The gender gap in tech is a much-discussed topic, and an important one. We decided to delve deeper into the matter and see what progress is being made, what attitudes have changed and if anything is different now. We’ve brought together as many relevant statistics as we can find to highlight the gender gap and help us all figure out what more can be done..
Pluses and minuses for women in tech
A quick glance tells us that the UK and the US trail behind many other countries when it comes to gender parity in tech.
Since programmer Tracey Chou outed Silicon Valley for their lack of women in tech in 2013 four years ago, representation still languishes at roughly 25% in the US (declining from 35% in the last 15 years) and a dismal 16% in the UK.
Some argue that it is a pipeline problem and there are indeed very few women studying computer science at degree level. Levels of women in computer science have stayed roughly the same, with some studies showing that there is an average of 17% women on CS courses. As a comparison, women hold 57% of all college degrees in the US.
Some individual institutions are surging ahead when it comes to the pipeline of women in tech. Dartmouth College has shown the rest of the US how it’s done by graduating more women in computer science than men at 54%. Harvey Mudd graduated 56% majority women in science, engineering and maths in 2014.
By contrast, Harvard has only 25% women majoring in computer science, putting it on par with other colleges.
And what happens to women once they get to the workplace?
Participation in open source is a strong indicator of developer skills in the eyes of many employers. A depressing study showed that female participants in open source have their code rated more harshly than their male counterparts, but why?
When gender was hidden, female developers were rated as having consistently better code. So we may be persuading more women to code, but they are being unconsciously judged by their peers when they do so in public.
Many companies report barely any increase in their female numbers of techies, and there have even been several high-profile sexual harassment cases come to light at hugely successful Silicon Valley tech startups, as you will be well aware, such as Uber and Tinder.
So once women get into tech, they are still leaving in droves in part due to hostile workplace cultures. What’s the point in trying to recruit women into tech, if you can’t keep them? This is a case of attitudes and “bro-culture” needing to change, or the problem itself won’t change.
Finally, 88% of IT patents were filed by male-only engineering teams between 1980-2010, contrasting with 2% for female-only teams. What few women engineers we have are not becoming the inventors of our time.
Cultural myths that ‘women can’t code’
There is a cultural myth that women are not techie, with some people even arguing that women’s brains are wired differently, making them not suitable for computing. However, we’ve found that the number of women in tech varies by country, putting paid to the argument that women just ‘aren’t interested in technology’ or ‘can’t code’ once and for all.
It’s obviously not a lack of innate ability or interest, especially as the number of women studying computer science in the US peaked at 37% in 1983-84. Since then, the number of women interested in computer science has been variable, so we can’t really attribute the gender gap to genetic factors. If we even take a peek at neuroscience research, we can see that gender myths are just plain wrong. Most gender differences are a result of socialisation and societal reinforcement.
We know that the first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace, who lived 1815-1852. This is all the more impressive when you take into account the huge barriers women faced during the Victorian era.
Fast-forward one hundred years for brevity. Working with computers and programming used to be seen as menial labour, and so was naturally dominated by women. However, the home computer was introduced in the 1980s and strongly marketed as a toy for boys. This is when the cultural myths of tech as a ‘man’s realm’ began to flourish.
Without the chance to learn to code and play with computers as children, women were pushed out of tech. Now, many of the Silicon Valley tech firms will only recruit from the computer science cohorts of Ivy League colleges like Stanford and Harvard. This is roughly how we got to the predominantly white male world of tech we see today.
Global temperature of women in tech
But which countries are now doing best for women in tech? There is no country where women are equally represented in tech or overtake men across the board, but some perform much better than others.
The Universiti Teknologi Petronas in Malaysia has astoundingly enrolled 60% female computer science students. Chang Gung University in Taiwan and Mahidol University in Thailand come close to 50% women in their CS courses.
What we can learn from these trailblazing universities is that gender parity in computer science is a real possibility. It’s achievable if we support young women to take up computer science in secondary and further education.
These encouraging figures sadly do not hold true for much of the rest of Asia. The Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur has only 2% women in computer science. Japan’s Hiroshima University has 4%. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology in South Korea and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay both have 4% women on their courses.
