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For tech companies to thrive today, there’s no getting around the need to fix the “gender gap” —  not just for equality’s sake, but to protect the bottom line.

Few reasonable people suggest that women under-perform in tech. This list from the Huffington Post is just the tip of a large, expanding iceberg of influential women in tech, including:

Another excellent example is Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems. Along with her partner, Sandy started the company from their living room back in the 80s. Together, they produced the first commercially viable router. Less than a decade later, Sandy left the company to follow other interests, while simultaneously becoming “first female philanthropist to emerge from the Silicon Valley boom era”. But Sandy’s is just one story —  there are countless others that involve women in all spheres of tech, and not just as founders.

In short, the idea that women have an important role in tech is (I’d hope) a settled point. That women have an equal role in tech however, is not — in fact, the statistics are deplorable, and getting worse. The whole argument of equality in the workplace isn’t a matter solely of equality and social justice, either. Male dominated tech companies have to realize that having more female employees isn’t just a way to dodge criticism — it’s a good business move.

The Stats

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While glancing over employment figures for the tech industry, you’d be forgiven for being pretty appalled. Back in 2013, software engineer, Tracy Chou, launched a public Google Spreadsheet showing the number of women engineers employed at 84 leading tech companies. It makes for interesting reading, for sure.

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The results show that these organisations “employ an average of 12.33% women engineers”. Take Yelp, Dropbox and Etsy for instance. They employ 8.25%, 9.45% and 12.45% women engineers respectively.

To reinforce these seemingly depressing figures, The Atlantic states that

While 57 percent of occupations in the workforce are held by women, in computing occupations that figure is only 25 percent. Of chief information officer jobs (CIOs) at Fortune 250 companies, 20 percent were held by a woman in 2012.

At first glance, you’d think these numbers were telling of widespread hiring discrimination.  Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated: it appears that these figures reflect a larger and more systemic problem, which reduces the pool of qualified female applications.  “Just 0.4 percent of female college freshmen say they intend to major in computer science,” according to one article. Basically, women simply aren’t choosing to enter the tech space in nearly the numbers that men are. Take, for instance the fact that “the proportion of female Computer Science graduates continues to plummet, from 37% in 1985 to less than 18% in 2010.”

There are a lot of possible reasons for this.  It’s likely that many of them play a role, but it’s not clear how large that role actually is.  Sexist faculty driving women out of the field is certainly one problem that does crop up, although I’d be surprised if it explained the phenomenon by itself.  Other options include women not being encouraged to pursue techie interests, an inadvertently hostile environment of unwanted attention produced by the rarity of women in the field (a negative feedback loop), and a simple lack of female PC gamers (a hobby that leads many, many people to an interest in technical topics).  Regardless of the reason, the consequence is that when it comes time to begin hiring, much of the damage has already been done.

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Writing for Quartz, Lauren Bacon tends to agree with the idea that simply following the instruction to “hire more women” may not be as easy as it seems.  After all, if you have to compromise hiring standards in order to increase your proportion of women, you may wind up inadvertently re-enforcing negative stereotypes.

The numbers also map neatly to current figures on women computer science grads (PDF), which suggests the “pipeline problem” argument is legitimate.

According to this so-called Pipeline Argument, the solution is clear. Educate more women in tech 8 Of The Biggest Geeks On Twitter (Who Just Happen To Be Girls) 8 Of The Biggest Geeks On Twitter (Who Just Happen To Be Girls) Geekdom has long been perceived as the domain of men, with teenage boys who are fascinated by technology and Star Wars becoming grown adults who are obsessed with technology and Star Wars. While it's true... Read More , and more women will be hired in tech. Simple, right? Wrong.

Relying on the pipeline argument to explain the low numbers of women in tech is obviously an over-simplification. Other forces are at work here, too. In 2008 The Harvard Business Review Research Report (PDF) found that:

Between ages 25 and 30, 41% of the young talent with credentials in those subject matters are female … [but] 52% of this talent drops out … The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments …

To simplify this complex argument, let’s take for granted for the moment that there are two forces at work here.

  1. Low numbers of women choosing to be educated in relevant subjects Get Tech Skills You Need At These Top 7 Online Course Sites Get Tech Skills You Need At These Top 7 Online Course Sites It's not only about learning programming languages, but also the little unnoticed tech skills that could take you further in your career. Iterate to the next version of you. Class is in session. Read More
  2. A working culture that makes women feel unwelcome

If we can address these two factors, according to this argument, we should see the tide of gender inequality begin to reverse itself.

Rather than spend the rest of this article digging into the how this should happen (which I’m not qualified to prescribe), let’s look at why companies should be taking this seriously.

Why is it so important that we introduce more women into the tech space?

Why do tech companies need to consciously bring more women into decision-making roles?

Why is it so Important?

