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US Women in Tech: What’s the Situation in 2017?

Posted by: Charis Fisher 8 Mar 17  | Digital |  Technology |  USA

Whenever you think of tech innovation, you’re bound to think of US innovation first, namely Silicon Valley. Yet, considering its long-standing reputation as a global technology hub, the US IT industry has had its fair share of issues in recent years, the glaring absence of women in technical roles being one of its major concerns.

Most worryingly is the recent revelation that the number of women studying computer science at college level in the USA has dropped to just 18%. Plus, in total women now only account for 28% of science and engineering professionals. These dismal statistics in combination with the fact that there are more than half a million unfilled computing roles within the country are creating a national skills crisis.  

So, what are the underlying issues here and what is being done about it?

Rethinking the Working Environment

The recent controversy surrounding claims of sexual harassment at Uber has brought company culture in tech businesses to the top of the agenda once again.

In February, former Uber Engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog detailing her negative experiences of harassment at Uber’s Headquarters in San Francisco, causing many users to delete the app. Her story recounted an incident of harassment with her manager resulting in HR telling Fowler to either leave her team or accept that she would be given a poor performance review if she stayed – not much of a choice.

By contrast, there are tech giants that have dealt exceptionally with cases of harassment. As former HP employee and Grokker CEO & Founder, Lorna Borenstein, states in her own account of experiences with HR and harassment at HP, the fundamental difference between how cases like these are dealt with lies in company culture. Whereas Uber is by nature aggressively disruptive, resulting in “a culture where the ends justify the means and where some people matter much more than others”, HP’s company values are based around the idea that individuals want to stay for the majority of their careers – 20 years, not just one or two.

How widespread is this phenomenon?

According to a 2016 survey about women in Silicon Valley tech organisations, 87% receive demeaning comments from colleagues and 60% experience sexual harassment. Compared to the average of 41% for harassment nationwide, this is a concerning statistic and shows there is still work to be done.

Raising Visibility

A factor that is significant in discouraging women from taking on senior leadership roles in the tech industry is visibility. On the US startup scene, 70% of executive boards are all-male, up from 66% last year – the situation is actually getting worse rather than improving.

It has been proven that the more women that are seen to be in top positions in a business, the more women will feel encouraged to pursue these roles themselves. In 2016, it was found that 81% of senior executives in the US are male, so there is a long road ahead.

There are a few obvious reasons as to why there might be fewer women than men in the C-Suite – of course, many women will take maternity leave and time away from the workplace after giving birth. Instead of demoting women with children, flexi-working options are one way of enabling women to keep or pursue senior management roles after childbirth.

There is a second and more concerning reason as to why women often get passed over for promotions and feel the need to leave the organisation they are working in in order to progress in their career. Recent research has proven that there is often a gender bias behind promotional criteria - board members’ perception of how well women lead often results in them being offered fewer “stretch assignments” or challenging high-visibility projects.

In the study, 240 senior leaders at a Silicon Valley tech firm all agreed that visibility is crucial for promotion. Yet, women were, in most cases, not assigned to technical, high-visibility projects and, even when women requested these types of opportunity, were often told the extra hours were not compatible with having a family, as one woman in the study’s focus group explained.

How could this be solved?

Some valid suggestions from the Harvard Business Review include re-evaluating promotional criteria to adapt to a wider variety of leadership styles and more transparency and equality around project assignment.

Crushing Assumptions

Beyond simply achieving senior management roles, women in executive positions are often subject to complaints about their perceived “likability”. According to research conducted by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, when displaying the same assertive behaviour as men, women were often seen to be unlikable or cold, particularly when leading teams. Characteristics such as “driven” or “quick” in male leaders are frequently perceived as “bossy” or “agitated” in female leaders.

These women, perceived by the group as “difficult”, were also less likely to be invited to collaborate on projects, teams or executive boards, resulting in a negative impact on their career, not just on their social life at work.

In Silicon Valley tech companies in particular, 84% of women have been told they were aggressive and 30% of women who negotiated for a promotion or raise were labelled “bossy” or “intimidating”.

Perception-based issues such as these are much harder to combat but there are many ways that companies can support female leaders and businesswomen with potential. Inclusive mentoring schemes and networking sessions for everyone in the business can help women to see their own potential and make the right connections to reach their objectives.

Building Opportunities

Encouragingly, the desire to tackle the tech gender bias has led to the creation of many educational initiatives in America. Programmes like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and Women Who Code are designed to provide mentorship schemes, training and support to talented young women who are interested in technology.

Initiatives like these are helping change perceptions of what it is to be a programmer:

  • 80% of Women Who Code members have said that Women Who Code has had a positive impact on their professional lives
  • 92% of the girls who have participated in #BuiltByGirls have said they feel more confident in their leadership skills as a result of the programme
  • Support for diversity and women in tech has been shown by Silicon Valley to non-profit organisation Black Girls Code who have now moved into Google’s New York HQ
  • Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani recently met with three female governors, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Deloitte LLP’s Consulting Chief Janet Foutty. The topic of discussion? State-level computer science education policies to promote coding as a potential career for young women

Despite the statistics, it does look like progress is being made to close the gender gap in technology careers. However, we shouldn’t just wait around until the next generation of #GirlsWhoCode graduate from university.

With 97% of US companies citing a skills gap as problematic for their business, in 2017 let’s hope for more initiatives that support the women currently working in tech and encourage others to invest in digital retraining.

Think you could #BeBoldForChange this International Women’s Day and find a company that truly allows you to explore your talent?

Why not see if any of our tech and IT roles are a good fit for you?


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