Students of all genders play with robots, enjoy using science kits, and take part in math competitions, but the current tech field is predominantly male. As girls get older, their participation in STEAM fields decreases, which results in fewer women entering the tech sector, and even fewer staying longer than a couple of years.
The gender gap in tech is real and tangible. Tech companies that don’t take steps toward inclusivity are hurting their own workplace and affecting future generations of girl STEAM professionals. Understanding this gap and how to close it is essential for moving the tech industry forward into the 21st century.
Gender Equality Starts at the Top
Most Americans turn to tech giants and well-known leaders to learn about their concerns or issues. Smaller companies and local businesses follow their lead to achieve success.
Gillian Branstetter at Everyday Feminism shares some eye-opening statistics about female representation in these tech giants, pointing to a bigger problem in the industry. While many companies have the best of intentions in closing the gender gap, there’s a long way to go:
- Roughly 70 percent of Facebook and Twitter employees are male.
- Women make up half of the workforce, but only 25 percent of tech jobs.
Branstetter says older tech companies like Microsoft and Intel are more likely to have a gender gap problem, but that doesn’t mean young startups are less likely to follow the trends of the overall tech industry instead of the actual workforce and population ratios.
Change has to start with company leadership and with tech giants that set the cultural tone. Mark Zuckerberg has been lauded for speaking up on employment equality, but others have called for him to take action.
Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at EY, is one example of a tech leader taking steps toward closing the gender gap. He has shared multiple studies on the state of women in tech and has called on his male colleagues to be allies to their female peers. He promotes the idea that women aren’t taking positions away from men, but rather giving everyone at the table an equal voice.
When beliefs and action come together, these leaders can take concrete steps to promote workplace equality.
Race, Disability, and Sexual Preference Affect the Gender Gap
Not only do leaders need to take actions in closing the overall gender gap, they need to be aware of how race impacts (and often worsens) the female STEAM experience.
A recent study by Hired shows that white women tend to make $.90 to the dollar for white men. However, black men only make $.88 to the dollar for white men, while Latino women and black women make $.83 and $.79 on the dollar respectively.
LGBTQA women also earn less than non-LGBTQA women and all men regardless of their preferences. The gender gap isn’t just a female issue, it is an overall inclusivity issue.
Tech Investors Also Need to Pay Attention to Representation
Along with CEOs, investors play a major role in setting the tone for gender roles within an organization. The fact is, companies that include women tend to be more successful than those with male-dominated leadership.
First Round Capital analyzed 10 years of data (including 300 companies and nearly 600 founders) to discover trends in startup success. One finding is that, while “venture capitalists are constantly telling the entrepreneurs they invest in to make data-driven decisions,” the industry itself isn’t following that practice. This means subconscious biases might take over, so without realizing it, for instance, investors might choose a disproportionate number of male-led teams.
First Round’s research found the bias can be costly, as in fact, companies with female founders outperform companies with all-male founding teams. Of its top 10 investments of all time, three of those businesses have at least one female founder, and companies with a female founder perform 63 percent better than those with all-male founding teams. While discrimination is often subconscious, it can make teams more homogenous and, interestingly, less successful.
Joanne Wilson, co-founder of the Women’s Entrepreneur Festival, is another investor who is speaking up about the gender gap and challenging startups to include women from the start.
“It is extremely difficult to change culture after it has been set in place,” she writes. “If you don’t build the platform right from the onset the chances for success are slim and the same thing goes for equal hiring practices.”
CEOs and investors are some of the biggest influencers within companies. They set the tone for whether a startup will fight to close the gender gap or reinforce it.
Discrimination Occurs Throughout the Workday
Understanding who needs to lead the way in closing the gender gap is important, but our leaders need to know the exact problems that women in tech face. Sexism doesn’t only include inappropriate comments and physical harassment. There are countless minor slights throughout the day where women are ignored or valued less simply because of their gender.
Project Concern International lists come common types of workplace discrimination and harassment that women experience:
- Pay, hiring, and promotions: women tend to receive less money, are less likely to be hired, and will be passed up for promotions in favor of their male peers.
- Legal discrimination: many laws make it difficult for women to take action against the companies that hire them or lack protection for whistleblowers or women who approach HR. Making a case for discrimination is often an uphill battle, and women often leave the workplace instead of trying to fight it.
- Social discrimination: women are often judged more harshly for their weight and looks than their male counterparts and those factors have an increased chance of affecting their careers. Many companies also have “boys clubs,” where coworkers bond and network over drinks, a round of golf, or at the gym.
Many women in tech have stories of these minor slights that occur throughout the day. These issues aren’t sexual per se, but are still the result of an employee’s gender.
“If I could choose between erasing my three worst investor sexual harassment interactions or reducing by 50 percent the number of people who assumed I am worthless to speak to because I’m female, I’d take the latter in a heartbeat,” Kathryn Minshew, CEO and founder of the Muse, told recode. “Not that anyone should have to choose.”
