Why Tech does not have 200 years to achieve gender equality

Gaurang Torkevar, CEO and Co-Founder of Indorse, discusses the gender imbalance in the tech industry

Imagine you have two candidates with stellar resumes, seemingly identical experience and educational backgrounds, and both with glowing references. But you only have one position.

How do you decide who is better for the job? Unfortunately, the most common choice is to go with your instinct.

The problem is, albeit unintentional, if you’re male, you will most likely select the male, if you’re female, you will most likely choose the female. It’s called gender bias, it’s an innate human condition, and it’s something that has plagued companies for decades.

You’re probably thinking ‘hasn’t it improved?’ – after all, companies are talking about diversity in hiring, and women appear in leadership roles across the globe. It’s true; some progress in gender equality has been made. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2019 revealed that we had closed 68% of the gender gap worldwide. But this is only one side of the story. Indeed, the survey also highlights that it will still take 200 years to achieve full equality in the workplace.

The tech industry struggling with gender diversity

The fact also remains that while many industries have improved gender equality, the tech industry is one of the laggards. Unlike the financial services sector, which has seen the highest levels of women in the workplace, the tech industry is still trying to catch up, here are some statistics:

● The Forum’s gender gap report shows that women represent just 22% of the AI workforce.
● According to The Guardian, only 17% of IT specialists in the UK are women.
● In a report by recruitment agency Next Generation, women fill only 7% of tech positions in Europe and women hold fewer roles in computer science than they did in the 1980s

An overview of gender diversity across the globe

Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Sweden lead the way in boardroom gender diversity. Thanks to the introduction of quotas and targets, but more importantly, penalties, these Nordic countries have almost double the percentage of women sitting on companies boards compared to EU countries.

The Governor of California is following in the footsteps of Northern European countries and recently signed the first boardroom quota law in the US. By the end of 2019, all publicly traded companies in California had at least one female board member.

The UK, however, is lagging, but there are some positive indicators. Indeed, the latest data show that women hold a third of board positions in firms listed in the London Stock Exchange’s FTSE 100 indices. Contrary to the boardroom quota law in California, this target has been achieved without legislation. The Hampton-Alexander Review, however, also highlights a staggering number: only 15% of finance directors in FTSE 100 are women.

Overdependence on technology and social media

As more and more companies are looking to automate hiring processes, lessons can be learned from others who have tried and failed. Several case studies from technology firms have shown the limitations of machine learning. Algorithms used in HRTech products have also demonstrated a bias towards selecting the CVs of male candidates.

One of the most notable cases is Amazon’s recruitment engine. It was pinned as a groundbreaking tech solution to quickly and efficiently identify top talent. But, in 2015, Amazon realized the ratings the machine learning was giving were not gender-neutral. The computer models observed patterns in resumes submitted over a 10-year period, which reflected a preference for males. So, it taught itself that male candidates were preferred and penalized resumes that had any ‘female’ connotations such as women’s clubs, female names, or all women’s colleges. The project was immediately disbanded.

In 2016, Microsoft also released an AI chatbot, which was developed to have conversations with Twitter users and “get smarter.” Once again, because AI learns from what it is being told, humans were able to teach the AI chatbot profanity, racism, and bias.

Google’s YouTube has also been pulled into the limelight. Some say their algorithms push radicalizing far-right content to casual viewers. Google has also been confronted with accusations that its ‘image search’ and autocomplete features rely on and strengthen racist and sexist stereotypes.

Facebook also gets a special mention. Reports have shown that software development jobs advertised on Facebook heavily target men. The irony is that gendered advertising has, of course, been illegal in traditional print media, but on Facebook, the same rules do not apply. The company has been up against a slew of unlawful advertising suits, one of which resulted in them scrapping thousands of microtargeting categories after a report proved it had allowed racial discrimination.

These findings serve as an example of the natural tendency of technology to recreate discriminatory patterns of the past. The unfortunate truth is, hiring is a human endeavour, and AI systems are not able to make hiring decisions solely, well, at least not yet.

Why is diversity in tech hiring so important?

McKinsey’s research shows that companies who lead the way in gender diversity are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to demonstrate superior value creation. They achieve this due to greater collaboration, innovation, and creativity.

Telecommunications company Vodafone is one company that is listening to this research. To attract more women in tech-related roles, the company changed their job ads to be more gender-neutral, and in just three months, they found female employment rates increased.

Gender equality is no longer a PR exercise. Today, it’s a prerequisite for innovation. The reality is, technology impacts everyone, so support for equality must be given a higher priority. If the tech industry can help close the gender gap, the long-term implications will be profound because of the technology created as well as the example set.

What else can we do to increase the number of women in tech?

The problem we’re facing is quite a paradox. Once upon a time, work-related to computers and programming was given to women because it was deemed unskilled and unimportant. This, of course, changed once it became clear that those with computer skills had great power and influence. As a result, the number of female programmers decreased despite having proven skills.
This part of our modern history needs to stay in the past; to avoid repeating these errors, tech companies need to support and encourage women. An increase in females in higher-level tech positions is also crucial; it will also be easier for more women to be hired as they will relate better to the industry. Educational institutions also have a part to play. They too should recruit more female mentors so that women can connect to the industry better.

At the same time, gender bias is also an inherent problem that starts when we are young. Several reports have shown that the attitude of society when teaching children sends a wrong message. National Geographic is one such publication. Their research shows how the early stages of childhood, particularly gender-based toys, are contributing to today’s gender bias with a direct correlation with future career choices.

Dynamic female-led associations are working towards improving the tech sector. A few examples of these initiatives include:

● She can code: she can code’s mission is to offer women access to all the tools and resources they need to show them just how incredibly rewarding career in this industry can be.
● She Loves Data: particularly active in Southeast Asia; She Loves Data organizes workshops to encourage women to get into data and tech.
● Ada’s List: a group for women providing a platform for a holistic approach to addressing issues surrounding the under-representation of women in tech.
● FemaleTechFounder: an initiative from Manchester, UK, encouraging networking by inviting female tech founders to share their stories and visions.
● Women Who Code: a groundbreaking NPO dedicated to inspiring more women to learn how to code.
● WomenTech: an organization focused on social impact and connecting female tech talent with relevant companies.
● TechReturners: a unique group focused on helping women who return to work after a career break.
● Girls who code: a great initiative to help girls who have little exposure to Computer Science education in school, and for changing mindsets at an early stage.

Other initiatives include hackathons, for example. Focused specifically on the skills of the participants, hackathons can help empower women while closing the gender gap in the tech industry. As we have seen in our partnerships, hackathons are an excellent avenue to encourage women to engage their tech passions, while also creating a greater sense of community.

These are only a few of the possibilities, and all of them are building global & local communities that encourage networking & mentorship. The question is not whether developing strong female role models will help build a diverse and inclusive economy, but how we can all help in achieving full equality in the workplace faster.