The women in tech debate: are we still in the era of unconscious gender bias?

GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Dr Joanne Phoenix, interim executive director at Sensor City asks how far we’ve really come in eliminating gender bias

In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in gender imbalance, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) sectors. In fact, according to WISE, over 900,000 women are in core Stem roles today, meaning we are on track to take that figure to 1 million by 2020.

Some countries are leading the way. If we look at America, for example, the state of California has now enforced a law that requires public companies to have a woman on their board. Closer to home, the UK has made it compulsory for companies that employ over 250 people to publicly declare the salaries of their male and female staff members. The aim is to gain greater transparency around gender pay gaps and tackle inequality.

Regulations like these are a far cry from where we were even just two years ago and have been monumental for generating greater diversity in tech and, with any luck, will be rolled out on a global scale in the years to come. However, while we have come a long way – with the percentage of women working in Stem jumping from 13% in 2014 to 24% in 2018 – there is still some way to go to eliminate inequality completely. Unconscious gender bias for example, is still ripe, especially in younger generations.

Unsurprisingly, last year’s A-level results showed that girls were less likely to choose Stem subjects than boys, and even though girls received the overall majority of A levels in the UK (55%), just 43% of A levels awarded to girls were in Stem subjects.

To increase the numbers, we need to understand what is stopping girls from choosing to study Stem subjects at school, and kickstart taking the necessary steps that will lead them to pursue careers in the sector.

There are plenty of movements across the UK and beyond that are doing just this. The InnovateHer programme, for example, is decreasing the gender imbalance in technology by helping girls aged 12 to 16 learn the skills needed to pursue a career in tech. The programme is delivered within schools across the North West to encourage girls to take Stem subjects at GCSE and A level, as a way of increasing the number of women in Stem and challenging the status quo.

Shining a light on female role models – like the ladies at InnovateHer – is an extremely powerful way to inspire and empower young girls because it creates a community of female figures and mentors for them to look up to. This is both genders’ responsibility, and we need to actively highlight the impact that women are having on the tech sector, based on the merit of their contribution.

Another problem where unconscious gender bias is evident is in recruitment. From how a job description is written, to how it’s promoted and the application process, it can often inadvertently steer towards a male audience.

How men and women respond to job descriptions is an issue in itself. This is a difficult area to tackle as, on the whole, there are innate sex differences to how men and women perceive and act in the workplace. Addressing this can only have an impact if it starts at an early age, and if the messaging continues throughout primary, secondary and higher education.

If we start to implement these changes in education and recruitment to tackle the gender issue in Stem then we will naturally start to see more women partaking in industry events, speaking panels and meetings. From experience, the number of women that actively participate in these environments is, most of the time, much lower than the number of men. In fact, a report by Open Society Foundations reviewed data on 12,600 speaking roles from 2012 to mid-2017 and  found that men remain prevalent, with women making up just 25% of conference speakers over the five-year period.

What’s clear is that we still have a long way to go to fix gender equality in Stem. However, I am confident that if we continue on the path we’ve set ourselves on, acknowledging bias and implementing change, this time next year we will be in a much different position.

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