Editor's Note: Aug. 26 is Women's Equality Day in the United States.
Information technology (IT) has changed the way government, industry and other enterprises work and how people go about their day-to-day lives. In spite of such innovative and disruptive changes, IT is in itself still a jungle where men prevail. Let's take a quick look at some numbers.
Fewer women work in Silicon Valley's IT sector than in most other industries in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise more than 50 percent of college graduates, but they make up only 30 percent of the workforce at major IT firms. And that 30 percent includes women working in non-tech functions.
On average, less than 20 percent of IT professionals working in product-development and engineering roles are women. In information security, the percentage of women is even lower. At tech giant Google, women comprise a mere 18 percent of its technical workforce, and only 22 percent of senior management.
Sadly, according to the Harvard Business Review, 41 percent of women who work in the tech industry also exit those jobs earlier than expected — the corresponding figure for men is 17 percent. Research shows that many women leave not because they don't like the work, but because they feel alienated in a discriminatory environment.
Although equally qualified, they sometimes earn less than men performing the same functions — according to a Joint Venture Silicon Valley report, the median income in 2013 for men holding undergraduate degrees was a surprising 61 percent greater than for women with the same level of education. Additionally, women frequently report that they lose out on promotions, encounter subtle sexism, and are subject to harassment. Other reported reasons for women leaving IT jobs is the lack of paid maternity leave, inflexible work arrangements, and a general lack of respect from male peers.
One reason why women may not feel welcome in IT is that it is a place with few female role models in technical and leadership roles, and few mentors for women. Presently, only five of the 41 Fortune 500 tech companies are helmed by women.
What is the problem?
The bias is both conscious and unconscious and its origins are cultural. Historically, societies in many countries have been conditioned to believe that women are less capable than men when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Girls grow up thinking that math and science don't come naturally to them and forego majoring in those topics.
Such thinking creates a supply and management problem. If families and mentors socialize girls to believe that STEM isn't just a masculine thing, but a field that anyone with interest and aptitude can explore and thrive in, then more women will enter IT related studies in college and the pipeline of women prepared to work in IT job roles will swell.
This cultural bias constantly seeps into the workplace. Add to that more than a whiff of what Vikram Chandra describes in his book Geek Sublime as the "machismo of tech geeks in the United States." And it's not just tech companies, but venture capital firms as well that are overwhelmingly male. As the Internet of Things spreads, more start-ups are IT-related, and venture capitalist firms headed by men tend to fund start-ups founded by other men.
Ironically, gender bias in STEM is not as pronounced in Latin America and India. In those regions, girls are encouraged to study science and math. They also have more female IT role models. According to a UNESCO report, the global average for scientific researchers who are women is just 29 percent, but in Latin America women comprise an amazing 45 percent.
Although societal bias against women runs deep and wide in India, Indian tech firms employ a higher percentage of female programmers than their U.S. counterparts, 30 percent versus 21 percent. Industry researchers point to the presence of mentors and other benefits, like paid maternity leave and child-care, for the positive numbers in Latin America and India.
Preparing for and confronting gender bias
Ideally, those already in the IT industry would change its climate to be more welcoming to women. Indeed, many major companies and associations recognize the problem and are taking ongoing measures to create a more diverse and welcoming IT environment.
The pace of change is likely to be slow, however, and women entering the field in the near term should be aware of gender-driven challenges and prepared to confront them. The first step for any woman in overcoming gender bias in the IT realm is to hold fast to an understanding that she is in no way less capable or deserving than her male peers. Expect to be treated as an equal.
Women should not shy away from taking credit for good work, or hesitate to negotiate and ask for raises they deserve. Whether or not a favorable outcome is likely, if a woman believes that she is due to receive a raise or a promotion, then she should ask for it.
In these circumstances, advice and guidance from experienced woman workers can be invaluable. It's important to seek the support of other women and learn from the experiences of those who are veterans of the industry and well acquainted with its obstacles.
Challenging cultural biases can also highlight gender disparity and move companies to enact policies to make the industry a more civilized and equal place for women. Ellen Pao, a former partner of the storied Silicon Valley venture capital giant, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, sued the firm for gender discrimination and retaliation. She lost, but her action drew massive media-attention to the fact that women wield very little power in the industry. Most IT CEOs and other top bosses are male.
Media coverage galvanized some IT heavyweights and venture capital firms into moving to address the problem. And Pao's lawsuit emboldened other women to take legal action against gender discrimination. Pao advices women to develop resilience, to have "a thick skin; it naturally gets thicker over time," and to speak out against discrimination.
Women who face harassment should not hesitate to record and report such incidents, since reputable companies usually list inappropriate behavior in their employee handbooks.
Resources available to women facing gender bias
It's encouraging that women now have an increasing number of internal and external support groups to turn to. For many women, the initial go-to resource would be employee resource groups and women's networks within their own company or trade associations.
In 2012, Google launched Women Techmakers, a global program celebrating women and encouraging them to pursue and excel in tech careers. Techmakers offers support and aims to empower women in IT jobs by hosting summits at Google offices around the world. In the past three years, they have held 128 events across 52 countries benefiting more than 11,000 women.
There are several other associations catering to the development and success of technical women, both national and international. These and many other support organizations provide much-needed camaraderie, help and inspiration. Some of the more well-known include:
Women in Technology International (WITI) — WITI offers women in tech the means to connect with and help each other. Through WITI, women gain access to senior women who are well established in the IT industry.
Girl Geek Dinners (GGD) — GGD is a global group with chapters in at least 23 countries. They organize social nights for women to have fun as well as find support and inspiration.
Girls in Tech (GIT) — GIT organizes a variety of useful programs aimed at empowering women.
Systers — This is an e-mail group begun by the Anita Borg Institute, is a forum for technical women across the world to share experiences and ask for advice.
The future of women in IT
The U.S. IT industry appears to be getting the message about the power and abilities of women in IT. More tech companies are recognizing that women make teams more diverse, and that their contributions do spur innovation.
Microsoft, Apple and Intel are among some of the major U.S. IT companies that have acknowledged gender imbalance and have begun taking concrete steps to address it. Apple has contributed to the National Center for Women and Information Technology and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund in order to bring more women and minorities into the pipeline.
Microsoft is training male employees to detect unconscious bias and overcome their inability to acknowledge the contributions of their female co-workers, and Intel is rewarding managers who help diversify the workforce.
While it's essential to implement policies that make the IT industry more equal and open for women, that alone isn't enough. We need an attitudinal shift and that can only follow from a change in cultural perception. Fortunately, this change is happening. Slowly at times, but it is happening.