Inclusivity and valuing all genders and races is harder for companies to monitor and implement, highlighting the weight of the gender gap problem in tech.
Young Girls Notice Current Tech Stereotypes and Limitations
The current tech scene has real life impacts on women outside of tech, including young girls who are still in school. The entire STEAM field needs to create an environment of inclusivity, or the gender gap could persist through the next generation of scientists and beyond.
Sapna Cheryan was one of the authors behind a study proving that the gender gap in tech starts at a young age. She and a group of researchers asked 96 first-grade students who was better at working with robots: boys or girls. Both genders of students who were six years old said boys were better at working with robots. However, this bias did not carry over to science and math. The first-graders thought both genders were equally good at those subjects.
These researchers also found that girls showed less interest in playing with robots or learning robotics if they felt they weren’t good at it. Even if gender stereotypes are untrue, belief in them can make them true, as these scientists found with girls choosing not to play with robots.
Dee Saigal is one person who believed these stereotypes and actually let it affect her career.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a games designer,” she writes at Newsweek. “However, engineering or coding seemed like impossible subjects. I’d never heard of any female games designers or engineers and it felt unlikely that it would ever be possible for someone like me to build games.”
After spending years in the advertising industry, she entered the tech sector. Today, she is the CEO and Creative Director for Erase All Kittens, a game that teaches programming through games and stories. Not only is she a great example for young women, she’s also working daily to shut down the stereotypes she fell for.
The Gender Gap is an International Trend
The gender gap in STEAM isn’t limited to American students. Psychology professor Martin Bauer at the London School of Economics and Microsoft surveyed 11,500 girls in 12 European countries. He found that interest in STEAM subjects peak when girls turn 11, and then drop off by the time they’re 15.
This means educators and influencers only have a few years to nurture a love of science and tech before students lose interest. The study also emphasizes the importance of female role models in tech. Six in ten girls said they would feel more confident in pursuing a tech career if they knew men and women were equally employed in their fields.
Many Organizations Are Working to Fight the Gender Gap
As more CEOs, investors, and tech professionals work to close the gender gap, they’re finding allies in dozens of organizations across America. Here are just a few non-profits and educational institutions that work to make STEAM fields an equally welcoming place for boys and girls.
Heidi Olinger founded Pretty Brainy with the goal of keeping young girls as excited about STEAM fields at age 13 as they are at age seven. Her aim is to inspire two million girls to continue pursuing STEAM learning, reducing the drop off that so many professionals see.
The organization specifically works with girls age 10-18 by providing mentors, hosting competitions, and creating events to keep girls engaged. These positive experiences fight existing stereotypes and give girls confidence to keep studying through their teen years.
Million Women Mentors
If representation is one of the biggest barriers keeping girls and women out of tech, then Million Women Mentors is taking steps to right this wrong. As the name sounds, the organization works to inspire a million female mentors to work with young women and girls and promote their future STEAM careers.
Chapters of Million Women Mentors are found in more than 43 states and their leaders partner with 60 non-profits and more than 60 corporations, including BP, Boeing, Cisco, and Pepsico.
The Scientista Foundation works with college and graduate women who are beginning their STEAM careers and entering the workforce. The organization was started by two sisters who noticed a “leaky pipeline,” with women dropping out of STEAM careers every step of the way.
Through content, communities, and conferences, women STEAM leaders can inspire college students and help them kickstart their careers. Today, Scientista has a presence in more than 20 college campuses and was named one of the Top 12 Amazing Organizations for Women in STEM.
Outside of the education system, Project Include is working to close the existing gender gap in the workplace. The goal of this organization is to work with CEOs to review their current staff to learn where there are opportunities for diversity improvement. Their consultants help companies answer diversity-related questions, including:
- Does the percentage of underrepresented current employees of color resemble the country’s demographics?
- Does your staff include people of all ages, parents, disabled people, veterans, LGBQTA people, and immigrants?
- Does your company treat part-time, remote workers, and independent contractors fairly?
- Are underrepresented groups at parity in pay and in representation in leadership roles?
While a company might take steps toward pay parity or to hire diverse employees, they might have blind spots as to other ways in which they’re holding underrepresented employees back.
Harvey Mudd College
All of these efforts can pay off. Bloomberg recently profiled Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California as a shining example of organizations that fought to close the gender gap. Over the past 15 years, it increased the number of female students in computer science majors to an even 50 percent for each gender. A few of the steps the organization took are:
- Expanding the female faculty.
- Basing the curriculum on experience levels, so novice programmers weren’t intimidated by their more experienced peers.
- Promoted computer science to students with a variety of different interests.
- Highlighted the lucrative nature of the field, including the average salary and job prospects.
These changes took almost two decades to implement, proving that change is possible, but companies need long-term visions to execute it.
No single organization can change the tech industry and close the gender gap. Every business professional, CEO, investor, schools and teacher needs to understand how gender affects a woman’s career and take steps to reduce that bias. Only then will the next generation of girls stand a chance of experiencing equality in the STEAM workplace.