Why are women less likely than men to pursue a career in tech? Why are they so underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? According to stereotypes, women are just less interested in STEM subjects. But research suggests that these same stereotypes, along with workplace discrimination and a lack of role models, are actually fuelling inequality.
Tech has become a buzzword; its meaning depends on context. It can be a shorthand for the academic STEM fields or a reference to Silicon Valley tech giants. In a narrower sense, tech refers to computer programming, software engineering, IT system administration, or tech-adjacent jobs like e-commerce and digital marketing.
However we understand the term, there’s an evident gender gap in tech:
Not all of the statistics on women in STEM are bad news, of course. Women have gained ground in life sciences (biology, ecology, virology, and others) and math. A report by PEW shows that 47% of the US workforce in life sciences and 46% in math are women.
Once women get their start in the tech industry, they excel. There are countless female tech CEOs, entrepreneurs, engineers, software developers, and physicists. But why do many women never consider tech as a career possibility in the first place?
It sounds cheesy, but having a role model to look up to is a big deal, especially when you’re young. A PwC report found that 66% of surveyed university and pre-university students can name a famous man working in tech, but only 22% know of a female equivalent. 12% of female respondents said there aren’t enough role models in tech, compared to 8% of males.
28% of surveyed men working in tech have trouble finding a mentor or role model. For women, that number is 44%, meaning almost 1 in 2 women have difficulty finding someone to show them the ropes in their industry. 32% of men said it was easy to find a mentor or a role model, compared to only 15% of women.
Gender stereotypes aren’t as pervasive as they used to be, but they haven’t gone away. Nowadays, old prejudices appear in subtle new forms.
We are social animals, so it’s important to assess what kind of expectations, incentives, and pressures we face in our communities. Research shows that girls and young women rarely consider tech as a career because, stereotypically, women aren't “meant” to be interested in these subjects.
An old-fashioned worldview can also contribute to the lack of support women receive early on. In the PwC report, only 16% of female respondents said someone else had suggested they pursue a tech job. Teachers have a major role in shaping their students’ career choices, but they’re more likely to encourage boys to focus on a future in tech than girls.
It’s a vicious cycle: women are less inclined than men to pursue tech jobs because they are already dominated by men, creating a self-perpetuating spiral. It adds extra stress when your workplace (and the whole field) is dominated by one gender, but that’s not the whole story.
A poll found that 74% of women in computer jobs and 78% of women in male-dominated workplaces experienced discrimination. Male-dominated workplaces also pay less attention to gender diversity and burden women with having to prove themselves due to their gender.
These figures make it clear why we need more women in technology. With the current trends of women into tech organizations, these toxic environments will be slow to make the necessary changes and create suitable working conditions.
Women and girls should be able to look at a career in tech or STEM subjects as an attractive, realistic prospect. They should have the opportunity to learn about careers in STEM, be encouraged to consider them, and start their jobs with no fear of discrimination.
Not only would that open up new opportunities to women and build more inclusive workplaces, but it would facilitate the creation of better products and services.
We want to have as many women in IT as possible. We need brilliant female engineers, software developers, scientists, and women tech CEOs. Discouraging one group of people from these careers hurts everybody.
Research shows that diverse companies outperform their competitors. They generally have a more engaged workforce and are better at retaining their employees. Diverse businesses can solve problems and develop new products because they rely on many different and informed viewpoints. When more women work in tech, everybody wins.
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