More gender diversity in tech: what's the solution?

Apart from following IT news, development technologies evolution and trends, I’m also really interested in ethics and social matters in tech: (gender) diversity, intelligent and fair use of innovation, social inclusion, and green IT.

Having read and heard a lot about the issues and the solutions for women diversity in IT, I wanted to summarize all the ideas here and analyze what’s the go-to solution to solve the lack of balance between men* and women* in STEM.

For brevity, I’ll use the terms “man/men”, “boy(s)”, “girl(s)” and “woman/women” to refer as what most people would use to define their peers, the goal is not to make people who don’t fit in these “categories” invisible.

Let’s first think about why it’s important to make sure women are more present in the tech field than it’s currently the case:

Gender diversity: why are we “forcing” women into IT

Image source Pixabay

I unfortunately often read that the campaigns for diverse-IT want to “force” women where they maybe don’t belong or don’t want to be. Well, situation surely isn’t that simple.

First, there are still tons of clichés stating that girls and women are better at literature and care than math or engineering. This starts really early, when teachers would let most girls feel like they’re naturally bad at math, because of biological reasons.

Those stereotypes are so well accepted and spread that it’s difficult for women to take the path of engineering, that parents would easily prevent their daughters from choosing hard science paths because they’d think girls would fail at it (may it be conscious or unconscious).

So talk about a choice…

From a social point of view, preventing women from entering the IT field is keeping them away from a stable career with lots of opportunities to grow and take responsibilities, from higher salaries, from rewarding jobs… Women are way more likely to suffer poverty than men, because they’re more likely to have part-time, low-pay or temporary jobs. It’s high time jobs get distributed in a fairer way amongst the work force.

In any field, IT is becoming more and more important and we can hardly imagine a job where computers aren’t used at all apart from craftsmanship jobs (even there, tech can be present). It means everyone with even ground knowledge of IT is better prepared for the (near!) future than others. It means even more inequalities between men and women coming soon if we keep women away from STEM.

I could also add that, as a woman, I feel like I should have the right to be represented fairly in all places where decisions are made. Because IT tools are so important in our daily, professional and personal, life, people conceiving them should represent fairly the population that will use them. And hey, women are about half the population…

So, what’s the solution against gender inequality in IT?

There is not one simple magic answer to solve the problem. There are a lot of actions out there, some with impact, some with few impact, some just a quick fix to a more profound problems that people refuse to tackle… Mixing them all together, doing, analyzing and rectifying will allow everyone to move forward.

One thing is for sure: if we do nothing, equity could only be reached after many decades, or maybe even centuries…

Role Models: inspiring by example

Women are underrepresented in a lot of fields. We don’t even notice that they’re only a small part of main characters in the media (except for girly-girls movies, which narrows the roles of girls and women a lot…).

Harvard Business Review, Tackling the Underrepresentation of Women in Media

For girls and women to be able to imagine themselves as managers, techies, presidents, entrepreneurs… they need to think it’s doable, then see other women succeed in those fields. As IT positions are almost all filled by men, it’s easy to understand that girls and women can’t imagine themselves filling those same positions.

That’s the motivation behind the whole “Women in IT role models” campaigns. But role models have to be well chosen in order for the strategy to pay off.

As Isabelle Collet, IT scientist and researcher, author of the book “Les oubliées du numériques” (that could roughly be translated by “The forgotten females of IT”), points out regularly, unreachable models could have a negative impact.

Isabelle is promoting the “role-models” strategy of course: her book is about the women who made the tech world but we hardly hear about! But there’s a negative effect in those campaigns if we only show the women who had an amazing career, were born gifted, became superstars, received the Nobel price

Girls and women have to be able to compare their situation with the models’ one, otherwise they could think they’re unattainable. Status quo.

So what’s working? Well, every woman working in STEM should be their own advocate and share their successes, journey, including the difficulties they had to and managed to overcome. This, from the junior developer to the top IT manager.

Women would tend to see this as bragging, or would be more perfectionist and then never showcase their work because they feel it’s not good enough. Accept to be imperfect, in the making (like any single human on Earth, whatever their gender), and talk about your achievements, even if they seem insignificant.

Quotas: make the room for women

Quotas is probably to most debated question in equity matter! Most people in place refute the fact that they are privileged because of their gender, ethnicity and family background, then see quotas as unfair to them and their peers.

This is denying that some group of people are underprivileged and that not belonging to the dominating group makes everything harder. This is also denying that a fair society would distribute opportunities amongst all groups, and allow everyone to be represented fairly.

If you truly think that you deserved what you have only thanks to what you achieved, your competences and your efforts, quotas shouldn’t scare you at all (wink wink).

Women are as capable as men if they are given equal opportunities from the start (which is not the case currently), so there’s no reason to accept a situation were they’re kept apart from most decision making and innovation fields.

Also, because there are so many open jobs in tech, there is definitely room for everyone interested and motivated!

Interest girls in STEM

Image source Pixabay

Even though that’s not the only problem (many studies have shown that women have more degrees than men but get fewer high positions, and that a lot of women quit their jobs in “manly” sectors because of harassment or sexism), having more girls study STEM would of course lower the gap.

