Everyone knows that gender diversity is a problem in tech. But, as Leah Rankin, chief product officer at SiteMinder, explains in this op-ed, unless we take serious action soon, it will continue to plague the sector in the years to come.
According to the 2023 STEM Equality Monitor, the technology sector’s lack of gender diversity will continue to be an issue for at least the next decade. That’s right – the next 10 years.
Published by the Federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources, the STEM Equality Monitor report has revealed not only continuing low female IT industry participation rates; it has highlighted not-so-very-promising prospects for the future with only 25 per cent of enrolments in Year 12 IT-related courses being female.
With women still making up only 37 per cent of enrolments in university STEM courses, less than a quarter of STEM-related senior management roles, and only eight per cent of CEO roles in STEM-qualified industries, I don’t believe we can wait another 10 years (at least) to address the clear fact that women in STEM-related careers are being held back.
While the reasons why the needle on gender imbalance is not moving in the tech sector are multifaceted, we know that most of them are deeply rooted in the hiring, managing and promoting processes that are still being led and designed by traditional mindsets. Women continue to earn 18 per cent less than men across all STEM industries, and outdated ways of valuing women’s skills, and the skills required to succeed in tech, are contributing greatly to this ongoing inequality.
One step forward and many steps back
In some ways, the global pandemic helped level the playing field for women who, by and large, still hold the lion’s share when it comes to day-to-day responsibilities in the home, whether or not they have children. During the pandemic, people were encouraged or forced to work from home, organisations became more flexible with their working hours, and the labour and skills shortages hit their peak, giving women the opportunity to enjoy overdue flexibility and recognition for the role they play both within and outside of the workplace. Women who’d struggled to receive an invitation to the boardroom also found themselves participating in critical conversations virtually for the first time, because the physical barriers had been removed, making everyone’s thoughts accessible and visibly valued.
However, post-pandemic, some of these areas have plateaued or gone backwards, making joining and staying in the workforce disproportionately harder for women. For example, workplaces are increasingly requiring all staff to come back to the office, full-time, disproportionately impacting mothers, who are largely their children’s primary carer, more. And, now that international borders have reopened, organisations can once again hire from overseas instead of training and looking more thoroughly for talent in their own backyard. Women, once again, are being overlooked.
Shifting the mindset
Organisations need to transform the way they look at ‘tech skills’ and who is the ‘right fit’ for a career in tech when assessing skills to hire, retain or promote staff. Demanding a computer science degree to validate a candidate’s compatibility or suitability for a tech role is short-sighted and limiting, given the low enrolments among women in university STEM courses.
Of course, we also cannot forget that many ‘tech’ roles today do not revolve around the traditional software engineer hire. I’m proud to lead a global Product team whose expertise lies in product innovation strategy, customer experience and go-to-market. Similarly, I am fortunate to work with colleagues in the respected fields of strategy operations and project management, to name but a few. Being a ‘tech’ hire today is not, and should not be, limited to the traditional view of coders.
Training courses in digital skills, cyber security and computing are already failing to keep up with real-world leaps in technology, making tech degrees or qualifications less relevant because they do not train students for the skills the industry actually needs today. Organisations should consider offering much-needed, real-life experience and training in a tech working environment, to reach female talent closer to the grassroots level.
Moreover, a number of traditional tech courses and skills are rapidly becoming obsolete with emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and Machine Learning (ML). According to a recent McKinsey report, this trend particularly affects women as they are 1.5 times more likely to be impacted by generative AI in their work.
According to a survey by Tech Council of Australia, two in five Australians say they are open to working in technology, but 70 per cent say they would need to reskill to do so. Women are already faced with the “motherhood penalty” due to reduced working hours and time out of the workforce when having children. Having to take the time for long-term formal training mid-career in order to qualify for tech roles is a big ask and yet another hurdle stopping women from getting into the tech sector.
Skills such as adaptability, creativity, multi-tasking in between several projects at a time, being able to switch roles and projects quickly and smoothly, and more may not have traditionally been associated with STEM careers but have become as valid and as valuable as traditional STEM degrees or accreditations nowadays. If we want to see more innovative tech companies and more diverse representation across all levels of organisations, employers need to broaden their view of the skills necessary for a tech role and be open to welcoming and supporting more women in the tech industry – not in 10 years but now
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