According to the World Economic Foundation’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, North America has closed its gender gap by 72.9%, ranking the region second in the world for one day reaching gender parity.
However, the WEF also notes that progress stalled for the continent in 2019 and 2020 was not much better. Canadian women left the workforce 3x that of men between February and October of the pandemic (1).
At the same time, payment deferral requests for businesses majority-owned by women were denied at a rate nearly double that of businesses not majority-owned (2).
But how do these numbers hold up in the tech industry? A universally recognized high-skill, high-wage field?
According to the Brookfield Institute’s 2019 Who Are Canada’s Tech Workers? report, women, earned $7,300 less than their male counterparts in 2016 and were 4x less likely to work in a tech role.
The problem is more worse for visible-minority women. The same report showed that women of color (excluding Chinese women) received, on average, $10,900 less than their male counterparts and $3,600 less than their white, female counterparts.
Canada’s tech sector is predicted to grow by 2.2% in 2021 (3) but the number of male STEM graduates outnumbered female STEM graduates by nearly 10,000 in 2018 (4).
In addition to this, only 28.3% of post-secondary STEM enrollments in 2019 came from female students while the remaining 71.7% of enrollments came from male students (5).
So where are the women in tech? What can we do to counteract this problem?
The tech sector has a diversity problem. The last decade or so has shown us this, but why is gender bias so prevalent in the tech sector?
In her book, The Psychology of Silicon Valley, Katy Cook outlines the myriad of cultural and systemic issues that plague Silicon Valley and sheds some light on the broken systems and ideologies that fuel it.
Cook notes that the tech industry [in Silicon Valley] “fails to understand the distinction between diversity and pluralism” (6).
She explains that “diversity is measured in numbers; pluralism is demonstrated in environments that value inclusion, equality, and respect” (6).
Take, for example, women-only tech events. Not only do these events fail to achieve gender parity (they effectively exclude men), but they also reinforce a dichotomy that says male and female tech professionals (and the code they write) are somehow different because they are different genders.
A study out of Durham University also comments on this flawed narrative, noting that participants found labels like “WIT - Women in Tech” or “Girls Who Code” damaging to creating pluralistic workplaces.
One CEO from the study states “you end up with a narrowed view of what you do and what you can do … this label brings a whole range of issues that you can see quite clearly (if you are a woman)” (7).
Make no mistake though, visibility is essential in the journey to creating a pluralistic workspace.
For example, a study was run in Lima “where researchers crafted information about a training program that actively negated “prevailing stereotypes that women cannot be successful in this industry” and applications from women rose from 7% to 15% (8).
So while visibility is an essential step for getting more women to even apply for jobs in the tech sphere, companies must understand that visibility is the bottom rung of a tall ladder when actualizing workplace gender parity.
Cook notes “the problem is not that the individual developers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are horribly racist, sexist people, but that we all exhibit subtle biases of which we are unaware” (6).
Other researchers agree. In her 2019 paper, Kimberley Houser states that “you don’t necessarily have to be biased against somebody. You can be biased in favour of somebody” (9).
She explains that “we tend to prefer people who look like us, think like us and come from backgrounds similar to ours” (9) AKA why Bob may promote Harry instead of Martina, even if they are evenly matched for the role.
Houser explains that this is a phenomenon is called “affinity bias” (9) and it happens unconsciously.
In her article, Strategies for Confronting Unconscious Bias, Kathleen Nalty explains that “you can be two people at the same time: a conscious self who firmly believes you do not have any bias against others because of their social identities, and an unconscious self who harbours stereotypes or biased attitudes that unknowingly leak into decision making and behaviours” (10).
In other words, Nalty explains, affinity bias inspires “mirrortocracy”—not meritocracy” (10).
Outside of this being wildly unethical when hiring, recruiting, and promoting, homogeneous teams have been found to cost companies money, and not just in the way of gender discrimination lawsuits.
When a team is made up of, primarily, one type of person, a phenomenon called groupthink tends to occur (11).
Groupthink is “the tendency for members in a given group to gradually drift toward the same beliefs and styles of thinking” (11).
Groupthink can prove detrimental to revenues as it neglects large portions of target demographics, resulting in the misunderstanding of crucial user needs.
A study conducted by Boston Consulting Group found that companies with above-average management team diversity reported revenues 19% higher than companies with below-average management team diversity as a result of innovation (12).