Despite these figures, one female programmer reports that India is more welcoming for women in tech than the US. Indian programmers react with surprise when asked if women are less technical than men, showing us that the narratives we hold about male and female technical ability are subjective, relative, and can be changed. The problems women face in India relate more to barriers to work in general than a gender gap in a specific sector.
You may be surprised to learn that the richest self-made women in the world are entrepreneurs from China, many of them leading tech companies. Women-led China shows us we can do more to support our aspiring female entrepreneurs.
Sadly, the number of school students choosing to study STEM has gone down 94% in 20 years, prompting fears that the country is going backwards.
Australia boasts many high-profile women in tech, including CEOs of the local arms of Twitter, Intel, Dell, and Spotify.
Europe fares better than the UK for women in tech, where participation in some countries is at 25%. But this is not the case across all countries, particularly outside the European Union.
In Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, only 3% of women in higher education are taking STEM degrees. Eastern Europe has the most women studying STEM, at 8.13%.
The rest of Europe’s uninspiring statistics strongly contrast those of Russia, which has been discovered to have the highest numbers of women in tech in the world. Russian girls cite parental encouragement, female role models and female teachers who preside over the curriculum with a gender neutral view to it. It is no coincidence that 41% of Russia’s scientific researchers are female (compared to the global average of 19%). 14% of Russia’s inventors are women.
There is also no stigma in Russia surrounding girls and STEM subjects, they, like Indian women, express surprise when asked if STEM subjects are for men.
The technology industry in Africa is growing steadily, prompting concern about ensuring women don’t get left behind. Because their industry is still very young, it will be much easier to shape it in a way that is inclusive to women – rather than battling with existing structures.
At the moment, it’s very difficult to find information on women in tech in Africa, but they represent only 7-12% of engineering students. In some parts of Africa, participation is actually comparable with Europe and the US. Results are varied across the continent, for instance 30% of women in Niger study engineering at tertiary level but only 6% in Mali.
Similarly to places like India, Africa must build up its technology infrastructure with the help of its women. It has the potential to be a leading light for women in tech in the near future.
Software development is Latin America’s fastest-growing career. Statistics on women’s participation are again hard to come by. Although the picture is gloomy overall, some countries do much better than others.
In Peru and Colombia, only 25% of engineering and technology researchers are women, despite accounting for 44% of all science research positions.
Overall, only 23% of systems engineers are women, but in Venezuela 40% of systems engineers are women. This is a fantastic rate of participation that helps dispel the myth that women ‘just aren’t interested’. If women’s contributions are valued and encouraged, and they are provided with positive role models, they’re much more likely to choose careers in IT.
Ethnic minorities in tech
When we talk about ethnic minorities in this article, we looked at representations in the US and UK tech industries based on their proportions in society.
If there is a 5% hispanic population in the US, then they should be represented proportionally in tech at 5%. This is not the case. Of all computing occupations, only 1% are held by hispanic women (though hispanic people make up 17% of the total population) and 3% by black women (black people comprising around 14% of the total population).
Of all ethnic minorities in the US, Asian women are most likely to be represented in tech, and hispanic women are the least likely.
The figures aren’t great in the UK as well, with 71% of white engineering students in full-time employment within 6 months of leaving university, compared to 52% of Asian and 46% of black students.
Unconscious bias in the workplace is likely to play a significant role. Studies have shown that many people hire on the basis of ‘gut feel’, that they ‘just know’ someone will be a ‘good fit’ for the ‘culture’ of their company. Of course, the human brain takes shortcuts based on probability, decided by past experiences. This translates to hiring teams frequently giving preference to hiring others who resemble those they already know or are similar to themselves. While the top echelons of the tech industry remain white male, those that they hire therefore will be predominately white male, therefore exasperating the problem.
Inherent bias contributes to a lack of diversity and leads to even more bias, vividly illustrated by one black woman at MIT who noticed that her machine learning software was algorithmically biased against recognising black face and is now on a mission to rectify this. She is what is needed – a female role model.
Companies making inroads to equality
Some Silicon Valley tech giants are using their resources to recruit more women, with Google and Facebook offering fantastic benefits for working parents.
