What does underrepresentation, and the gender gap in particular, really look like in today's tech industry?
Most people already know that the tech industry looks incredibly homogeneous and lacks diversity in every layer. But the contributing factors and the consequences of this picture are so hard to measure that it's still rare to have an honest discussion about the importance of diversity and reach an agreement on what can be done about it.
To have a meaningful discussion about the topic, we need to first understand the following: what's the current state of underrepresentation in tech? What's the background and main cause behind it? Why is the lack of diversity a problem in the first place? Why should businesses care?
There's plenty of anecdotes and heated arguments one can make to answer each one of these questions, but don't take my word for it; let's look at the numbers below and you can reach your own conclusion.
Focus: the gender gap in tech
Diversity and inclusion is incredibly multifaceted, so I'll focus on one of the groups with the most research and data available for this article: the gender gap in tech. To start with a general baseline, we can look at the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum.
The report analyzes four subindexes and attributes a score to each one that represents how close (or far) we are from achieving gender equality in each aspect. The lower the score, the wider the gap is (check out the full report for a detailed explanation on how each subindex is measured).
From 153 economies analyzed in the 2020 report, Political Empowerment and Economic Participation & Opportunity are still the categories where the gender gap is the widest.
How does tech relate to all that? Well to begin with, tech is one of the fastest growing segments of today's market, with more than $3b invested in it every year and tons of economic opportunities. Not to mention it's also one of the most flexible and high-paying industries, which could be a great catalyzer for narrowing the gender gap in Economic Participation & Opportunity.
Yet women hold less than 26% of the computer science related roles, as low as 15% in engineering, and the numbers for the future don't look so promising either.
Most industries are integrating modern technologies like data, AI, and cloud computing into their future, and so it's quite concerning to see that women are only about 12–26% involved in this.
What happened (and is still happening) to women in tech?
If we look at history, women were highly involved in the early ages of computer science, with pioneers like Grace Hopper, Dorothy Vaughan and Elsie Shutt, and made computer programming seem like a perfectly normal option for women.
But after 1984, around the same time personal computers became a thing, the numbers of women in tech started dropping drastically and so far haven’t recovered. One of the main reasons is that personal computers were marketed as ‘toys for boys’. Since gender roles and stereotypes were already fairly strong in society, the push from the marketing and entertainment industry just emphasized that narrative.
‘But aren't stereotypes a result of tendency or observation of reality? Are women really interested in computer science? Women seem to be naturally more inclined and/or better at humanities.’
Although not completely unfounded, these arguments do not explain the gender gap and how wide it is. Research shows that despite women and men showing biological differences that could affect the tendency of behaviors or interests, it is basically impossible to make an analysis that excludes the influence of the external environment. And of course, no research shows any difference in ability between men and women in skills commonly required for technology roles.
But more importantly, even if women and men do show a natural difference in interests or affinity, are we portraying computer science correctly? The field is usually associated with hard sciences and math, computer "geeks" and "anti-social hackers". But if we really look into tech roles, we realize that some of the most important skills have far less to do with hard science, and a lot more to do with creative problem-solving and understanding real-world applications of the technology.
Besides the entry barriers, the technology sector also suffers from a very low retention of women over the years. A study by NCWIT shows that more than half of women in tech leave the industry mid-career (which is double the rate for men), and 73% say they have considered leaving tech at some point in their careers.
2017's ISACA's Women In Technology survey tells us that two of the top challenges women face in this industry are a lack of mentors and role models. To illustrate that, try thinking about someone who you would consider a role model in tech. Who do you think of off the top of your head? Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page? That's no surprise. A study based on LinkedIn data shows that women are severely underrepresented in all levels of leadership across the tech industry and the numbers are even lower for high-level leadership roles like VPs, C-level executives and positions on a board of directors. In fact, less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and until around 2016 there were more CEOs named "John" than female CEOs.