The facts are in the figures. It pays to be diverse.
So why haven’t all companies adopted pluralistic team cultures? As mentioned, many of the biases that cause these systemic issues operate at an unconscious level. It takes a great deal of self-reflection, understanding, and knowledge that they’re there in the first place to really address them.
However, the deeper we move into the age of superintelligence the more problematic instances like groupthink, unconscious bias, and homogeneous teams become.
Cook explains that “humans program algorithms, algorithms are encoded with human biases” (6).
If the tech sphere continues to be made up of, primarily and dominantly, one type of human being, “it is going to become very difficult to advocate for diversity and inclusion in these structures later down the road” (6).
Fei-Fei Li, Sequoia Capital Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, echoes this, saying: “trying to reverse [biased systems] a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible” (13).
So what can companies do to counteract this?
CEO of Project Include, author of Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, and the woman that started it all, Ellen Pao, discussed some steps that can be taken to create safe spaces for minority individuals on the New Rules of Work podcast.
She says actions like watching a video on unconscious bias before conducting performance reviews or analyzing your hiring metrics to see where the majority of your employees are coming from can help create pluralistic spaces (14).
Pao also mentions actions that people can take at an individual level to uphold diversity and inclusion, such as speaking up for visible-minority colleagues when something discriminatory happens or practicing what you will say when these instances occur (14).
She notes “it’s less risky to be an ally than to be the person experiencing the discrimination in real-time” (14).
Apart from this, companies can include a commitment to diversity statements in their organizational documentation, partner agreements, internal newsletters, and branding. Make it known that diversity and inclusion are key pillars in your company culture and uphold these values vigorously.
Companies need to act swiftly and markedly when bias, discrimination, racism, sexism, or ageism occur. While instances of misconduct should be assessed independently for context and severity, do not let discrimination go unheeded.
Make sure employees know and understand how to file an HR complaint and when you’re vetting individuals for leadership roles, ensure they understand the duties involved for modeling inclusivity and upholding these company values in the face of misconduct.
Think about the obstacles that prevent women from attending meetups and/or networking events and accommodate them accordingly. Providing a service like childcare, for example, can do wonders for removing the barrier to entry for tech professionals that are also mothers for attending these events.
Set time aside during event planning to brainstorm barriers that could potentially exist for women wanting to attend your event. This could include garnering advice from female colleagues or an online poll catered to women across your industry on how to best remove these barriers.
Don’t assume. Do the research.
As mentioned earlier, women-only groups and/or events do little for achieving gender parity in the workplace. The events effectively ‘other’ women, perpetuating the flawed notion that networking events or groups should be organized on the basis of gender and not on the basis of profession, skills, or interests.
Make your events and groups women-friendly (as mentioned above) and if instances of sexism, gender bias, or discrimination do occur, ensure that moderators or facilitators are equipped with the tools (conflict resolution, unconscious bias, and facilitation training) needed to act.
It’s important to note that our unconscious biases don’t just turn off when we leave the office. We carry them with us everywhere we go and they have the potential to bleed into everything we do.
A study conducted by Leeds Beckett University found “that the percentage of girls who would likely be successful and enjoy further STEM study was considerably higher than the percentage of women graduating in STEM, implying that there is a loss of female STEM capacity between secondary and tertiary education” (15).
Outside of the male-orientedness of the tech industry, Reshma Saujani, explains in her 2016 TED Talk, that the “socialization of perfection” (16) women experience from the time they’re young to fully grown adults could also be responsible.
She recites a story told to her by a University of Columbia professor about male and female programming students looking for help with their code during office hours. She says:
“When the guys are struggling with an assignment, they’ll come in and they’ll say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with my code.” The girls will come in and say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with me” (16).
The Leeds Beckett study found that “when girls outperformed boys in science, as was the case in Finland, girls generally performed even better in reading” (15).
Logic would dictate then, on the basis that women have been socialized to fear failure above anything else, that the pursuit of a career in your strongest strength, even when you outperform peers in a secondary strength, is the safest route.
When we’re talking to young girls (and boys) about what they want to be when they grow up, it’s imperative that we recognize the unconscious biases, stereotypes, and social conditioning we could be entertaining to avoid influencing their futures on the basis of their gender.
As Reshma Saujani says “we have to teach them to be brave in schools and early in their careers when it has the most potential to impact their lives and the lives of others” (16).