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Women are rightfully reclaiming their role in the technology sector

Often, the technology industry is held up as one of the very worst for gender diversity, yet it has not always been as male dominated as it is today – in fact, from the 1940s, women led major developments in programming and software development. In 1984, 37% of computer-science majors were women; at the time coding was a considered a rote skill – like typing – and considered more suited to women.

Today, technology is ubiquitous – at home or at the office – often based on consumers pushing for it. Gaming is arguably the main driver fulfilling Bill Gate’s vision for a computer in every home and it is largely, but not deliberately, responsible for the gender skew we see in tech more broadly.

Tech started out gender neutral

In the late 70s and early 80s, as home gaming hit the market, games were gender neutral. Figuring out noughts and crosses or the digitisation of Pong drove the industry – not shoot ‘em ups. In fact, one of the biggest selling personal games ever, in its day, was developed and co-written by a remarkable woman, Lori Cole for Sierra – the Quest for Glory series. So, what went wrong? In a nutshell; marketing happened.

In the early days of consoles and hand-helds (think Asteroid, Avalon, Tetris) the industry almost drowned in low quality, disappointing games but people still wanted to be a part of it. At its peak, the revenues for video games in the US sat at USD 3.2 billion in 1983. By 1985, revenues fell a whopping 97% to approximately USD 100 million. Nintendo stepped in and saved the industry with a quality guarantee, but suddenly marketing appeared in an industry that didn’t know who was buying and playing its games. It hadn’t really been terribly important until then.

Game Boys, not Game Kids

Marketing is about identifying and understanding a target market and, in those days, for reasons not entirely clear, consoles became boy toys and gaming – along with everything else computer software related – evolved with that in mind. Nintendo’s industry saving solution was called a Game Boy. The industry’s male focus for marketing became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Today, only one in four computing jobs is held by a woman. Programming isn’t a male or female skill and remembering this is essential to address the tech industry’s widening skills gap. It’s possible that the advent of the smartphone and the plethora of non-gendered games will help attract women back into the industry they helped build. It has exploded – the ability for everyone to have a powerful computer in their pocket, or purse, means technology is everywhere and we want it to work for women. So they should most definitely be in the business, whether its hardware, software or some other aspect.

What companies can do

Of course, these days the tech world is not just about coding: while females need to be encouraged to study more technology-based subjects, there are many things companies can do to attract and retain women. Jobsite was part of a large study last year to explore how we can close the skills gap in the UK, and encouraging women is one key option. It brings other benefits too, including much sought-after diversity of opinion and thought. After all, women are around half of the population, so products, services and solutions need to be designed to include them as well.

More women are entering the tech world and, whilst it may be slower than ideal, there is a definite increase. Just over 30 per cent of female respondents in a Computer Weekly survey last year had been in a tech job for less than five years, compared to 19 per cent of men. In the more experienced part of the IT workforce, 70 per cent of men have been in tech for 10 years or more, compared with just 45 per cent of women. If women can be retained in the sector, this is a positive rebalancing.

Hard & soft skills

Sometimes firms focus too much on technical skills when hiring staff, without considering what other skills are needed for tech roles. Often, as the tech industry has grown, people who could be trained to fill a role are overlooked in favour of the few people who have the specific skills needed to walk straight in, which has led not only to a gender gap, but also a skill one.

Not only are employers often failing to consider soft skills, but many also still suffer from an unconscious bias, making them more likely to hire people who are like them, leaving out the diverse applicants, be it women, older candidates or other less-represented groups.

Retaining women

Once women have joined, it is not enough for companies to sit back and think they have achieved diversity. This is not the full picture and without changes, women will leave the sector.

Women in technology tend to leave the field within ten years and this is often because they feel unsupported to make other life decisions, like having children. If companies have a clearly articulated retraining policy for women in highly technical roles, like coding, they are more likely to return to work after a break to have children. We found that women valued remote working (76 per cent) and career progression opportunities (72 per cent) as key workplace benefits, for example.

Remote working goes a long way to putting an end to the “Dilbert Era” perception of the IT workplace and an increasing number of entrepreneurial tech companies are making the field more attractive to a broader range of people.

The workplace has changed, but there is a clear historical precedent for women doing exceptionally well in technology and bringing them back into the fold solves many challenges for UK businesses. Tech firms that act upon the growing skills shortage by hiring from a more diverse pool of candidates will likely reap the many rewards, leaving those that don’t paying over the odds for the remaining ‘traditional’ applicants left in contention.

Nick GoldAbout the author

Nick Gold is CEO of Jobsite.

Nick joined Jobsite in December 2014 as Chief Executive Officer.

Since 2016 Nick is COO for StepStone UK with overall responsibility for the sales and customer service organisation in the UK market.

Before joining the StepStone Group, Nick held management roles at Sage and Lexis Nexis. He was a member of the management team at Emailvision (now SmartFocus) as the company grew to become one of the world’s largest Email Service Providers in a very competitive market.

Nick holds an undergraduate degree in Management from Liverpool and an MSc in International Business from UMIST.