr – an all-female dedicated networking site for women in business – is proof that there are plenty of exceptional and talented women who have launched careers and defined new businesses with phenomenal success.  The long-standing bias towards men in the tech industry makes the achievements of these female-led ventures even more remarkable, especially when you consider only one per cent of investment funding goes to women.

But times are changing and whereas women still are very much the minority in the tech and STEM world, more women than ever before are taking advantage of the digital economy and the fact that anyone can start a business from anywhere, anytime.  The traditional playing field has already changed beyond recognition and the old rules no longer apply, which can only mean more opportunities for women as they start to populate male-biased industries and deliver new business models.

Whilst it will take a long time for more equal representation in tech industry and STEM, there is now a wealth of talented and influential female-led communities that are committed to helping women access all areas of business, as well as launching their own ventures.  This support and inspiration is key to helping today’s business-women push past attitude and gender barriers to reach their full and rightful potential.  What is remarkable about these communities, like Sistr, is the number of qualified mentors who have willingly agreed to give up their time to talk to women and share their own experiences of female leadership in business, helping them to navigate the challenges and bias they face in their careers today.

Perhaps one of the most obvious bias that many women will face is that of parenthood, a bias that is prevalent not just in male-dominated sectors but from society as a whole.  Subconsciously or not, there is an assumption that younger, childless women will want to have children and will therefore stop working at some point; whereas women with children are doubted on their ability to manage their career successfully alongside their parenting role.  For older mothers who have decided they want to launch a business, there is an undercurrent of it being seen as little more than a hobby now that they have children and are not in full-time work.

Taking on a male-led industry requires grit and determination because the fact remains that women continue to be unfairly judged on many variables that have nothing to do with their competency and ability to lead a business.  Re-balancing the gender equation in tech is key to creating a work environment that celebrates and supports diversity, rather than making women feel they have to be more ‘male’ in order to succeed.  Women need to have more self-belief in their ability to succeed and this is where a supportive mentor and access to like-minded female-networks can make a powerful difference.

Ultimately, in order to really tackle gender disparity, we need to start from the grass roots up to help educate the next generation that gender is not a barrier to any industry.  There has to be a deliberate and conscious change in dialogue, from the earliest of ages in our homes and schools, to stem the flow of gender-bias reaching the workplace, because if a young woman starts to doubt if she has got what it takes to launch her own business, the damage has already been done.

Emma Sayle featuredAbout the author

Emma is the Founder of Sistr, a platform that enables professional businesswomen to network, offer advice and mentor each other.

Find out more at You can also sponsor Emma and the rest of the Sisterhood for their Channel Swim.

Woman typing on laptop, flexible working, gender bias

Gender bias in employment benefits holding back women in tech

Woman typing on laptop, flexible working, gender bias

Gender bias in employment benefits is holding back women in tech, according to new research from Mason Frank International.

The report found that there are key gender differences in desired benefits and actual benefit entitlement in the tech industry.

Flexible and home working are the most-desired employment benefits among women in the tech industry, but the stigma attached to these is having a negative impact on work-life balance and career progression.

These findings are now being discussed as part of a wider issue of female representation in the technology sector, with employers being challenged to review not only the employee benefits they offer, but also attitudes towards those benefits throughout the business.

Over 2,500 tech professionals were surveyed in Mason Frank’s study, of which 30 per cent were female.

When asked which benefits they desire most, 22 per cent of female respondents indicated home and flexible working were important to them, compared to only 19 per cent of men. This is significant when compared to actual entitlement, where there’s a great disparity between the genders.

Despite women having a strong desire for home working, only 58 per cent are offered this employment benefit, compared to 64 per cent of men. There’s an even greater difference when looking at flexible working hours; the benefit is enjoyed by 54 per cent of men, compared to just 42 per cent of women.

As women are more likely to be juggling caring responsibilities, totalling at around 60 per cent more unpaid work a week through parental or elderly care, the chances of career burnout is far greater in females, signalling a greater need for flexible working.

While entitlement to benefits like these is disproportionate across the genders, there’s also a sentiment that flexible and home working creates more work for others, or will lead to negative outcomes.

This is not only reducing the number of people making flexible working requests, but also potentially holding back those who do, with working mothers the largest segment who’d felt this negative impact.