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The sheer importance, not just for tech companies, of representation of women on boards and in tightly-knit teams Intellinote: Put Your Tasks, Files, Messages & Online Meetings In One Place Intellinote: Put Your Tasks, Files, Messages & Online Meetings In One Place Intellinote makes it easier to manage, collaborate and better communicate with your team, colleagues and clients with a comprehensive blend of file sharing, organisation and real-time video and text chat. Read More  is hard to stress. There are two points I’d like to expand on here. First is the fact that women make up a larger section of the tech user-base than men. Second is that diversity in teams generally leads to more successful companies. In short, this disparity hurts tech companies.

#1 There are more female users than male

A recent Deloitte study found that:

[Women’s] choices impact up to 85 percent of purchasing decisions. By some analyses, they account for $4.3 trillion of total U.S. consumer spending of $5.9 trillion, making women the largest single economic force not just in the United States, but in the world.

If your company has a user-base largely comprised of the largest economic force in the world (AKA women), yet still has a team that consists largely of men, problems will naturally arise. Namely, problems in catering to the female user-base.

Design and usability quirks that appeal to women are not necessarily those that appeal to men.  Some design choices will disproportionately attract or repel female users. It may be the case that most men (no matter how well trained) will not be able to contribute to problems that primarily effect women, without the input of women themselves.

The FT reported that,

A recent survey by RSA, the executive search firm, looked at the UK life sciences industry and found that “women bring empathy and intuition to leadership” with nearly two-thirds of respondents (62 per cent) thinking that women contribute differently in the boardroom, compared to their male colleagues.

This, coupled with the fact that the leading adopters of a huge swathe of technology are predominantly women, means that making sure women’s interests are reliably represented in tech is now more important than ever. Some of these female-dominated industries include:

To emphasize,

According to a report by Parks Associates, more women than men are downloading movies and music; women do the majority of game-playing across some platforms; and women have higher “purchase intentions” than men do when it comes to some electronics.

(The Atlantic)

If women are the leading adopters, users, media consumers and buyers in so much of the tech industry, it surely makes sense to ensure their interests are properly represented within tech companies themselves. This is something we’ve touched on before, relating to the gaming industry Let Feminist Frequency Teach You A Thing Or Two About Women In Video Games [Stuff to Watch] Let Feminist Frequency Teach You A Thing Or Two About Women In Video Games [Stuff to Watch] I've got some bad news: video games are traditionally pretty sexist. Video blogger Anita Sarkeesian has noticed. Read More .  To give more substance to the point that women are needed to represent women, I’d recommend watching this fascinating TED talk.

Teams need diversity to thrive

My second point here is to express how imperative team diversity is for creativity and problem-solving skills. According to Walmart, “Diverse teams often outperform teams composed of the very best individuals, because this diversity of perspective and problem-solving approach trumps individual ability”.

This point of diversity is hugely relevant to this argument. Not all employees in tech are technical. This means that we can begin to solve the under-representation of women in tech now by ensuring women are properly represented in non-technical roles.

Having a non-technical viewpoint, even on technical problems, sheds fresh light on situations where technologically-minded people may not be able to see the forest for the trees. In other words, this diversity is practical, valuable, and at the end of the day, profitable.

Former chief executive of Yahoo and a Cisco board member Carol Bartz says the following: 

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To add some substance to this claim, a study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that

The share price of large-capitalization companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed companies with no women on their board by 26 percent.

For small and mid-capitalization stocks, the outperformance totaled 17 percent.

The study identified a handful of factors that could explain the better performance, including a healthier mix of leadership skills, better corporate governance, greater understanding of consumer decision-making, and access to a wider pool of talent.

(Reuters)

So, for you’re in a company without a healthy representation of women in your team (relative to user-base, rather than workforce), this is how you can ensure that a large chunk of your user-base is properly represented. Start now by hiring qualified women in non-technical roles. As shown above, this makes good business sense.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tech industry will hopefully figure out how to get more women trained and qualified in more technical roles, so the very real gender gap issue in technical roles will begin to shrink.

What do You Think?

Understandably, the issue of gender inequality in tech is a contentious issue. Yet when we look at the numbers of women hired vs the number of women skilled in technical jobs, the actual disparity (i.e. the idea of under-representation) seems to largely disappear.

The real issue comes when we realize that such huge numbers of women are adopting technology, despite their interests often going unnoticed due to a lack of real representation within tech teams themselves (even in non-technical roles).

When we understand that women can represent women in tech, without needing to be technically qualified, we can start to see far more simple solutions to this problem.

Of course, there are still the important issues of convincing more women to take up technical roles in the first place, and to ensure that any kind of chauvinism in the workplace is removed. But once companies realize the importance of hiring even “non-technical” women now, this will still be a step in the right direction. A direction which not only contributes toward closing the gender gap, but which will also be good for business.

Which other issues do you think contribute to the gender gap in tech companies?

Featured Image Credit: Handshake Man via Flazingo Images (flickr),
Inline Image Credit: Marriage Equality via Charles Fettinger (flickr)

 

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