Does Tech’s Image Cause a Lack of Women in Tech?


 Hunting down the real reasons why women seem more reluctant to enter the tech industry — and what should change to attract and retain more of us.

Tech companies with a low number of female workers keep complaining about the same problem: there just aren’t enough female applications for technical roles. The root of the problem lies deeper of course — there aren’t as many women graduating in engineering or computer science either. Efforts from universities and companies to attract more women into these disciplines seem to have reached a plateau.

Our work aGirls in Tech Switzerland exposes us to both tech companies looking for more women to join them, as well as individuals who are looking to transition into the industry. Both sides are fighting with unconscious biases and stereotypes that seem to be ingrained deeply in our society. There is already a lot of research done on this matter and shall therefore not be the focus of this article.

A stereotypical depiction of a hacker in movies. © Hacker (2016)

The lack of female applicants can partly be explained by the language chosen for job ads or external communication. However, even if job descriptions are written inclusive and attractive for women and other minorities, the number of applicants with diverse backgrounds will still not be skyrocketing. There is a bigger issue at stake — our industry has an image problem.

What motivates women to enter tech?

At this point, it might make sense to flip around the question of why there aren’t enough female applicants and ask about those who are actually applying — and those who are staying in the industry. What motivates someone to pursue a job in the tech industry?

There are four categories of job motivation according to research:

  • intrinsic: finding purpose, fulfillment, and joy in your work
  • identified: being properly supported in your career development
  • introjected: earning a good reputation in society for working in this field
  • extrinsic: receiving a satisfying compensation and reward (salary)

Let’s map these categories to what the tech industry has to offer — particularly for women and from an outside perspective (public perception):

Intrinsic motivation

This category is two-fold. On one hand, technology is perceived by the public as a means to provide solutions to global issues. On the other hand, tech companies are involved in big scandals related to data privacyethics, and working conditions, to name only a few.

For a person — independent of gender — that is highly intrinsically motivated, the tech industry might feel like a minefield to navigate a job search.

Identified motivation

Also here we find two sides of the coin. On one side, the tech industry was dominated by men for a long time. Lots of structures and processes are in place that might not necessarily take into account the career development of women, e.g. how to balance work and family life.

On the other side, tech is a dynamic and adaptive industry that is known to change fast and provide flexibility. Tech companies were for example at the forefront regarding remote work.

Introjected motivation

The public perception of tech jobs matches more or less what people know about Silicon Valley from TV series or hacker movies. Often enough people falsely assume you work in a basement in front of a computer all day long. To an “outsider” the tech industry might even feel like an exclusive club of geniuses that is hard to enter.

Once you are in the industry, you understand that the stereotypes are only half-truths and that your job environment is extremely creative, diverse, and fun.

Extrinsic motivation

Salaries in tech are high. They are so high in certain areas that they ruin whole cities. The public knows that there is good money to be made in this industry. The richest people on the planet own tech companies — and they are all men.

Women have been shown to be less motivated by high compensation than men, research suggests. So whereas men might see this category as the main motivation to work in tech, for women this isn’t as crucial in the search for a profession.

How can the image of tech be changed?

If we look at these four categories, it becomes very evident that the tech industry might not seem like a great fit for women — at least not to the public eye.

A tech job can potentially offer a purposeful career (intrinsic), however, career development is a bit unclear (identified), the public reputation is definitely weakened by recent events (introjected), and high salaries might not be the main driver to attract women (extrinsic).

So how can the image of tech be changed — especially in Switzerland where the percentage of women in tech is considerably low (15%)? Let’s have a look at other countries where percentages of women in tech are higher and explore what might be the reasons for that.

These are the four strategies described below that seem to be contributing towards more women entering and staying in tech:

  • Promote Women (US; intrinsic and identified)
  • Create Career Perspectives (India; intrinsic and identified)
  • Change the Public Perception (Bulgaria & Romania; introjected)
  • Erase the Gender Pay Gap (New Zealand; extrinsic and intrinsic)

Promote Women

study showed that women in the US, which make up almost 25% of the tech workforce, are just as ambitious (62%) as men (67%) when it comes to promotions. However, different aspects of their capabilities seem to be crucial for their success. Women ranked advanced technical skills as the most important factor in their successful career development significantly more often (23%) than men (13%). These women also felt significant pressure to prove their technical capabilities in order to be promoted. Here comes gender bias into play, also known as the Heidi Roizen effect, which has shown that women, equally competent, appear to be significantly less likable and worthy of being hired or promoted compared to men.

