It’s hard to escape the news of the tech skills gap. Everywhere we look in the media we are being told of the number of jobs available in the tech industry and the shortage of workers with the right skills to fill them. For almost every type of company, tech is the one area that firms are hoping to expand further into: it is an area of growth, development and exciting technologies and the digital possibilities for growing businesses are infinite. There is fierce competition between large and small recruiters over the top tech talent as firms begin to question how they will make the most of the advantages that digital can offer them without the man or woman power to implement it. Companies hoping to capitalize on the huge economic growth in the digital sphere are becoming frustrated over the lack of people with the right skills to make it happen. This shortage is in turn pushing up the cost of employing the small pool of people who do have the right digital know-how. This boils down to two things for skilled workers, high starting salaries and lots of jobs that need to be filled quickly.
This can only be good news for women.
As minorities in the tech industry a woman is noted simply for working in the industry at all. As a way to get remembered by potential employers, this can really work to the advantage of female engineers. At the end of last year it was reported that tech companies in the US employed an average of 12.33% women engineers. A female software engineer or web developer applying for work will be instantly recognizable and remembered – she will probably be the only woman applying for that job – giving her an edge over males competing for the same roles. As a relatively fresh field the tech industry doesn’t suffer from the ‘old boy’s club’ prejudices of finance and business, it is an arena that is more likely to be open to new ideas wherever they come from. The startup scene, filled with young innovative people is a place that should respect new concepts and hard work, irrespective of gender. As a woman in this field the opportunities should be there for the taking, but the question is why aren’t more women taking advantage of the tech skills gap, getting trained up and filling these roles?
1.) Women’s perceptions of jobs in tech are outdated
Harvey Mudd’s President, Maria Klawe researched why women chose not to go into roles in tech and discovered three main reasons why women were put off going into the industry.
a.) Young women perceived a career in tech to be uninteresting.
b.) Women thought they wouldn’t be good at it.
c.) They thought they would be working among people with whom they would not feel comfortable.
Aside from these general misconceptions keeping women away from careers in tech, it was also noted that women often aren’t made aware of the impact having a technical background can have on their current careers, economically as well as creatively. The variety of options available to them in technology (or the advances they could make within their current industry) are not widely publicized meaning that women often don’t know what fantastic, creative, well-paid jobs they’re missing out on. These misconceptions and general lack of education about tech starts at school. Lydia Thomas, of the National Academy of Sciences wrote: “we have to capture women at a very young age… We need to encourage parents to encourage their daughters.”
2.) Reports of sexism in the workplace
Like we said, the startup scene is not a place where you would expect gender stereotyping or bias. It is a relatively new industry, filled with young, forward-thinking people, albeit mostly men. However the picture is not always as rosy as it seems. The recent scandal at GitHub, where web developer Julie Ann Horvath quit her job after accusing her bosses of harassment and the ‘Titstare’ scandal at a TechCrunch conference have inflamed suggestions (and already deeply ingrained perceptions) that women would not feel comfortable, and are not welcome, in tech working environments. Recently launched lads-mag-cum-tech-blog HotTechToday and its ilk only go to isolate women further from the industry which appears to see women as the decoration around tech rather than the people building, innovating and implementing it. There may not be an ‘old boy’s club’ culture, but a perception of a ‘young lads’ culture seems to be seeping through. These perceptions need to be addressed – women are very capable of having long, productive, creative and happy tech careers – but in order for these generally false impressions to be challenged, rumours of misogyny – and blatent displays of it, as we have seen in the examples given above – need to be crushed. If women already perceive the industry to be male-dominated or even sexist the slightest rumour or smallest news story will amplify the problem and confirm what are largely false preconceptions.
Having established what is holding women back from careers in technology, we need to look at what can be done to encourage and engage them in the subject. Many tech leaders believe that women in technology need mentors; a guiding figure or role-model they can go to for career-specific advice and guidance. Having the opportunity to learn from a successful woman working in the tech industry shows women what they too can achieve in this field. A Forbes article from 2012 highlighted the fact that women naturally gravitate toward companies that are run by women. “When you have women in leadership they naturally want to help other women grow in their careers. Mentorship is a stronger trait of women,” said Azita Martin, Vice President of Marketing at Get Satisfaction. With the right mix of support and guidance as well as great female role models to look up to women feel significantly more encouraged to make tech a part of their career, or indeed make a complete career change into tech itself.
Including men in the dialogue about women in tech is crucial if we are to make steps to re-distribute the balance of power in the industry. Men currently hold the key roles to making big changes, so without their involvement and active consent very little can change. Getting key male figures in the tech industry actively involved in the debate is to the advantage of everybody, men and women. Male company leaders can start by inviting more women to tech events, speaking to girls in schools about STEM careers and targeting their job advertising towards women. With so many jobs to be filled and a huge tech skills shortage, it seems irrational that 50% of the population are being ignored, disregarded or forgotten about simply on the basis of their gender. And that women themselves aren’t able to see the fantastic opportunity the tech skills gap is leaving open to them. With so many jobs for the taking, women are in a great position to get trained up and launch themselves onto the tech scene.
There is still a long way to go before men and women will be holding down equal numbers of high-paid tech jobs, but it’s not all doom and gloom – slowly we are getting there. In recent times a host of female-centric tech events and groups have been set up to support, advise and mentor women in the industry like Girls Who Code, Geekettes and Women2.0 and last year YCombinator saw an increase to 14% of founders being female. There’s also a solid core of female leadership right near the top of huge tech companies like Oracle (ORCL), Google (GOOG), and Hewlett-Packard that will no doubt set the tone in tech for years to come. With such great role models, a growing support network for women and a huge number of vacancies that need to be filled by skilled individuals it seems clear that more and more women will be turning their talents to tech, grabbing these fantastic opportunities with both hands.
Rosie Allabarton is a writer who lives in Berlin. Her journalism specializes in education, technology, employment and women in technology. She works as in-house writer and content manager for CareerFoundry, an online educational platform that provides training in web development and UX & UI design, providing career changers with the skills they need to launch themselves onto the tech scene.
Image credit: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv