Women in tech: when a return to the origins is needed

A surprising twist in history, did you know that tech has not always been a man's world?

In the 1950s, it is estimated that women represented between 30 and 50% of computer science students (1). This proportion was reflected in the sector's workforce after their studies (2).

This gender mix - even near parity in the middle of the 20th century - is now an old memory. In 2021, women will represent less than 10% of the students on the benches of French computer science schools, according to the Gender Scan - Firm Global. And unsurprisingly, this gendered educational orientation is reflected in a sector that is now 77% male in France. (5)

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation is slightly better, but not entirely satisfying. The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) provides figures on the training of American women in CIS (Computing and Information Sciences), indicating that they represent only 21% of bachelor's degrees. (3) So much so that the prestigious University of Berkeley has taken on the stereotypes by entitling its digital course "The beauty & joy of computing" to get more girls to enrol. (4)

The historical turning point in this scarcity of women in the sector? The arrival of the first PCs in the 1980s, which were marketed as consumer products aimed at boys and men (6). At the same time, the video game industry was booming - the first PCs were mainly used for playing games - and was mainly aimed at a male audience, as this compilation of gaming advertisements from the 1980s shows.

Programming jobs were becoming more prestigious and the sector was becoming more masculine.

Back to the golden age of gender equality

Today, the desire of stakeholders to return to the mixed origins of the sector is constantly being reaffirmed, for several reasons:

Firstly, it is an ethical issue. According to recent estimates, 30% of jobs in France will be in the digital sector by 2030: we cannot deprive ourselves of the pool of female talent! Particularly as this is a lucrative sector that is doing well, and whose lack of gender diversity thus partly contributes to the growing inequalities in wealth and power between women and men in society.

Moreover, the HR challenges are high, both in terms of attracting and retaining talent. A phenomenon demonstrated by numerous studies, gender diversity is a driving force for well-being in work teams (14% more fulfilment in mixed teams than in non-mixed teams in France), creativity and innovation, and thus a performance factor. In this regard, mixed teams perform 20% better than non-mixed teams in France and 23% better internationally, according to Global Compact.

On the other hand, the lack of gender diversity increases the occurrence of psychosocial risks such as sexism. In the Silicon Valley, the turnover of female employees is twice as high as that of men, and one of the explanations for this phenomenon is the bro culture (a term referring to the macho culture of some Silicon Valley programmers) which impacts on the mental health of women at work. (7) In day-to-day life, gender stereotypes take different forms. For example, a study of women working in Silicon Valley who had been in the industry for more than 10 years found that 87% of them had experienced that some of their colleagues gave priority to their male counterparts for questions, assuming by default that their male colleagues were more competent than them.

Last but not least, the lack of gender mix in tech (and diversity!) has a consequence on the quality of products. This is the debate that has been emerging in recent years around the biases present in algorithms, and the notion of algorithmic responsibility. In 2018, computer scientist Joy Buolamwini published a research paper with researcher Timnit Gebru entitled "Gender Shades". Both detail how racial and gender biases also permeate artificial intelligences. The findings are disturbing: the machines identify men better than women, and white people better than anyone with darker skin.

It is clear that a real mix of developers and expertise would make it possible to prevent, or at least reduce, bias, right from the product design stage.

Team of programmers talking about algorithm running on laptop screen pointing at source code while sitting at desk. Software developers collaborating on data coding group project.

Acting, yes, but how?

Faced with these major challenges, it is clear that companies in the digital technology sector must continue to act. Here are a few good practices to implement or develop, to work, at their level, towards more gender diversity:

For young tech start-ups, it is advisable to think about the issue of gender equality from the beginning of the project at team level, and even to include gender equality as a fundamental value of the company. It is also recommended that positive action mechanisms be formalised as early as possible to avoid a form of 'parity debt' in the future.

For more mature companies, small or large, it is possible to form partnerships with tech schools specialising in inclusion, to systematically communicate job offers to women's networks, to rely on inclusive communication both in terms of visuals and in the writing of job descriptions...

Internally and externally, whatever their size, they must ensure that they promote female role models and thus contribute to inspiring women in the sector.

They must also ensure that egalitarian HR processes are put in place to structure the professional trajectory (work/life balance, promotion, remuneration, etc.)

Finally, raising awareness of gender stereotypes among all employees will have a strong impact on the work group in order to monitor or prevent sexist behaviour.

The implementation of a certain number of actions, brought together in a professional equality policy, will thus make it possible to put the spotlight back on female talents, pioneers in the tech world.

In conclusion, it should be remembered that the issue of gender diversity in tech cannot be left to the companies alone; they must act, hand in hand with the public authorities, particularly to raise the symbolic issues linked to educational orientation prior to joining the company.

Emilie Frechet

Emilie Fréchet