Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Why are there still too few women in tech?

I recently changed career. It took me a little while to decide what I wanted to do and then even longer to pluck up the courage to actually hand in my resignation. But I did it and, so far, I have not looked back.

What was I doing before?

I was working for a corporate law firm as an associate. I’m not here to rubbish being a lawyer (there are always plenty of people willing to do that!) but I always felt that there was a level of creativity that was missing in my day job. It was grinding me down. It was time to make a change.

Whilst working as a lawyer, there was one subject that came up repeatedly in discussions: the issue of women in the workplace and why there are so few female partners in law firms. I know that I am lucky to be able to say that I never felt any kind of glass ceiling or discrimination in my work (albeit at more junior levels) but sadly the numbers at the top speak for themselves. The last Chambers student’s report for 2016 showed only 27% of partners in law firms are women.

I had always assumed (perhaps naively) that when I stepped outside the boundaries of a corporate law firm that the numbers would be better but, I am saddened to learn, the same issues exist everywhere — especially in tech companies.

There are, it seems to me, a mix of issues which affect the number of women in tech. These reasons, I think, can also lead to different experiences for men and for women in office environments generally.

An empty pipeline

One of the main problems is that there are simply not enough women taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at school or at university. The Institute of Physics, for example, records that only 20% of A-level physics students are female. Even more terrifyingly, this statistic hasn’t changed for over 25 years.

And the UK job market does not fare much better. According to a 2015 survey completed by the Institute of Engineering and Technology, only 9% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female. So even when we manage to get female students to choose and study STEM subjects, this does not translate to representation in the workforce.

But is the lack of women studying STEM subjects and working STEM careers just related to subject choices at school and university? Statistics show that women continue to make choices that take them out of the STEM pipeline later in their careers. This leads to consistent underrepresentation of women throughout the workforce.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that I fall into these statistics. I was always adamant that I wanted to study history rather than taking the maths and science subjects which came more naturally to me. Looking back it is hard to see exactly what made me so convinced I didn’t want to take STEM subjects.

Lack of role models

A lack of female role models contributes to the poor representation of women in tech and in leadership roles. Unfortunately, this is a vicious circle.

Women do not have the same number or variety of people to look up to, or mentors to speak to, in the early stages of their careers and when making crucial decisions. There are some amazing female role models out there but they are often extraordinary people who have achieved so much against all the odds. These role models can help lead the charge towards change but they can’t make changes at grassroots levels where support is desperately needed.

I don’t want to take away from these wonderful women (or suggest for a minute that everyone shouldn’t aim for greatness) but, for many women, the role models that they see are unobtainable, super-women who seem to juggle it all (super job, kids, sense of humour, perfectly dressed…you get the picture). This can be daunting and intimidating.

Women are recognising this need for change and building communities that can provide support and advice and role models or mentors. However, as Arianna Huffington says, we won’t change the number of women in leadership roles until ‘we change the nature of workplaces, because right now they are fueled by stress and burnout’.

Importance of gender-balanced teams

I have seen first hand the difference between teams with gender-balanced leadership and those that are predominately male lead. Where there is no balance in the team, the culture often suffers and unattractive behaviours creep in. This, in turn, makes the team less attractive to female juniors and a natural filtration process occurs.

My experience is that having a gender-balanced leadership makes for a more balanced and happy team. It helps to build an inclusive culture among the more junior members of the team and leads to a more flexible approach to different working arrangements. With gender balance in leadership, both women and men can see opportunities for their future and the working environment can maintain a similar balance.

And it’s not just working culture that benefits from diversity, it hits the bottom line. According to a McKinsey study The Power of Parity, companies are 15% more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse.

Career path trajectory (straight path v Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘jungle gym’)

When I started working in my early twenties (long before I had any thoughts about starting a family) I was painfully aware that while my male colleagues and friends saw their careers progressing on a steady upward trend with no bumps on the way, generally, women did not think in the same way. They tended to look at their career path with various interruptions the most obvious being when they wanted to have children.

Does not reflect reality (only expectations)!

Where does this difference in approach between men and women come from? There certainly shouldn’t be any reason why men and women in their early twenties should have a different long-term view of their career paths.

Clearly, the reasons behind these decisions are many and complex. However, I think it often comes down to cultural experiences and expectations which can manifest subconsciously. For many women, the primary breadwinner in their family was male when they were growing up and they have had less exposure to women in work. This can, over a period of time, and alongside social expectations, lead to a different attitude to their approach to work.

Taking the plunge!

For me, the transfer to working in a less structured and more creative environment has been challenging but uplifting. A greater diversity of work and a great journey learning and experiencing new things every day. I hope that other women who want to be entrepreneurs feel brave enough to take the leap.

All I can say is go for it….you don’t have to be extraordinary, but you can help take a step in the direction of representing more women in tech and being a role model for the future!

Xanthe Kueppers is a co-founder at pilcro.

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