Bridging the gender gap in the tech industry remains unfinished business, says Mivy James, Head of Consulting for National Security at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. Following International Women in Engineering day last Sunday, in this guest post for Imagination, Mivy explains how employers can take action.
One of the benefits of my job is I am able to get out and about a lot. And I’m not just talking about meeting clients either. I often attend conferences and smaller events – as a speaker and guest – and really enjoy meeting new people.
At least, that’s the case most of the time.
Earlier this month, I was at an event aimed at encouraging girls into tech. I got chatting to a father who repeatedly pressed me to tell his daughters what women are better at compared to their male peers.
I know he meant well but it was hardly the first time I’ve come across this type of “benevolent sexism”. And so I did my best to explain that the differences he cited – like attention to detail – aren’t real but perceived, and are actually unhelpful for accelerating the careers of women.
It was a minor incident but it served as a powerful reminder that much remains to be done. Too many people either don’t believe there are cultural problems to address or worse, feel threatened by the prospect of change to come.
So, what can be done?
Overcoming the stereotypes
To be fair, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that gender issues continue to loom large. After all, the stereotype of who works in tech is hardly positive.
Although I am proud to be called a geek, programmes like The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd – while funny – do nothing to make the field appear appealing. Instead, they reinforce the notion that those who work in tech are socially dysfunctional and badly dressed – an image hardly likely to win favour among talented teenagers pondering career options.
Of course, I’m not blaming this deep-rooted issue on a couple of sitcoms. For example, evidence points towards the advertising behind the home PC market as being a key driver behind the drop in female programmers from the 1980s to today.
Encouraging role models who break the stereotype is a key part of changing the status quo. But it’s not straightforward. If we always ask our female tech staff to be external role models this not only detracts from focusing on their day job but also shines a spotlight on their gender and differences compared to their peer group – which could be counter-productive.
This is something of which I have been conscious and why I previously shied away from being a poster girl for IT. But over time, and recognising the need to disrupt the stereotype, I have talked myself out of this reticence.
The good news is that there is no shortage of options for employers. Based on my own experiences as a woman leader in the tech industry, here are my recommendations for what can be done:
- Create a supportive environment. People should be able to raise concerns of non-inclusive behaviours in an informal way, and provide coaching or mentoring when requested to address as much as they can themselves
- Leadership buy-in. Ensure our own leadership believe in the issues and feel empowered to drive change
- Ditch the business case. Having to provide a business case for having women in tech is patronising and unnecessary
- Seek out new ideas. Support external initiatives that encourage kids, particularly girls, into STEM
- Identify role models. Look for opportunities for role models without creating an unfair burden
Over the past few months alone I have heard people say “haven’t we done the gender thing now” or worse, “why are women trying to take over and have a go at men”.
Such comments reiterate why this is no time to press pause. Instead, it’s time to double down – starting now.
Let’s get to work.
Mivy James has been an IT professional for over 20 years. Prior to joining BAE Systems Applied Intelligence in 2005, she worked for several international IT consultancies and corporations. Mivy started her career as an analyst / programmer after completing a degree in Computer Science and Maths and soon moved into technical leadership and system design. She has worked for a range of clients across UK government on everything, from cutting edge technology research to the strategic design of multi-billion pound programmes. Mivy is enthusiastic about technology and particularly keen to encourage women to follow careers in the IT profession. She is the founder and chair of Applied Intelligence’s gender balance network.