With International Women’s Day falling on March 8th and all of March designated as Women’s History Month, it’s the perfect time to deep dive into the current state of women in tech. The stereotype of the nerdy or geeky technologist doesn’t ring true in so many ways, especially for women who are passionate about coding, developing, and working with technology. But, even with these stereotypes set aside, there are some other challenges in place that are limiting the number of women in the tech field.
So, how many women are employed in technical positions? According to data compiled in 2018, women make up less than 20% of U.S. tech jobs, despite the fact that they make up more than half of the U.S. workforce. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, Tech Native reminds us that, “the number of women working in tech dropped significantly after the 1980s, and the percentage of tech employees who are female lags far behind other fields, including business, law, and medicine.” Recent data found that 12% of computer network architects are women, 13% of computer hardware engineering positions are held by women, 19%of computer information research scientist roles are held by women and—more alarmingly—only 5% of leadership roles in tech are held by women. With representation numbers in the teens or twentieth percentile at best, it’s easy to see why women may feel isolated in technical positions or not be drawn to them in the first place because they don’t feel like it’s a realistic career pursuit.
Some people like to blame the lack of female representation in technical positions on women’s natural lack of interest in STEM fields, but the data paints a different picture. According to the Girl Scout Research Institute, 84% of STEM girls are interested in pursuing a STEM career. While this data accounts for several other fields that wouldn’t include programming, it’s still a stark difference from the percentage of the technical workforce that’s actually made up by women. So, where does the divide begin? The data shows that girls become interested in STEM careers around age 11 and typically lose interest around age 15 due to a lack of female mentors, not enough practical or hands on experience with STEM subjects, and knowledge of gender inequality in STEM jobs. In a way, the lack of women in technical professions is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Young girls stop pursuing their interest in technology because they don’t see enough women in these positions, which leads to a lack of women in the tech field going forward.
And they’re not wrong. Even large tech companies—who spend millions on gender and diversity programs to attract and retain technical talent from marginalized groups or who identify as female—are only making incremental progress. Forbes looked at reports in 2018 from Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple and found that women only represented 28 percent, 40 percent, 31 percent, 36 percent, and 32 percent of their respective workforces. This, by the way, includes a wide variety of non-technical positions in addition to their technical positions, where the percentages are undoubtedly lower. Clearly, throwing money at the problem isn’t the most effective solution for companies looking to attract female technical talent. With that in mind, it’s time to broaden our scope for a moment because part of the reason companies struggle to find female technical professionals can be blamed on these companies having a hard time finding and retaining female talent in general.
There are two major prongs deflating the balloon of many female professionals. These need to be considered when looking at the current state of women in tech: leadership and parenthood. We’ll begin with leadership and a study by Bain and Co, which reported that 43% of women aspire to top management in the first two years of their position, compared with 34% of men in the same positions. So, how do women end up making up only 5% of leadership roles in technology? The same study found that after just 2 years in the workforce, women’s aspiration levels drop more than 60% while men’s stay at the same level. If leadership roles and management positions seem out of reach for women in general, they certainly seem less attainable for women in technical positions. And, while some will tamp their ambition down, others will pursue career paths where they feel they’re more able to advance.
Parenthood is also a key factor in the lack of representation of women in technical positions because it’s a minefield for female professionals (and often male professionals) to navigate. In Lost Leaders in the Pipeline, authors Lisa Mainiero, PhD and Bonnie Marcus, M.ED found that 74% of women aged 22 to 50+ identified as very or extremely ambitious and expressed a desire to continue to work even through motherhood. They said they would stay in their company if they felt supported over the course of their career. But, with few U.S. companies offering meaningful parental leave programs and the general discouragement of their use in companies that discourage employees from taking time off in general, the lack of support clearly isn’t there and many people—women in particular—feel like they need to choose between the two. Until companies change their tune and start supporting their employees who pursue the path of parenthood and their female employees who show an interest in leadership positions in general, they’ll struggle to balance out the gender of their technical work force.
While it may seem like the current state of women in tech is all doom and gloom, that’s not entirely the case. In fact, there are a number of conferences and events across the country in 2019 (many of which have been around for several years, some of which are brand new) where women in technology can gather, learn from each other, share their experiences, and find that sense of community they may not have at their current job. If companies are more proactive about supporting women’s ambitions to pursue leadership, parenthood, and technical positions in general, the number of women in tech will steadily start to rise and hopefully reach or surpass the levels seen in the 1980’s. Until then, supportive Search Executives who know the unique challenges that female programmers, developers, architects, data analysts, project managers, and technical leaders face can help women navigate the less-than-welcoming world of tech (especially the ones at Camden Kelly, which is a woman-owned recruiting firm serving the DFW and Southern California, Los Angeles, and Orange County areas).