We have read a lot about the issue of women in technology lately, since the publication of a dubious “manifesto” by a male Google employee, postulating that women may be biologically unsuited to a job in IT.
The argument is clearly absurd. If you look outside western countries – where IT workforces struggle to achieve more than 20% representation of women – the issue doesn’t exist. IT teams in India and south-east Asia, for example, commonly have much greater female presence. Not to mention the fact that computer programming was invented by a woman.
But the ensuing debate raises a more pertinent question about employment practices in tech – not about the role of women in the workforce, but about why IT employers hire the sort of men who feel the need to make such specious arguments to justify their existence and the lack of diversity around them.
Let’s declare an interest here. Computer Weekly has campaigned for over a decade for more women in IT and greater diversity in the tech workforce. To us, it is self-evident that an industry that seeks to change the way we all live and work needs to reflect the society it serves.
Now that IT has burst out of the datacentre and into people’s homes, pockets and hands, it is not acceptable to find out about voice recognition systems that struggle to interpret female voices because all the developers and testers were men; nor to have wearable technology for medical and fitness assistance that don’t offer features to help monitor periods for similar reasons.
Silicon Valley is fast developing an unwanted reputation for institutionalised misogyny. Several high-profile incidents at tech companies such as Uber and others have highlighted an apparently toxic culture that favours men.
Here in the UK, there is less evidence of such anti-diversity attitudes, but still the IT workforce is barely 17% female. There are – generally minor – pockets of misogyny, but the issue here is more one of unconscious bias. Even male IT leaders who want to recruit more women are often unaware of their own inherent behaviours that undermine a genuine desire for a more diverse team.
But we don’t hear other industries turning to arguments about biological suitability and anti-diversity attitudes to anything like the extent that tech does. Why is that?
A key element of unconscious bias is recruiting people who are similar to yourself. That’s not necessarily to say that IT recruiters are unwittingly misogynistic – but it could be that they bond easier with men who, subconsciously or otherwise, are.
As Computer Weekly has said before, the only people who can make IT a more diverse workforce – in every sense of the word “diversity”, meaning a mix of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, attitude, skills and so on, that better reflects wider society – are the men who still make most of the hiring decisions.
A lot of men don’t like to hear this, but it’s they who need to adapt. Many already have. And it’s our belief that the vast majority want to – it’s up to all of us to help make it happen.