Past the lack of role models and mentors, the next big barrier for women in tech is the gender bias in the workplace. As noted previously, there are still strong stereotypes about the roles of women and men in society and family, and the workplace is no exception. Yes, most of the bias may be unconscious, but it doesn't mean it's not harmful, and it contributes significantly to the statistics mentioned above. For example, research from Frontiers In Psychology shows that men are more often judged by their leadership potential and women by demonstrated performance. That, added to the fact that leadership is still mainly associated with predominantly masculine traits, delays the overall career progression for women while accelerating it for men.
We know that no one is completely free of unconscious bias, not even women. In fact, research from PayScale reveals that women are more likely to be promoted by women, while men are more likely to be promoted by men. Given that the majority of decision-making positions are still held by men, it's no surprise that this similarity bias works against closing the current gender gap.
The slow growth and poor retention of mid-career and senior women in the workforce is directly related to the existing gender pay gap. In 2020, women still make only $0.81 for every dollar a man makes.
Despite some industries still having a wide, controlled pay gap (difference in pay for men and women with the same job and qualifications), the gap is much wider on an overall comparison between all men and all women, regardless of job type, seniority, location, industry, years of experience, etc. This is due to the lack of women in the highest-paying jobs or roles. Another worrying factor is the percentage of women in part-time or non-career jobs; in Japan alone, 55% of the working women are in "irregular" positions, which are typically not career-track jobs. That figure is 23% for men. The Global Gender Gap Report also shows that the number of hours spent in unpaid domestic work is negatively correlated to economic participation.
Why should my business care?
Given the background on the state of the gender gap and the most relevant causes behind it, it's important to ask how this actually affects businesses. So here are a few reasons why you and your business should care about having proper gender representation, and making sure your products and services are inclusive.
Diverse teams have better ideas and perform better
There are countless studies that arrive at the same conclusion. Forbes analyzed 600 business decisions made by 200 different teams and the result shows that diverse teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time; teams that follow an inclusive process make decisions 2x faster with half the meetings; and that the decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60% better results.
Inclusive products & services reach a larger audience, non-inclusive ones can have severe consequences
Part of what makes diverse teams better is that they are usually a more accurate representation of the diverse audience products and services are targeted at. That means higher chances of having your customer's perspective built into all your business processes. Not only does that make for better business decisions (like seen in the research above), but it can also save companies from severe consequences of being non-inclusive. For example, several industries fail to test their products on a diverse sample group, meaning that we currently have chemical research, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) tests, tech gadgets and even automotive safety equipment designed for "the average male body". This leaves women and minorities either uncomfortable, unserved, or unprotected.
Diverse leadership is correlated with business success
In 2017, McKinsey published a study with 300 global companies across 10 different countries that showed how companies with the most women on their executive committees had a 47% higher average return on equity than those with none, and 55% higher operating results.
Another study on 1,700 companies across 8 countries observed a significant relationship between diversity and innovation outcomes, highlighting that the more dimensions of diversity being represented (gender, age, national origin, career path, industry background, etc.), the stronger the relationship was.
If none of the points above have convinced you on why your business should care about gender representation and diversity as a whole, here are some other factors to consider:
- Diversity & inclusion is a part of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) factors that have been increasingly recognized by investors as critical determinants in the success or failure of corporations. Therefore, companies that invest in diversity are considered more attractive investments, while companies that ignore it are seen as higher-risk.
- When a company invests in a D&I-centered employee experience, everyone wins: there's an overall boost in employee engagement and retention rates are higher.
What can we do about it?
If you already understand the state of the gender gap in the workforce, the main causes of underrepresentation in tech, and why this is a problem for your business, now is the time to take action. What can we, as leaders in this industry, do to help close the gender gap and increase diversity in our companies?
Diversity can only work by investing in four main areas: attract, develop, retain and promote.
Overall as a society we can work to make the tech field more attractive and interesting to diverse candidates. For example, Harvey Mudd College was able to increase their percentage of women majoring in computer science from 10% to 40% in 4 years by making their program more attractive and approachable to female students. A similar idea can be applied to job descriptions by replacing terms or tone that turn down certain groups of people.
