In the UK, women make up 50.7% of the general population. They also achieve 5 or more A* to C or GCSE or equivalent grades more than men (63.6% female compared to 54.3% male). The percentage of all first degree graduates who identify as women is also in their favour at 57%.
Yet, despite all of this, the amount of young women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) topics at university is dwindling. Only 20% of female graduates have a degree in a STEM subject but these subjects make up more than half of all graduate degrees.
This is translating into the workforce too, with a recent Java salary survey, from recruiters Pearson Frank, indicating that only 11% of web and software developers have the XX chromosome.
A recent study found female programmers to be more technically competent than their XY-owning counterparts and having more successful code changes but only if their gender was identifiable. When their gender was identifiable, men’s code changes were accepted more often. Whether consciously or subconsciously, women are being discriminated against in the technology industry because of their gender.
This is evidenced in the gender diversity – or lack thereof – in the top Silicon Valley companies. Google’s tech workforce is only 18 per cent female, while Facebook’s percentage of women workers is even lower at 16 per cent.
Getting more women in tech roles
This lack of representation in tech roles is especially concerning given the incredible role of women in computing history. Ada Lovelace is widely regarded as the first computer programmer, working with Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 19th century. Cryptanalysis during World War II was also championed by women, with experts such as Joan Clarke working on cracking the Enigma code. But what can be done now to fix this snowballing problem?
"In order to get more women in tech, we need to get more female students interested in a career in this field,” says Anne-Gaelle Colom, Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster’s Department of Computer Science. “As a start, we should get more tech companies offering work experience places to secondary school students, showing how interesting and creative working as a developer can be, and showing women can be successful in this career.”
Traditionally, boys at school were encouraged to take science and maths subjects and, with the advent of computers, were the first to be encouraged to explore this new area. When computing as a business took off in the 1980s, these schoolboys, now men, were situated perfectly to take advantage of the situation, and Colom argues that the way that programming is currently taught at schools and university needs to change to be more inclusive.
"In computer science and programming, we should ensure that students are taught using concrete and less abstract methods which tend to be more attractive and suitable for female students," Colom said. "We should also regularly emphasise the success of women in the industry, and getting women as guest speakers on the course to share their experience."
'Rock star developer'
It took women longer than to eventually find opportunities in the industry, which still has a very strong jobs for the boys ‘brogrammer’ culture attributed to it that it seems incapable (or unwilling) to shake off. The workplace environment experience is often cited as the number one reason why women, often reluctantly, end up leaving tech jobs.
“We have this concept of the ‘rock star developer’ that alludes to this concept of brilliance,” says Steph Locke, Senior Data Scientist at Locke Data. “Women are unlikely to aspire to this concept but it is highly valued in the tech world. Women have been brought up to be more consensus building and people oriented.”
Indeed, the number of women in technology roles is declining rapidly. Women are twice as likely as men to leave a tech job, with 78% of all participants experiencing unfair treatment or behaviour.
With young women being discouraged from studying at school, programming university courses currently being taught in ways that don’t meet the needs of women, and workplace cultures resulting in women wanting to leave it almost feels like too big a task to tackle.
But change is happening, albeit slowly and in localised pockets. At the University of Westminster, Colom is taking direct responsibility.
"As a lecturer and developer in the Web Development field, I am trying to tackle the issue by mentoring female students," Colom said. "I have also developed a code visualiser, which turns any code entered into a visual representation in the form of a flow chart. This enables lecturers and students to view, develop and interact with code examples visually, and enable students to get a better understanding of programming.”
So what else can be done? In 2015 the Tech London Advocates held a meeting chaired by MP (and former telecoms engineer) Chi Onwurah. The five-strong shortlist of actions raised then is still relevant now, but a couple of additions complete the recommendations:
- Improvements to education, to raise awareness about technology and tech careers and counteract negative perceptions
- Making the business case for more women in tech, and offering guidance to corporates to help them shift entrenched, male-dominated company cultures
- Creating positive narratives and championing role models to combat negative stereotypes, whether in the media or because of a lack of parental awareness about career opportunities for girls in tech
- Strengthening female networking and mentoring opportunities
- Access to funding to encourage more female entrepreneurs into startups
- Challenging the ‘brogrammer’ workplace culture by encouraging women’s contributions and recognising achievements for both genders at work
- Better training for management, it’s widely accepted that, due to the rapid rise of tech businesses, managers are often promoted without having the experience or training necessary to do this role and often don’t know what to look out for or how to fix issues when they are raised
Is there anything missing from this list? Let us know by tweeting us @KettleMag.