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Despite some positive progress towards gender equality in the workplace over the last ten years, there are still inherent issues which are presenting challenges for women’s careers in IT.
Women still hold less than 20% of leadership positions in the technology industry and were almost twice as likely as men to leave their jobs, be laid off, or furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic. These figures, along with the personal accounts of the many women who have faced discrimination, challenges and setbacks in their careers, remind us that we still have a long way to go before gender equality is truly realised in the tech industry.
However, it’s positive that 74% of girls now express a desire for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) career. This tells us two things, firstly that there is a clear demand from young girls and women to join the technology industry, but secondly, despite this demand, we are still not seeing this translate into leadership roles or even job opportunities for women in tech. This speaks to what I believe is one of the biggest barriers facing working women in the technology industry – perception – both internal and external.
The expectation divide
Many women have multiple roles in society, as businesspeople, as mothers, as mentors - to name just a few. As such, there is a lot of pressure on women to be as successful as possible across these many roles, all at the same time.
‘Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less’ by Tiffany Dufu describes the disproportionate internal and external expectations that many women suffer from whilst juggling their careers with family and home life. As Gloria Steinman writes when women believe that for us, “having it all” must mean “doing it all” – it becomes what psychologists call “internalised oppression”.
Especially in the technology industry, this internal oppression – or expectation - is just as important as external expectation when it comes to breaking the ‘perception barrier’ for women in tech. Indeed, women who are successful in tech can often still experience imposter syndrome or self-doubt despite lengthy and distinguished careers, which can undermine their confidence and hold them back from achieving their full potential.
Simultaneously, many women feel unsupported in their workplaces – through a lack of role diversity, flexibility and understanding - whilst also feeling the impact of parenthood on their careers more significantly than their male counterparts. In fact, according to a YouGov survey, nearly 38% of mothers said having kids has harmed their career, whereas only 14% of fathers felt the same.
This divide plays heavily into the perception barrier that many women feel each day. Businesses therefore need to support women to feel assured that the organisation they work for has thought about the careers of women, whether that be ensuring diversity in leadership roles or a focus on how to bring back working mothers.
Since the pandemic, many businesses have made great steps forward in offering hybrid working practises to benefit the time poor lives of many women in tech, but ensuring that this remains a focus is essential to improving equality in the workplace. Women should not have to choose between their careers or their family lives, nor should they be expected (or feel they should expect of themselves) to be everything, everywhere, all at once.
Repairing the broken rung
It’s not just this expectation divide that can be an obstacle to women in business. At a more granular level, women are simply not getting promoted within their companies as fast as their male counterparts. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report, only 52 women in technical roles are being promoted to manager for every 100 men.
When businesses engage in uneven promotions processes it can create a broken rung on the career ladder for women in technology which creates significant barriers for them. Especially when looking at early promotions – which can often be career defining – women in technical roles are just not being given the same opportunities to progress.
Change here starts with the business itself ensuring that the career progression of women is monitored and that mentorship programmes and sponsors are encouraged and made more accessible. Businesses must also ensure that advancement and development of women in technical roles, through skills and management training as well as networking opportunities, is a priority for the business.
Businesses also need to consider diversity across the employee life cycle, from attracting new talent in the market, through to promoting a diverse board of directors. Employers need to think at every stage of the cycle: “are we attracting diverse talent?”. There is clearly demand for women in STEM roles, so companies must ask themselves whether their role profiles, job flexibility and even websites are attractive and inclusive enough to women.
Change must start from the top, too. Female and male business leaders alike should be encouraged to advocate for more inclusive policies and practices within their organisations, building strong networks and communities that provide mutual support, encouragement, and advocacy.
Tearing down the perception barrier
By sharing our stories and experiences, we can inspire and empower the next generation of women in tech. Ultimately, we need everyone involved, from the business, to the employee, to the industry as a whole, to foster a sense of belonging for women in technology in order to truly tackle the perception barrier in front of women today.
Change may start with policies and initiatives, but until women feel genuinely supported, appreciated and understood by their organisations, there will still be work to do.