Netflix does one better by offering a year’s paid leave for parents who give birth or adopt.
Lever is a HR recruitment software company based in San Francisco and they have a 50:50 gender ratio including in technical roles.
Two-thirds of UK tech companies operate outside London and some of the best ones to work for are up north.
Behavioural marketing software company SaleCycle (based in Durham) and cloud contact centre NewVoiceMedia (a bit further south in Basingstoke) are both rated 4.9 out of 5 on Glassdoor. Vacancy Filler is a recruitment software company based in Loughborough that is rated 4.7.
UKFast, based in Manchester, and Sky, based in Leeds, are also voted top companies for working mums for their workplace culture, and parental leave policies. What companies need to do now is move beyond seeing women in their roles as mothers in order to create workplaces which are truly inclusive.
Equality teething problems
The most pressing problem is a cultural one, defined by stereotypes, unconscious bias, and a lack of confidence from women. (White) men can often feel they are being criticised for intentional discrimination but unconscious bias training can help with this.
People often cite a lack of talent in the pipeline, when in reality women and minorities are still underemployed compared to their numbers graduating college with a computer science degree. Women and minorities are being pushed out once they get into tech.
Part of the problem is the workplace is often inhospitable to women, who are still expected to carry the majority of childcare responsibilities. In a man’s world, women frequently find they aren’t supported enough in their careers, or fail to master the skill of promoting themselves. A preference for male ‘brogrammers’ alienates many in the industry who don’t fit into this stereotype.
One of the big reasons why the tech industry faces so much criticism for its uninspiring diversity statistics are its supporters’ belief in its own meritocracy. If tech is truly meritocratic, a lack of women and minorities in tech would send a very negative message about the abilities and skills of the people in these groups.
What we can learn from other countries
Observing other countries makes it very clear that the lack of women in technology is not a result of a genetic lack of ability, or absence of interest. Access to education, unemployment, a lack of infrastructure, and discrimination against women are barriers to entering tech in many developing countries. And yet, the numbers of women in tech are unusually high in some of these places.
Critics who argue that women simply aren’t interested in or cut out for technology haven’t cast their eye abroad or studied history. Their arguments are unhelpful, and distract from the social issues that prevent more women from entering or wanting to enter the technology industry, and staying in it once they’ve cracked it.
American tech has historically viewed itself as an industry for outsiders, defined by hackers, pioneers and geeks in basements. The development of the ‘brogrammer’ and and inherent “bro-culture” in tech continues to alienate women further.
This fantastic post from Vikram Chandra talks about the image of the masculine ‘pioneer’ popular in American ideas of just who can be a techie. This gives rise to the idea that we can actively create more positive narratives that make female techies ‘cool’ as well.
Women’s initiatives also need to focus on recruiting more men as advocates, and steer critics away from the idea that women are asking for preferential treatment. When the playing field is not level to start with, women need all the help they can get.
In emerging economies, women have new opportunities to break into tech where there is less of an established industry. Tech should be portrayed as a worthy career choice in all countries, and role models actively promoted to encourage others.
Considering that female participation in technology in the US has declined from a high of 36% in 1991 to 25% in 2015, the problem is increasing.
The gender split is caused by conditioning, consistently reinforced cultural norms and structural inequality in schools and the workplace. These are big challenges, but they can be reversed (unlike genetics).
In the UK, only 9% of girls’ schools currently offer computing at A-level, in contrast to 44% of boys’ schools and 22% of mixed institutions. This part of the pipeline problem is slowly being addressed. At the moment, we know that girls are dropping out of the tech pipeline during school, although according to our study more girls than boys said they enjoyed coding (46% versus 43%).
The success of girl coding bootcamps has also gone some way to dispelling the myth that women don’t like to code, moving the focus to keeping more women in tech. We need intervention at all stages, from encouraging more girls to take computer science at university to creating more compelling job adverts for women in tech. We need more diverse tech role models.
We’re due for a new workplace model where the needs of both working parents is recognised, and the needs of women are prioritised in the design of the workplace. There is lots of work to be done. Let’s hope in 5 years time, we’ll be writing a very different article.