These attitudes are at odds with research around flexible working, where employees have shown increased engagement and productivity by working remotely. Nevertheless, it offers an explanation as to why more and more women are going part-time, self-employed, or even taking career breaks.

With Mason Frank’s research also showing that flexible and home working would make a woman more likely to accept a job role, not offering these benefits to all staff could be handicapping gender representation even at the initial intake stage.

Speaking about the research, Zoë Morris, President at Mason Frank International, said, "It's incredibly important to drill down on all things that could inhibit an employee's development."

"Particularly in the tech sector, where female representation is so low and the skills gap is so vast."

"Exploring feelings towards benefits and entitlement is a good way to measure what support employees want against what they're actually receiving."

"It's disappointing to see that fewer women have access to flexible working than men, even though it's a benefit they prioritise higher."

"But given the attitudes held towards women who work flexibly, particularly working mothers, it's unsurprising that some choose not to use it even when they have the option."

James Lloyd-Townsend, Chairman and CEO at Mason Frank International added, "I think the most eye-opening part of this research is the negative attitudes held towards flexible working."

"Clearly employers need to take steps not just to offer these benefits to all staff members, but to educate them on why they're availabe and how they can help the business."

"Only when employees feel supported in working flexibly, and have no concerns around how it will impact their career progression, will they truly being to flourish."

Female Virtual assistant featured

The harmful impact of female virtual assistants

Katie Gibbs, Head of AI, BJSS

Female Virtual assistantFemale virtual assistants have a harmful impact on female empowerment. They are the antithesis of gender equality in the technology industry, and we must demand better from the technology providers developing these systems. 

There has been a lot of noise in the media recently regarding female voice assistants reinforcing gender bias, such as UNESCO submitting a warning about the danger of them due to their portrayal of women as submissive and eager to please. The gendering of voice assistants has been a concern of mine since they started arriving on the market, and I make a concerted effort to design conversational AI around a ‘bot personality’ rather than a human in order to prevent such gender bias.

Research firm Canalys estimates that approximately 100 million smart speakers were sold globally in 2018, and Gartner estimates that by 2020 people will be having more conversations with voice assistants than their other half. This highlights that this is a growing problem; as the audience of virtual assistants grows, the problem of gender bias is exacerbated, so we cannot wait any longer to take action.

If you’re wondering what’s the big deal, then let’s take a moment to think about what voice assistant represents. They have been designed to do our bidding at a single command, no questions asked. The fact that they are being represented as female reinforces some dangerous mindsets and behaviours when it comes to treating women.

One of the issues is that the voices are clearly female, and there’s no clear reason as to why this design choice was made. Research has been carried out on the impact of male and female voices and found that the majority of people prefer interacting with someone who has a low-pitched, aka male voice, to a high pitched one. It’s worth noting that in this same research paper it was concluded that women with higher pitched voices are perceived as more attractive, which makes you wonder whether the designers of voice assistants thought that this would improve user engagement. Researchers are developing a genderless digital voice called Q, but in the meantime, there are actions that we can take, from naming conventions to tone of voice to address the gender imbalance that is being presented today.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, is named after the Greek goddess Hera, symbolising the home and family and essentially representing domesticity. Apple has Siri, which takes its name from a Nordic term meaning “the beautiful woman that leads you to victory”. They have been designed (by predominantly male teams) to not only symbolise femininity, but the tone of voice was originally designed to be flirty and coquettish. In November 2016, if you told Siri “I’m naked”, she would respond with “And here I thought you loved me for my mind. Sigh.” Apple redesigned Siri’s tone of voice in June 2017, which saw a leap forward in the response to the above intent: “That is both inappropriate and irrelevant”. This clearly highlights that Apple recognises that it made some poor choices when it came to designing Siri the first time around. But there is still so much more to do.

Yet this extends beyond the market leaders. Most financial services organisations now have a chatbot to respond to menial queries 24/7. A retail banking giant has a chatbot named Amy presented alongside a photo of an attractive woman, Deutsche Bank’s Debbie helps market traders. Such service-based bots tend to be female, whereas intelligence-based bots tend to be male such as IBM’s Watson. ING have demonstrated this gender divide by having Marie deal with retail customers on Facebook Messenger and who, according to Tim Daniels a programme manager for ING, was given the name “because it conjures up an image of someone who is helpful and friendly,”  yet ING’s chatbot that deals with corporate customers is called Bill.