Companies, recruiters, and hiring managers can make use of non-traditional recruiting channels to reach out to more candidates from underrepresented groups. There are several specialized job boards, non-profit organizations and communities that offer a more diverse talent pool than regular channels. It's critical to increase the percentage of diversity in the candidate pool, otherwise there's statistically no chance of making more diverse hires.
Another way of not only attracting diverse talent, but also retaining them in your company later on, is to invest in more flexible and inclusive work policies and environments.
- Are your benefits and HR policies inclusive of everyone? I.e. Flexible work hours, remote work, childcare allowance, parental leave for all types of parents, family benefits that include same sex partners, etc.
- Is your workspace safe and comfortable for everyone? I.e. accessibility for special needs, praying room, gender neutral bathrooms, etc.
Lastly, in addition to increasing diversity in your pipeline, it's also important to try to mitigate unconscious bias as much as possible in your hiring process. One proven approach is to anonymize your applications to remove some triggers of unconscious bias. Another thing to consider is revising your selection criteria, since more traditional practices tend to exclude candidates with a less traditional career path or education background.
Develop & retain
Another important factor to increase diversity in your workforce is to adopt practices to develop and retain the diverse talent you already have.
Members of underrepresented groups may lack confidence or inspiration to step up to a new role or challenge. Managers can help by managing these members' careers more proactively.
- Guide and encourage them to take on new challenges.
- If you can't be a mentor or role model, help them find a suitable one.
- Recognize and promote achievements or ideas from members that tend to be overlooked or quiet.
Even without explicit diversity goals, mentorship programs are very effective in attracting minorities seeking growth, and increase the exposure of senior members to more diversity.
Another common and successful practice is the establishment of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), where internal communities are formed bottom-up by employees based on a common interest or cause, and empowered by leadership with organizational and funding support. ERGs are a great way to foster psychological safety, a sense of belonging, and even growth opportunities for employees from underrepresented or marginalized groups.
Lastly, it's extremely important to frequently survey your employees to know how they feel about their work settings and company environment. Make sure the survey is anonymous or keep all the personally identifiable information private. If possible, try to conduct aggregated diversity analysis on your data (to identify trends or challenges in specific groups).
The fourth pillar of diversity is ‘promote’, but this does not necessarily mean the act of giving someone a typical job promotion. It refers to the broader concept of creating awareness, visibility, and role models. Visibility is not only important in making underrepresented people feel valued, but by making visible success cases and role models it contributes to the cycle of attracting more diversity (breaking stereotypes and inspiring underrepresented minorities).
Leaders can help promote diversity by using their influence to be an ambassador for diversity as a whole, or a sponsor for specific initiatives or employees.
- Show your commitment to D&I on decision making: don’t stay quiet when you see an opportunity to add a D&I perspective to a discussion.
- Public support and representation: be an amplifier for minorities’ voices and a role model for other leaders.
- Sponsor D&I initiatives inside your company.
- Bring attention to impactful work done by underrepresented employees: sponsor them to get a seat at the table and have their voices heard.
Some diversity initiatives can hurt more than help if not executed properly. They are still worth looking into, but they have to be handled with care.
Diversity quotas & mandatory diversity training
Both initiatives can backfire and generate resentment: not only from majority groups that may feel minorities are receiving preferential treatment, but also for members from minority groups, as they can feel "tokenized" and unworthy of their job, position or promotion. Better than mandated quotas are aspirational goals, and the commitment to solve the whole pipeline problem rather than just the acceptance rate. Better than mandatory diversity training is voluntary training, focused on engaging existing ambassadors and recruiting allies with a positive message.
Skill tests and objective employee assessment
According to HRB's research, you can't just outlaw bias. The study showed that implementing skill tests to try to reduce bias on candidate selection was still generating skewed results. In the end, managers had the final decision on how to administrate or interpret the test results, and bias was still present in these assessments. Of course, having a general guide for competencies and skills, a career growth framework, and a defined promotion system are good things for all employees, but they do not guarantee an unbiased employee assessment. The most important point is to engage leaders and managers to voluntarily care and learn to identify their own biases.
In the end, this is what we can all do: educate ourselves, share our knowledge to engage others, and start taking action today.