The term ‘geek’ has gone from weedy to chic in a matter of years. Tech is officially sexy….but not sexy enough to attract enough women and address gender equality in the workplace.
Last week the debate was opened up again, when a memo by Google employee James Damore was leaked. His manifesto implied that women’s natural ‘desire to co-operate’, and their propensity towards ‘anxiety’, compared to men’s ‘drive for status’ was a key reason for such imbalance in the workplace. He was duly dismissed by Google for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”.
Coincidentally, Google is embroiled in a court battle over alleged gender pay inequality…
While his view may be shared by some, the bigger question is why is gender diversity important, and are we doing enough, early enough, to encourage women into tech?
The benefits of gender diversity
Gender equality in the workplace runs deeper than best practice techniques.
A varied workplace can positively affect problem solving, impact on sales, improve culture and bring a diverse range of skills to clients.
In fact, direct links have been shown between a diverse workplace and higher returns. The suggestion being that it challenges decisions, among many other factors.
STEM Business Group (November 2013) added that: “Attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce will maximize innovation, creativity and competitiveness.”
But there is still much work to be done with just 30% of women working in technology (US figures, from Cnet).
There’s no question that gender diversity in the workplace must be encouraged and has a host of benefits. But, by time an adult is ready to join the workforce their views on career are often formed. Surely, we need to intervene earlier?
I was one of two girls in my ‘Computer Studies’ class back in the 90s. It was a G.C.S.E very few women opted to take. The one commonality that Jenny and I shared, is that we had been given computers by our parents the previous Christmas. Ahead of their time, our parents fully understood the impact that tech might have.
This small gesture of encouragement put me on a par with the boys in my class, who lapped up binary in a way I could never fathom. But my love for tech remained!
This is a view shared by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, who said in The Guardian: “Women were turned off computing in the 80s…Computers were sold as toys for the boys. Somehow that cultural stigma has stuck in the west in a way that we can’t get rid of and it’s just getting worse. The skills gap is going to get huge.”
There may be some truth in this. In Asia where computing is encouraged in both girls and boys, the uptake of girls studying is much higher than the UK.
In fact, the UK is lagging behind. Research from the Women’s Engineering Society found that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%. This compares to 30% in counties including Cyprus, Bulgaria and Latvia.
Raising confident children to address gender equality
So what can we do?
From a young age, children must be nurtured to explore all career paths, not just gender stereotypes. Girls must be encouraged to consider all jobs, including those traditionally associated with men. Sure, tell them about being cabin crew, but educate them about being pilots too. Inform them about being nurses, but tell them they can be Doctors too. And the same for our sons as well.
It’s encouraging to see that gender diversity in the boardroom is recognised. With role models including Arianna Huffington, Martha Lane Fox, Nicola Mendelsohn and Marissa Mayer creating strides – great role models for young women.
But growing open-minded children starts at home and should be nurtured in schools. Key to all of this is building confidence in our children to achieve whatever they want, without barriers.