These design choices are harmful as they are iterating that a woman’s place in the business world is as an assistant, so we should be pushing back to make them gender neutral. There are no proven benefits from having a virtual assistant with a gendered name or being associated with a photo of a woman. In fact, California has recently introduced a ban on bots pretending to be human, they will have to disclose that they are not a human. The intention was to prevent bots from having such a widespread impact during elections as they did in 2016, but this is also a positive move for the gendering of such bots, as if they chatbot needs to clearly identify itself as such, then it cannot pretend to be female or male.

In short, the future of virtual assistants should not be gendered, they should not have programmed responses that iterate harmful gender stereotypes and they should not be marketed as a tool for female servitude. I’m amazed that’s it’s continued for so long, as it compromises all efforts the tech industry is making to drive gender equality. It’s time that we, as consumers, demand a change before female virtual assistants become even more widespread in both home life and within business. The future of women in tech is not as assistants, as we will continue working to defy this insulting stereotype that is being propagated.

Katie GibbsAbout the author

Katie leads the BJSS Artificial Intelligence team to help organisations to cut through the AI hype to identify and deliver business value from AI.  Before taking on this role Katie has worked for Heron AI, Leading a highly skilled Consulting and Delivery team to work with enterprise clients using a service design led approach to identify the best fit for AI solutions to solve complex business challenges.

Fiona Shepherd

Why we should recognise gender bias progress before setting new UK boardroom targets


Fiona Shepherd, CEO of April-Six, shares why we need to recognise the tech sector’s progress on gender bias within UK boardrooms before we set new targets for success.

Outside the entrance to Swansea station there is a quote from Dylan Thomas that simply reads – ‘Ambition Is Critical’. I couldn’t agree more. A constant sense of ambition is what drives so many of us to succeed. For me, it’s been central to everything I have done during my time in the technology sector.

Fiona Shepherd, CEO of April-Six, CompTIABut what about recognition for what we have already achieved? Is it OK to keep pushing for more without a nod to the progress we have made? This week’s figures from the Davies Report into ‘Women on Boards’ have shown that almost 25 percent of all executives in the boardrooms of the FTSE 100 are now female. It’s immediately led to claims that this doesn’t achieve the targets set out by Lord Davies when he began his review; and a series of calls to make this more than 30 percent or consider it a failure of British business.

I agree that balance is required and a more even ratio should always be the target. But I can’t help sense that we’re looking at these numbers in a vacuum, and when you consider them in a broader context, we seem to have missed a real opportunity to recognise how far we have come and celebrate change.

Take the technology sector for example – the sector where I have always focussed my time. A report earlier this year from Ernst and Young showed that when you break down the number of female board members in the FTSE 100 by sector, technology shows that female board level representation is at 24%. A similar report covering the top US 100 technology companies from the Korn/Ferry Institute, an American recruitment research specialist, showed female representation at 14%. This is a huge gap – far bigger than you would expect given the comparative sizes of our economies and technology sectors.

In reality, technology leadership in the UK is booming for women. If we start to pull apart the sector we can see the considerable impact women are now having on the progress of technology in this country. At the Government level key strategic roles are now held by female leaders including Sarah Wilkinson at the Home Office, Baronesses Martha Lane Fox, Pauline Neville Jones and Joanna Shields. These people are defining the pathway for how UK society will experience technology in the coming decades. Within industry, key positions of authority are held by Trudy Norris-Grey, GM at Microsoft; Jane Moran, CIO at Unilever; Susan Cooklin CIO at Network Rail; and Catherine Doran, CIO at Royal Mail to name but a few. And of course we can identify a considerable female entrepreneurial base in the innovation space, including Maggie Philbin, Sherry Coutu, and Dame Wendy Hall.

We have achieved some extraordinary changes in the UK when it comes to the balance of power in the technology sector. The gender bias so often associated with technology is starting to fall back. I agree entirely that we have to strive to do more and ensure that we are making the most of the fantastic cadre of female leaders in the space today but pushing forwards. But whilst we must be ambitious; let’s also recognise how far we have come. Ambition is critical; recognition is vital.

Fiona Shepherd is the CEO of April Six, a global technology marketing agency and sits on the board of the AIM-listed Mission Marketing Group. She has worked in the technology sector for more than 25 years and now leads a global team supporting the B2B marketing needs of some of the world’s largest technology brands.