Women in tech: why going back in time is a step forward

Here’s a plot twist you were most likely not aware of: did you know that tech has not always been a man's world?

It is estimated that women represented between 30 and 50% of computer science students in the 1950s (1), most of whom went on to work in the digital and tech industries upon graduation (2).

Such levels of gender diversity – which even neared outright parity in the middle of the 20th  century – have now been confined to history. In 2021, women will account for less than 10% of  students at French computer science schools, according to a recent study carried out by Gender Scan. And unsurprisingly, this skewed gender ratio is reflected in a sector that in France is now 77% male. (5)

In the USA, the situation is slightly better, but by no means satisfactory. The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) provides figures regarding the number and proportion of women in CIS (Computing and Information Sciences), indicating that they represent only 21% of bachelor degree students.(3)  The prestigious University of Berkeley plays into stereotypes by entitling its computer course "The beauty & joy of computing" in a misguided attempt to get more girls to enrol. (4)

Between the 1950s and today, when did the turning point take place? Why are there fewer women in tech and computer science now than at the dawn the of computer age? Part of the answer lies in the fact that when the first PCs appeared in the 1980s, they                                                                      were marketed as consumer products for boys and men (6). At the same time, the video game industry was booming - the first PCs were mainly used for playing video games - and it too was mainly aimed at a male audience, as this compilation of video game advertisements from the 1980s shows.

Furthermore, as programming jobs became more prestigious and increasingly well-paid, the sector became more masculine.

Why tech needs to be gender-balanced once more

Today, there is a desire amongst tech stakeholders to return to the gender balance of yore, for several reasons.

First, it is an ethical issue. According to recent estimates, 30% of jobs in France will, in one way or another, be linked to the digital and tech sectors by 2030. No country or no market can deprive itself of its (female) talent! Moreover, given the sector is both lucrative and essential for the future, it currently plays an outsized role in contributing to the growing inequalities in wealth and power between women and men in society.

Moreover, the Human Resources stakes are high too, both in terms of attracting and retaining talent. A phenomenon that has been proven by numerous studies, gender diversity is a driving force for well-being in work teams (in France, gender balanced teams are 14% more likely to declare their work is fulfilling than single-sex ones), creativity and innovation, and therefore overall performance. In this regard, gender-balanced teams perform 20% better in France and 23% better internationally than those which are not, according to Global Compact.

Third, a lack of gender diversity increases the occurrence of psychological and social risks such as sexism. In the Silicon Valley, the turnover of female employees is twice the level of that of men. One explanation for this phenomenon is the “bro culture” (the macho culture of some Silicon Valley programmers), which has a significant impact on the mental health of women at work. (7) In day-to-day life, gender stereotypes take on different forms. For example, a study of women working in Silicon Valley who had been in the industry for more than 10 years, revealed that 87% of them had witnessed colleagues giving precedence to male counterparts when addressing questions, based on the wrong but default assumption that male colleagues were more competent.

Last but not least, the lack of gender balance (and diversity!) in tech has tangible consequences on the quality of the programmes and products which will shape our future. Research into the built-in biases in algorithms has emerged in recent years, and along with it, the notion of algorithmic responsibility. In 2018, computer scientist Joy Buolamwini published a research paper with researcher Timnit Gebru entitled "Gender Shades". Both detail how racial and gender biases also permeate several forms of artificial intelligence. The findings are disturbing: machines identify men better than women, and White people better than anyone with darker skin.

It seems clear that having a diverse set of developers representing various facets of their tech expertise would make it possible to prevent, or at least reduce biases, from the product design stage onward.

What next

Faced with these major challenges, companies in the digital & technology sector must act. Here are a few good practices to implement and foster, at various levels, for more gender diversity:

For budding tech start-ups, it is advisable to think about the issue of gender equality from the onset, and even to include gender equality as a fundamental value of the company. It is also recommended that measures be formally implemented as early as possible to avoid having teams which are not gender-balanced in the future.

For more mature companies, large or small, it is possible to form partnerships with tech schools that specialise in or are well-versed in matters of diversity & inclusion, to systematically communicate job offers to women's networks, to use inclusive visuals and language when communicating job offers...

Internally and externally, whatever their size, they must ensure that they promote female role models and thus contribute to inspiring women in the sector.

They must also ensure that non-discriminatory HR processes are put in place to structure the career paths (work/life balance, promotion, remuneration, etc.)

Finally, raising awareness of gender stereotypes among all employees will have a strong impact on the work group, thus preventing sexist behaviour and language from taking hold.

Implementing these steps, under the aegis of a formal workplace gender equality policy, will make it possible to put the spotlight back on the forgotten pioneers of the tech world.

The issue of workplace gender equality in the tech industry cannot be left to companies alone: the latter must act, hand in hand with policymakers, to attract more women in higher education and training in tech-related courses prior to entering the workforce.

Emilie Fréchet


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