Why are there so few women in technology?

23 January
29 January

The number of women in engineering and technology varies significantly from one country to another depending on a variety of factors. Overall, the summary issue seems to be around the image of technology and technologists, which affects the view of parents and teachers, of girls and of employers - creating challenges all the way along the chain.

There is significant evidence suggesting that gender stereotyping starts to show up as early as age 5 through things such as girls toys (dolls, dressing up etc.) and boys toys (cars, building blocks, adventure games etc.). It means that - at an unconscious level - girls and boys are absorbing messages about what they’re supposed to be like and - again often at an unconscious level - parents and teachers are giving them the same messages. The extent of this and the particular messages girls and boys receive vary by country and culture, but it’s a serious issue that makes it harder for boys and girls to pursue their dream or interest if it doesn’t fit with the perceived norm.

  • Only 9% of engineers in the UK are women but the US doesn't fare much better. In this video, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explains why the percentage of US computer science graduates dropped from 37 % to only 13 % over the past 30 years

This continues into the workplace where similar unconscious stereotypes exist that can make it hard to be hired and hard to be promoted. Companies can do a lot in terms of looking at their processes to make sure that they’re not accidentally discouraging any particular group such as by advertising all promotions and agreeing clear criteria for the role ahead of seeing the candidates rather than just selecting someone (where unconscious bias tends to dictate that the person selected is likely to be someone similar to the people choosing). All of this is lifelong, fairly subtle and in most cases, unintentional, which makes it extremely hard to change as we need society as a whole to make a simultaneous and sustained effort to have any lasting impact.

Companies have multiple issues around fostering diversity - everything from their brand image which may give the impression that the company is not very female friendly (i.e. the way the company advertises its products), the language it uses in its adverts (e.g. ‘dominant company with aggressive strategy’ is statistically more likely to appeal to men. ‘World-class company with aspirational strategy’ is statistically more likely to appeal to women’), the way a company socialises (lots of evening company networking events are more likely to be less feasible for people with caring responsibilities which (for now) are more likely to be women).

  • Successful female tech entrepreneurs explain what challenges women face in the industry

Tech companies have the starting position of a shortage of women applying for roles when they’re advertised because so few women pursue those subjects. But even with a small pipeline, companies can do much more to attract and retain women, but it does need a great deal of attention to detail to make sure every aspect of company life is inclusive.

I’m frustrated that there are so few women in technology because technology is truly embedded in our lives, it affects the ways that we live, work and play. So it’s incredibly important that the teams designing and building this life-changing technology are representative of the whole of the society they’re affecting.

In the UK, the situation is particularly abysmal. Only 9 per cent of engineers in the UK are women – the lowest proportion in Europe.

I’ve been working with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to research this issue and to try some things to start shifting the balance.

Part of the IET’s mission is to inspire the next generation of engineers. Not enough young people want to become engineers, while parents and teachers often don’t understand what an engineering career involves. Today engineering covers everything from designing our future cities and transport to coming up with new healthcare technology.

The IET’s research tells us that changing parents’ perceptions is really important, as they will influence their children’s choices.

And here we encounter some of the gender stereotyping issues: Half of UK parents feel that engineering careers are more for boys, and children’s views are largely similar. Overall UK parents and children are unaware of what engineering actually is or have outdated perceptions and are likely to see engineering as difficult, messy and dirty, but, when shown the right images of engineering, both parents and girls become much more open to it. The messages that seemed to have the ability to change the perception frequently had to do with creativity, the vast range of jobs on offer and the ability to make a difference in the world.

We’ve concluded that there is no single solution to attracting more young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and become engineers. But we do know from IET research that if we could show children and parents that engineering careers are diverse, creative – and an opportunity to make a difference – we could significantly boost the number of children and particularly girls studying STEM subjects and opting for a career in engineering.

We have also seen evidence that role models are important, so we work hard to make sure that young women engineers are as visible as possible to inspire others.

One such activity is our Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards recognising outstanding young female engineers and technicians for their achievements. Winners of these Awards become ambassadors for engineering, visiting schools, acting as media spokespeople and fronting initiatives to showcase engineering as an aspirational career for girls.

I was also happy to see such a strong role model for girls in the new Star Wars film where the character Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) is an extraordinarily capable, technical young woman who solves many problems and is a core member of the team.

To help improve the image of engineering in the UK, the IET has run initiatives such as Engineering Open House Day. Last year we gave parents and children the opportunity to come and see the engineering that goes on behind the doors of places like the Royal Opera House, ITN News and the National Space Centre. These days help us open children and parents’ eyes to how fascinating and creative engineering is. We hope that we can help parents see how broad the possibilities are and especially to realise that engineering is for girls.

Finally – looking at the workplace – my own experience in leadership taught me that companies can do a lot more to encourage diversity in the workplace. Sometimes companies will say that it is hard to have a diverse workplace when they can’t find diverse applicants for their jobs, but I’m convinced companies can do more in recruitment and retention of diverse teams. The companies that are successful in this are likely to have a competitive advantage, as they’ll be more attractive to a wider range of potential employees.

To support companies with diversity goals, the IET and Prospect (the union for professionals, with many members in the science and engineering sectors), have launched new practical guidance, Progressing Women in STEM Roles. This guidance supports employers working in STEM related industries to take action to improve their gender diversity and inclusion. Over half (57%) of businesses in the UK do not have gender diversity initiatives in place and 41% have acknowledged that they could do more to recruit staff from diverse backgrounds. The new guidance gives employers suggestions and best practice examples of how they can not only take steps to attract more female candidates, but also ensure that women in their organisation have a fair and even playing field to develop and to progress their careers.

So – there’s lots going on, but change is very slow – the number of women in technology hasn’t moved enough and I believe it does need continued focus to make sure we can convince girls and women that engineering is a fantastic place to be. For those of you already in engineering and technology, I would really encourage you to shout loudly about what you’re doing – make yourself visible! It really matters that we have diversity for shaping the world we live in for the future, we need different sets of skills, attitudes and approaches if we are to get the best outcome for this planet as a whole.

Find out more about the Institution of Engineering and Technology here

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