Women in tech: When bias blinds, this is what happens to ‘seeing is being’
Only 30 per cent of data and analytics roles in Australia are held by women. Given the pivotal role these converging disciplines play in marketing, that’s bad news for everyone.
“People can’t be what they can’t see,” says Annette Slunjski, Managing Director of IAPA (Institute of Analytics Professionals of Australia).
Why is this applicable to women in tech? Primarily because the solutions proffered to remedy gender inequality cry out for women in elevated or visible positions. The reality? Only around 30 per cent of data and analytics roles in Australia are taken by women.
Gender equality might sound like an age-old argument. When you hear the facts rolled out by the STEM sector, however, it reaffirms the endemic issue. The drop-out rate for women in STEM (inclusive of technology, science and engineering), sits at 41%, compared to 17% for men. There’s a cliff to scale; no elevator ride to the top floor.
Unconscious bias within the work place is now on the conscience of the industry.
It should be. A telling study showed 1.4 million users of a program-sharing service (call it coding) indicated that software coding changes suggested by women had a higher approval rate than those of men. The caveat? In instances where the women were identified by their gender, their approval rates dropped from 78.6% to 62.5%.
Gender neutrality rewarded competency. Being a woman didn’t. The industry has chipped its nails.
Why is this a problem, why is it important and how do we change it? Simple to ask, harder to answer.
The Vogue Codes Summit 2021 was a direct assault on tech’s lack of female representation. It was a demand, not a question. The event was a clear indication that the industry wants the problem challenged and solved. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
In an interview with Edwina McCann, Pip Marlow, CEO of Salesforce ANZ, makes this stance clear: “We need women at the table. We need equality and equity in representation.”
The see-it-to-be-it motif returns in her reflection that, “We’re not seeing [women] paid at the high end or get to the same level [as men].”
So we’re not seeing enough women in the positions that influence change.
Gretchen Scott, Community Manager of the first Developer Challenges series, Cloudflare and Director at Women Who Code, iterates on this point: “There needs to be women visible in leadership roles, both senior and mid-level. There also need to be women writing code at all levels.”
But there aren’t enough. Both Marlow and Scott elucidate a self-fulfilling prophecy: that the visibility of women in leadership roles within the industry tends to be upheld as the best solution to inequality.
This top-down mode of combat, however, is a problem. Given the dearth of females in leadership positions, there need to be other ways to galvanise change. “We have to fix the pipeline,” says Marlow.
The ‘how’ comes to the fore, here. There are different renditions, but all seem to agree that a triple-pronged approach is necessary. Progress comes when top-down and bottom-up approaches to advocacy meet in the middle.
As Sheba Nandkeolyar, Founder and CEO MultiConnexions Group advises: “Universities and the [tech] industry should be able to come together and really assist in actually getting hold of great role models.”
The education piece is a close focus for Slunjski, too: “I’m not sure the natural journey from coding or computer science is towards marketing technology.” She confirms that there is work to do in order to normalise the association of one with the other. Target the school, the universities; get tech and marketing in bed together.
Like Nandkeolyar, Slunjski starts at the roots: “Whether we need to examine how we are teaching maths, the curriculum, or showing girls all the unbelievably exciting roles that aren’t stereotypical but springboards from a maths foundation.”
We can see the issue being unpacked. It’s just a difficult feat – a dusty suitcase with a broken zip to navigate before you even get to the contents. As Slunjski understates, “There is a job to do here.”
The ‘how’ behind gender parity is also about understanding: understanding the sector, the roles and the opportunities. Many don’t. As Scott justly points out, “The industry needs to be de-mystified. Who actually knows what a job in ‘tech’ is, or entails?”
This isn’t just a skills shortage, then. It’s a crying out for the dissemination of actionable information. If she can see it, she can be it, after all.
Change attitudes and make action. Tech is an enigma at the best of times, but opportunity within it is not.
There is a need to market the roles available – show what’s interesting, what’s out there. The industry should be good at that, right?
Women in search of jobs, at school or university, need a more complex rendition of an industry which is, inherently, complex. “Encouraging women to look to mentors in different industries is key,” Nandkeolyar adds.
Her assertion that creativity within tech roles is not the holy grail that people believe it to be is also important. It’s just another possibility: “There’s a creative, problem-solving element which is actually an inherent part of tech,” she says, agreeing that creativity will attract women who consider themselves to be less “techy” types.
Read the room
The industry needs to read the room; to know its audience: “We find that there are certain aspects of analytics that women find attractive like important work in ethics and minimising bias.”
As Slunjski also attests, “Perception is a big problem.” Facts confirm her to be correct in saying that, to many women, the tech industry means, “Being a geek in badly fitting clothes, thick glasses, computer games as friends and all the other stereotypes.”
It’s cooler than that, but women looking at the industry from the outside need to know.
There’s no crux point to dismiss this. If minimising bias and maximising opportunity is a pro for women, that still leaves the industry with no cons. They’re both holding a winning hand at the same table.
Diversity within the workplace impacts directly on outcomes for marketers. There – it’s been said.
The “Gender Equity Insights 2020: Delivering the Business Outcomes” report interrogating the benefits of female leadership in the workplace, shows that companies that grow female leadership by 10 per cent, or above, attain market value returns of nearly 7 per cent (averaging well over $100 million).
Companies that reduce female representation, according to the report, see a dip of 3 per cent in the value returned. Nandkeolyar fuels this fire, confirming: “There is profitability in mixed gender teams – women and diversity are going to help make better products.”
At the Vogue summit, to an audience of hundreds, Marlow called out an apt analogy: “When the first air bag was launched, findings revealed that a disproportionate amount of women and children were hurt. Why do you think that was the design?”
Because one hundred per cent of the design team that formed the crash test dummy were men. They based it on the average man’s body. “Now, that was an absence of diversity at the table.”
Marketing is still marketing, then. Yet marketing can’t afford tech or teams that won’t make good products. In Slunjski's words: “It doesn’t matter how fancy the tech is. If it’s not delivering a benefit to a customer outcome, it won’t work. In martech, it’s only cool when it delivers to a customer need.”
Diversity compliments outcomes. The prevailing strategy for women in tech should be, much like the industry itself, multi-faceted.
There is much overdue legwork to be done by the tech industry in order to understand what women want, how to provide that to them, and what it needs to change about itself in the process. Scott concludes, “There are many proposed reasons for women leaving technology at such an alarming rate. But the most jarring of these in unconscious bias.”
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