Try not to be a woman

10 November 2017

On the surface of it, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's been a bad six months or so for sexism. A series of leaks, accusations and other controversies have exposed the 'bro' culture apparently rife within Silicon Valley, and allegations of sexual harassment in Parliament has propelled sexism and the abuse of male power to the forefront of public discussion. So even if we weren't before, we're all now aware of the sexism and bias endemic within certain industries. Why isn't the problem going away?

Last month I was invited onto the panel for a debate held at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. Inspired by John Naughton’s article, Want to Succeed in Tech? Try not to be a Woman…, the debate brought journalists, academics and entrepreneurs together to ask why women continue to experience sexual harassment and blatant bias in the tech industry.

John argues that technology provides a high-resolution mirror to the misogyny in human nature - somewhat analogous to the racism that surfaced around Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign: as political correctness has driven expression of racism and sexism underground, it leaks out in a more concentrated form. That's a depressing thought, so I have reflected upon where I have encountered sexual harassment and blatant bias, why it matters, and what I think can be done to confront this industry trend.

It's a question of numbers

I've consistently experienced being the only woman, or one of just a few women in the room. Women are massively under-represented in IT, making up only 18% of professionals. It's something we haven't yet been able to overcome at Ideal: despite proactively blogging and trying to raise the profile of our company amongst women, only 14% of our employees are female, and most of them are in back-office roles.

Why do the numbers matter?

Micro-aggressions thrive in any culture where there is a majority group. In IT this majority group is white, middle aged men. The tribe Grayson Perry calls Default Man. Micro-aggressions aren't unique to the tech sector, but their effect - belittling or alienating the minority group - is particularly relevant given the talent shortage in our industry, and the urgency there is to encourage women to choose a tech career.

Men need to help call out sexism

I've persistently experienced and accepted humour tinged with sexism in order to be included in the IT tribe. Most men I have discussed this with are ignorant of the discomfort caused by the everyday sexist behaviours that are prevalent in the industry. This lack of awareness inspired the Elephant in the Valley, a survey on sexism in and around the Bay Area and Silicon Valley companies. Its results are shocking:

  • 60% of women reported having experienced unwanted sexual advances
  • 90% witnessed sexist behaviour at offsite events, meetings or conferences
  • 87% experienced demeaning comments from male colleagues
  • 47% had been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues were not asked to do

It has to start with education

The absence of intentionality is critical. It is impossible for women to transform the industry from a minority position: men must call out sexism, and recognise where there's bias in their own behaviour. But this sector is not generally populated by people educated in socio-political issues, so the starting point to transforming this and other industries must be increasing awareness and education.

There's some evidence of positive change happening in the reaction to the Google 'anti-diversity' memo and other events of the summer. Men such as former investor Chris Sacca have written publicly about inequality and sexism in technology, and how they now understand that their failure to call out behaviour compounds the problem. I hope this is the start of greater awareness and a willingness for the men in tech to challenge the status quo.

Recognise these women?

During the debate, the panel members all acknowledged both the scale of the task ahead, and the urgency for an industry desperately short of talent to find ways to attract and retain more women. Dr Valerie Lynch noted that what we often see as 'female' strengths - logical, organisational skills - are particularly suited to computer programming: work which can often be done outside of conventional office hours, making it possible to fit it around other commitments.

Yet research into how computers and technology have been advertised provides some explanation for why the number of female computer scientists has been decreasing in recent decades. Karin Kihlberg, museum manager at The Museum of Brands, has identified six stereotypes of women in advertising, which range from the domestic obsessive to sex object.

No sign of any brilliant female entrepreneurs changing the world with innovative technology!

A two-year global advertising study by Unilever found that 40% of women don't identify at all with the women they see in adverts. Is it any surprise? Only 3% of ads featured women in managerial, leadership or professional roles, 2% showed intelligent women, and just 1% showed women being funny.

The ad industry has a long history of representing women as accessories for male users of technology. These examples of specific, comparatively recent sexist ads show that even now it fails to understand or reflect how real women use, work with or create technology. The ASA is drawing up new rules to try and stop gender stereotypes in advertising: a helpful step towards equal representation of women in tech roles within the medium.

There is a real opportunity for women in technology - one third of best paid jobs for women are in the sector. Tech employers have a responsibility to think radically about work patterns to encourage women returners into the industry and, in the absence of female role models, we need to find ways to inspire women of all ages to consider a career in tech. In a small step, the exhibition 'Computing History: Where did all the women go?' last month set out to inspire the tech women of the future by highlighting the achievements of women in the past. On a much bigger scale, adverts, attitudes and behaviour all need to change.

We'd love to hear from more female job applicants, either speculatively, or for any of our current vacancies. Interested? Get in touch with with your details.

Image: Marco Verch/Flickr, Creative Commons