Do women need to be coders in order be considered part of the Tech industry?
As investment in anything tech-related has accelerated in the past few years as seen in the growth of the number of unicorns (310 as of January 2019), the number people, especially women, wanting to be programmers, data scientists, or data engineers have increased in tandem. How many women become part of the tech industry is another matter altogether. Various studies have placed the number at 20% – 25%.
There is heavy emphasis to push women into STEM, as studies have shown that women earn higher in STEM roles than in other industries. In the US, tech workers back in 2016 received an average salary of US$108K vs the national average of US$53K.
But what does it truly mean to be a woman in tech?
Women’s role in the tech industry can go beyond coders, programmers and engineers. This is not to undermine the need to have more women in STEM. Certainly, more women should be encouraged to study STEM. Organisations like She Loves Data, Girls Who Code, and CodeBar, are doing a commendable job in bringing diversity to the tech field by creating opportunities for women to learn how to code and participate in hackathons.
PwC’s Women in Tech: Time to Close the Gender Gap report showed that gender disparity in technology “starts at school and carries on through every stage of girls’ and women’s lives.” While not stated, the perception could well have started in the family and brought to the learning institutions.
Perception and belief in STEM capabilities are not the main reasons but could explain the reluctance of young women to get into the tech industry. The findings of the 2019 UK’s Department of Education study titled “Attitudes towards STEM subjects by gender at KS4” had the following worrying findings. Females were less likely to consider themselves to be best at a STEM subject: 33% compared to 60% of males. However, in terms of future earnings, the majority of females thought that STEM subjects were most likely to lead to higher paid jobs (77% males compared to 81% females).
However, the tech industry cannot survive on coders alone. Businesses, tech or otherwise, require diversity not only in genders but in skills, too. Companies require accountants, salespeople, project or program managers, comms, among others. These are all needed to successfully run and grow a company. Focusing on women coders as the only women in tech representatives undermines the contribution of the many women who have joined the Tech industry without a programming background.
The low number of women leaders without a Computer Science, Data Engineering, or IT background is not the only factor preventing women from joining and carving successful careers in Tech. Numbers for women quitting the industry are twice as high (41%) than for men (17%). Contrary to expectations, the high attrition was not mainly due to family responsibilities. Instead, “workplace conditions, a lack of access to key creative roles, and a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career” were cited as the major factors resulting to women’s high attrition rate.
Women need to be exposed to computing at an early age to increase their interest. At the same time, if programming is not their interest, women should still be encouraged to join the tech industry in non-tech capacities. To manage attrition, a support system needs to be in place to provide women, tech and non-tech alike, the ability to thrive. Stress in the tech industry is high overall, without having the added responsibility of having the small number of tech women bear the burden of being the representative of the whole demographic.
If the slice of pie for women in the tech industry is to increase, businesses and society have to rethink women’s contribution as a whole in growing the industry. Support from various communities are required to change perceptions and narrow the gender gap. As stated in a 2015 McKinsey report, increasing women’s participation in “economies identically to men…would add as much as US$28 Trillion to GDPs by 2025.”