The major problem here is that interesting girls in math, computers, hard sciences… today would only start to solve the problem in minimum 15 years. That would be in a perfect world were parents and teachers are able to drop their stereotypes right now and all girls are allowed to pursue the path that appeals to them.

It has to be done but won’t solve the issue alone.

However, let’s remember that education is not only for kids, teens and young adults. Women (everyone in fact) can attend adulthood training to make a career shift. It can be a Bachelor or Master degree (day or night courses), or a training out of school.

The advantage of short-term (less than a year) out-of-schools trainings is that trainees are taught the newest technologies and trained to be job-ready with a lot of hands-on practice.

But then comes another issue: employers have to accept those new profiles and see the benefits of hiring people who had another career before tech. Aiming only for high degrees profiles to fulfill developers positions might be a bit outdated and not coherent with the actual market needs…

If employers manage to shift their point of view and put a priority on soft skills, hands-on experience and know-how instead of degrees, it allows for the underprivileged ones to get better opportunities.

Again, let’s remember that access to higher education is a privilege and that having a degree doesn’t make you a better suited person for a job.

Hey, lower your guns! I’m not saying degrees aren’t worth anything and you with a master degree are in all cases less suited than someone else. Just saying the piece of paper doesn’t make the person, and that not everyone with the potential and capabilities was offered the opportunity to get into higher education.

The strategies I personally don’t like…

There are campaign out there that seem sterile or hardly effective (or worse, could have a negative impact). Here’s why I’m not a fan:

“There is more than software development in the Tech world”: selling side-jobs to women

Another way of interesting women in IT is to point that tech jobs are not the only ones in the sector. Some positions can require as much computer knowledge as any random white collar job. The shortcut that some people take here is that, “hey, ladies, you might not be at ease with machines, but it’s ok, even in IT there’s paperwork to do“. At least, that’s how I understand it.

Of course, there are management and high-level positions in Tech that don’t require programming or hardware knowledge. You can encounter IT managers who only have the managing background but not the IT one. Same for techpreneurs who have the ideas but hire people to produce the solution they imagined.

But I also see here a way of keeping women away from technical jobs, implying once again that women are less fitted for those positions. So creating a segregation inside the tech world, with tech jobs on one side and administrative ones on the other sites. Concretely, with jobs that are considered more technical, scientific, worth more money, and apart from them, the support jobs. At the same time, companies that feel obliged to hire women to reach the quotas, will see this as a great opportunity: they can hire women for a tech department but still keep them in administrative positions.

Of course, not every woman on Earth has to be interested in STEM, that will never be the case and it’s not the goal (just has not every man on Earth is somehow a techie or a geek). But if we seek diversity in order for everyone to be represented in the design and conception of IT tools, women have to be present at all levels, in all kind of jobs.

So good to have more women in your IT department, but if you pin them in a corner to make notes and watch the others DO, then it’s pointless. Women have to be allowed to take part in the production process, including taking action as a DOer, switching from passive to active participation.

Deconstructing the geek cliché or painting IT in pink?

Image source Pixabay

This one might be tougher than what we think. First, because all women are not girly-girls wearing pink (and all men, even in IT, are not Star Trek fans and hard-core gamers). There’s an idea that women would be reluctant to work in IT because they see it as a world of geeks (with all the negative stereotypes that go with this adjective).

Some events to attract women in IT go all out on the pink banners and girly drinks. The idea is to let women know that IT is not a world of geeks with hoodies. While we do have to desacralize the engineering world, painting it in pink and lying about it won’t help: we don’t want women to invest in a career to turn back months or years later (imagine how the media could use those figures to prove that women don’t belong…).

It’s true that working in IT doesn’t mean having a desk in the basement, and I have met really few of those people we would call “geeks”. Yeah, surprisingly, people working in IT (yeah, even my fellows software developers) are just random people, and depending on the company you can work daily with people in a white shirt and tight trousers, or with people with exactly the same social skills as any other person working in an office. This is the really important message.

However, let’s face it, there are more chances to encounter video game fans in a tech environment than in finance. It doesn’t mean those people cannot talk about something else. Very few are hardcore players, the others have gaming as on of their hobbies (same goes for any “geeky” hobby you can think of).

We have to be honest with women about what they will experience: right now, they will be very likely to have few or no other female colleague, they might have less changes to find colleagues with similar hobbies (that’s not even sure), but it doesn’t mean they cannot socialize with these colleagues and they will be rejected from the social group. If it’s the case, it means the company or the team culture is toxic, and that’s not an IT problem.

Also, what message are these campaigns sending to the geek girls and women, not yet in tech? (Say… me before my career shift: I wear women clothes, I practice dance, I’ve been an admin assistant, but I’m also a freaking geek!).

Well, it’s somehow telling them that being a geek is bad. Because we try to clean the image of the IT people by denying their interests and their culture, we’re saying that what they are and what they like is unworthy. I would prefer that we encourage girls and women to embrace their geekness to the fullest if they feel like it.

All in all, we need campaigns for women that don’t only attract geeks OR girly-girls.

Those are the main actions I usually see. I could also talk about advocacy, mentoring, and actions put in place in companies (gender washing vs really impacting actions) in a future post.

Main illustration picture: Pixabay

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