Only if hiring managers are willing to commit to gender equity, the number of female leaders and the retention rate of women in tech can be increased.

Those in charge of promotions and hiring are crucial in order to raise more women into leadership positions where they can find fulfillment. Only if hiring managers are willing to commit to gender equity and are aware of gender bias, the number of female leaders and the retention rate of women in tech can be increased.

Create Career Perspectives

With as high as 34%, India is at the forefront of attracting and retaining women in the tech industry. One of the key factors of this success is concrete programs that help supporting family responsibilities. Whether that is flexibility to work from home, part-time leadership positions, or the possibility to take courses when returning to work after an absence to get up to speed. As the tech industry is a fast-paced, ever-changing environment, the prospect of long maternity leave for example can be worrisome. Knowing that you have concrete support from your company during this transition, can make all the difference.

Companies need to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to career perspectives for women.

Clearly defined career perspectives help to build a welcoming environment for women. Especially in companies that have been around for a while, introducing and establishing such programs sends out a message of great support. Companies need to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to career perspectives for women. If you wait until the first woman runs into issues, it’s already too late.

Change the Public Perception

The highest percentage of women in tech in Europe can be found in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria (30%) and Romania (26%). One of the reasons for this development can be found in the way the public perceived technical jobs already back in the 1970ies: women scientists, engineers, and even female field workers were depicted in newspapers and magazines regularly. It never occurred to women in this time that men might be better suited for the job — and frankly, they aren’t.

Making the achievements of women in tech visible is an important step in changing the public perception of the industry.

It is crucial — especially for young women — to not limit their search for a study field or job by the public perception. As long as hackers and engineers are depicted as stereotypical white males in hoodies throughout movies, TV series, and newspaper articles, young women will not be able to identify themselves with this industry. They simply cannot imagine that there is a place for them in tech. The same applies to leadership positions, to tech conference announcements, to basically any media coverage on tech companies. Making the achievements of women in tech visible is an important step in changing the public perception of the industry.

Erase the Gender Pay Gap

“Equal work, equal pay” shouldn’t be a topic we have to discuss in 2021, but sadly it is. In New Zealand, a country that praises itself to be the first to give women the right to vote, around 50% of tech companies have reported paying equal salaries to men and women. This seems like a low number, but compared to other countries, it is actually quite high. In the UK for example, 78% of companies reported being aware of a gender pay gap, and only 8% officially pay equal salaries.

Women might traditionally not care as much about the amount of money they are getting paid, but we for sure care about getting paid equally and receiving the appropriate recognition for our work.

This is certainly not only an issue in the tech industry. However, as a considerably young and dynamic industry, the tech would be expected to be at the forefront of making this change happen. The data is more than evident. From the reported 19% of the overall pay gap in Switzerland, almost half (45.5%) cannot be explained. We need to challenge those who are in charge to match salaries. Women might traditionally not care as much about the amount of money they are getting paid, but we for sure care about getting paid equally and receiving the appropriate recognition for our work.

On the bright side

We definitely still need to put a lot of work into bringing more diversity to the tech industry but I am extremely hopeful & excited about the future of tech , especially when looking at all the great work of organizations in Switzerland that are on a shared mission to attract and retain more women in tech.

There are lots of reasons to love being a woman in tech So, I’d like to share some of the reasons why I love this industry and end this article on a personal note.

I love being in tech…

  • …because I enjoy working in a fast-paced, creative, and challenging environment — surrounded by smart people that are happy to teach me new exciting things and are open to learning from me as well.
  • …because I strongly believe that technology can play a crucial role in the race to saving our planet, e.g. by providing Smart City Planning solutions which is what I am fortunate to be working on.
  • …because I like to surprise others with my skills that might be underestimating me, but also know — looking at those coming after me — that in a few years, being a female software engineer is hopefully nothing special anymore.
  • …because I love the dynamic, ever-changing nature of this industry, which forces you to never get too comfortable but also allows you to initiate change and see an impact of your actions quickly.
  • …because I find pleasure in solving difficult problems in an elegant way and in collaborating with others on new features, on code, on designs, on bug fixes. Oh, that feeling when you were hunting down a bug for hours & you finally find it and know how to fix it… it doesn’t really get any better than that .

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