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Getting More Women In Tech

Re-entry programs are a positive step, but education is key

8Mar

Today, women hold around 30% of tech positions. The group that make up 58.7% of the US labor force - close to two-thirds - take almost one-third of the STEM jobs. We can all agree that that's a disappointing number, but it's made all the more unacceptable when you consider that the figure is actually down from 36% in 1991. After countless initiatives, a perceived shift in societal attitude, and trials of various quota systems, it seems that we have gone backwards, and something is still limiting the involvement of women in tech.

It's not a small company issue, either. Women fill just 10% of technical positions at Twitter, 16.6% at Microsoft, and 17% at Google. The issue is so multifaceted, so ingrained, that no one initiative or governmental policy will see girls itching to take tech subjects or women flooding into tech roles. That said, they are undeniably necessary, and dealing with both the symptoms and the causes of a culture that turns women away from tech is the only way we can bring balance to a wildly one-sided industry.

In 2015, Intel invested $300 million in a 'diversity fund', which 'serves tech startups led by women and underrepresented minorities' - helpful for the limited pool of female leaders but perhaps less so for the female graduate. The Californian multinational, along with six other companies - IBM, General Motors, Cummins, Caterpillar, Johnson Controls and Booz Allen Hamilton - are rolling out paid re-entry programs to supplement the existing initiatives. The paid internships are designed to allow women who have taken a two-or-more-year career break a path back into the industry. Pioneered by iRelaunch, which was founded in 2014 and is responsible for re-hiring at some high profile companies, the programs aim to remove any lasting stigma attached to those with extended gaps in their CVs and improve the job market with a second influx of former professionals.

GM's 12-week re-entry program, for example, is hoped will give those who have taken long breaks the opportunity to catch up with the ever-hastening changes in technology since their last jobs, which range from four- to 21-year breaks. GM's 10 interns are all women and Silva Karlsson, SWE liaison for GM, said: 'Our hope is to hire them all.' IBM are similarly looking to bring in six interns, all of which are women with five- to eight-year breaks in their careers; men are included, but typically far fewer have taken the time out of work. Above all else, they are about getting women back in at a level of seniority appropriate to their experience. More gender-diverse boardrooms have been shown to be more financially successful and, according to TechCrunch, companies that neglect to promote women are failing their shareholders - a message that could be forcefully used to push the issue.

Such programs are more organic than the use of quotas, which still invariably divide opinion. Quotas are an unfortunate last resort, but they are a means to an end in which quotas are unnecessary. Having female senior managers can change the culture of the industry, in part by providing senior role models to offset the damaging image of the 'brogrammer'. Quotas are perhaps an uncomfortably forced way into seniority for women but, as a remedy for a symptom rather than the cause, the evidence suggests that they are effective.

As useful as these policies and schemes can be, the root issue is one of education; the perception of tech, or STEM more generally, as a 'male industry' needs to change. The attitude pervades society, from the perception that tools are somehow 'boys toys' to the notion that women favor 'more caring careers' than tech - which, incidentally, is nonsensical given the good that tech can do for families and societies. And education in the classroom, though vital, can only go so far; attitudes at home must change, too. Organizations like #techmums hope to '[give] mothers the chance to take part in the digital revolution' through hands-on tech workshops. Part of the drive to get young girls involved in tech is to educate mothers, assuage any concerns they may have about their children being online, and open them up to the benefits of grappling with tech from an early age. It's unlikely that the next generation of mothers will be at all inexperienced with tech given its ubiquity but, at present, the organization is useful and mothers have even found work in tech thanks to the program.

There is no simple answer to the dearth of women in tech positions. The changes need to be top down, bottom up, governmental, societal, long-term and short-term. The shrink in the percentage of women in tech roles since 1991 is worrying, but with the gap now common knowledge and an ever-growing list of initiatives in place to address it, the outlook needn't be quite so bleak. 

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