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 matters in tech: that is, (gender) diversity, intelligent and fair use of innovation, and green IT.

As the topic is hotter and hotter, as I’m a woman, and as I have the chance to work for an IT company that digs into the topic of gender equity in IT and in the workplace, that’s probably the subject I care the most at the moment.

Having read and heard a lot about the issues and the solutions, 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 remind why it’s important to make sure women are more present in the tech field:

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

Image source Pixabay

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

First, there are still tons of clichés stating that girls and women are better at literature and care than at 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 curses because they’d be sure the girls would fail at it (may it be conscious or unconscious).

So talk about a choice…

Then, 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.

Finally, having a steady job today doesn’t mean everything will be fine tomorrow. IT is becoming more and more important and we can hardly imagine a job where computers isn’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 the others. So 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, the 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?

Well, as for sexism, racism, or any anti-inclusion matter, there is not one simple magic answer to solve the problem. But we have to make a move and involve everyone.

I don’t have the solution, but I want to prove that even though every action taken is debatable, they still exist for a reason. Focusing on what’s wrong with each of them won’t allow to make progress. Mixing them all together, doing, analyzing and rectifying (Agility, people!) will allow everyone to move forward.

One thing is for sure: if we do nothing, equity could only be reached after too 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…).

As subjects of stories, women only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news. In a 2015 report, women made up a mere 19% of experts featured in news stories and 37% of reporters telling stories globally. As behavioral scientists studying women’s under-representation in the workplace, we know that this gender-imbalanced picture of society can reinforce and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

Harvard Business Review, Tackling the Underrepresentation of Women in Media

For girls and women to be able to see 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 most 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 clumsily be translated by “The female forgotten-ones 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…

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 showcasing their work because they feel it’s not good enough. Accept to be imperfect (same goes for juniors who don’t dare making a portfolio, I’ll raise that topic in a future article) 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).

Although quotas sound like forcing some people were they may not belong, it’s a question of equity for the underrepresented groups. Women are as capable as men if they are given equal opportunities from the start, so there’s no reason to accept a situation were they’re kept apart from most decision making and innovation fields.

Also, because the jobs offer in tech is so high, 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.

Well, 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 Master profiles to fulfill developers positions might be a bit outdated and not coherent with the actual market for example?

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 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.

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

Another way of interesting women in IT is to point that techie 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 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 had 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 that women can’t fulfill those positions. So creating a segregation inside the tech world. At the same time, companies obliged to hire women to reach the quotas see this as a really easy way to do so.

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 stick them in a corner to make notes and watch the others DO, then it’s pointless. Women have to be able to take part in the production process, including taking position as a DOer, switching from passive to active participation. If they like.

Deconstructing the cliché of the geek

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). There’s an idea that women are reluctant to work in IT because they see it as a world of geeks who don’t take showers and play videos games all night.

I don’t know if that’s so true. I hope this kind of stereotype is known more as a joke than a reality. Even though I’m not sure about it. (Blame it on shows like The Big Bang Theory or The IT Crowd. Even though The IT Crowd is hilarious tbh.)

But ok, let’s assume a lot of women are indeed reluctant to have geeky colleagues who speak Klingon and make Pokémon jokes. Depending on the company where they will work (let’s go full cliché here: let’s say a tech startup!), they might actually collaborate with such people.

Is it a reason not to work in tech? Should you decide your career based on the colleagues you expect to have? For all I know, you could work with a hardcore League of Legends player in banking, in a school, in a car shop, in public services… Is it a reason to quit or to ignore your colleague? In other words, do the hobbies and interest of other people make them more or less acceptable?

The truly stereotyped geek that you see in shows and movies is a very particular kind of person (who still deserves to be accepted as a colleague and as a person, not saying otherwise!) that you won’t cross every other day, even in IT!

It’s the idea that “geeks” are… idk, “hostile”?, that has to die. From a group of people suffering exclusion, I find it a pity to point at other people because of their pop culture…

On the other hand, what message is this sending to the geek girls and women, not yet in tech? (Say… me before my career shift: see, I wear women clothes, I practice dance, I take showers, I’ve been medical and sales assistant -not at the same time-, but I’m also a freaking geek!)

Well, it’s somehow telling them that being a geek is bad. Because we try to convince people that “geeks” are a myth, or trying 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 bad and that they scare women.

So I think what we should work on is acceptance and open-mind first.

To conclude this point, I have to say that when I started my career shift, I was pretty happy because I would finally have peers with the same culture as me. Well, big disappointment. Bachelor studies: yes, a lot of geeks; day-time adult training: very few; work in a IT services provider: none. So I don’t even know where are the IT geeks we’re fighting against in the end…

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

I hope this has convinced you that we can all make steps towards equity, starting from accepting solutions that others are involved into and acknowledging the need to act.

I’m always opened to discussion with respect and open-mind.

Main illustration picture: Pixabay

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