Debunking the "there are no women in technology" myth

#GETblog. It's time to address the common misconception that there are no women in tech.

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Two weeks ago, Serge and I wrote a blog about the most destructive argument against women in technology. We received some interesting comments to that article, which we’d like to address.

One of the comments had to do with the idea that since there’s so few women in tech, you’ll eventually run out of women to recruit. At that point, you will either have to be satisfied with a poor gender balance, or you’ll have to recruit people who are less competent. Here’s part of the actual comment:

“First, if both groups are equal in every aspect except size, a fair hiring process will result in a gender balance that approximates the balance in size between the groups. Attempting to hire a larger percentage than this from the smaller group, women in this case, means that the candidates will be selected from a lower percentile of the smaller group and thus that the average ability/qualifications of the candidates from this group will be lower. This is not gender bias, it is just simple fact.”

This is a variation of the “there are not enough women in tech” argument, which is an argument that is often not grounded in facts. So, before we respond to this comment, we’d like to debunk some myths. Here goes:

Myth #1: There are hardly any women in tech to recruit from.

This is a myth, as the following statistics will show. In certain roles, there are few women, but in other roles, like in programming and engineering, the actual number of women is much higher than many people believe. We looked at data from many sources:

Resource #1: SCB (Statistics Central Bureau Sweden) - Women and Men in the private sector 2013 (in Swedish), which shows 34.3% women and 65.7% men in the “Information and communications” industry (ICT).

Resource #2: IT and Telecom companies’ member organization 2014 survey of its member companies. The organization has 1100 member companies with nearly 100,000 employees. According to their data, IT and Telecom in Sweden in 2014 had 29% women and 71% men.According to resource #2, programmers in Sweden are 21.64% women, 78.36% men. Managers in tech are 27.6% women, 72.4% men.

Tech actually has gender balance* among project managers: 40.2% women, 59.8% men, but lacks balance among technical experts (tekniker): 12.83% women, 87.17% men.

Surprisingly, there are 14.39% women in CEO roles at tech companies, which is higher than we’d expect, compared to the companies on the Swedish stock exchange, where that number is only 5.3%.

In 2015, 1316 engineers graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Out of that group, 29% were women and 71% were men.

The argument that I usually hear at this point is “yeah, but there’s so few women focusing on data-related programs in engineering” - 13% women and 87% men graduated in that program in 2015. However, when you consider the fact that there are so few graduates from this particular program - 87 graduates in 2014, 70 in 2013, 68 in 2012 (although 2015 was a larger group of 168), you have to understand that the tech industry, which has experienced high growth over a long period, is in fact recruiting from many, many other sources than simply this one group.

To sum up, no, it’s not a 50/50 balance to recruit from. But it’s not nearly as bad a base as people make it out to be, when you look at engineering and the overall balance in the industry. Also, new sites like Power to Fly, a site for recruiting women in technical roles from all over the world (who’ll work remotely), make it possible to recruit from a global base. In fact, many companies go out of their way to recruit women from other countries that have succeeded much better in educating women engineers.

Finally, with all the talk about the numbers game, there is one number that stands out as more important than any other number: the number of women leaving the industry permanently. The dirty little secret of tech is that a whopping 41% of women leave the tech industry after working in it, compared to just 17% of men. There is a serious argument to be made for simply focusing on retaining the women that you do have first, and creating a good work environment, and on recruiting second.

To sum this up. There are women out there. There are enough women to move the needle and please, at least try to keep the ones you have!

Myth #2: You need to already work in tech to get recruited into tech

So many of the skills needed at tech companies can be found in other industries: engineering, artists for gaming companies, UX designers, copywriters, 3D animations, film, media, social media, sales, management, HR. Sure, in some cases, industry experience is a must. But so much of the time, it’s the person’s skill set that’s important. Why is it so important that they’ve already worked in tech? Diverse candidates will have diverse backgrounds.

Myth #3: You need to be an engineer or programmer to work in tech

This is probably the biggest myth about tech in general. It’s simply not true. Let’s go back to basics, shall we? At the core of every business is 2 things:

  1. A product or service to sell
  2. A way to sell it

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just invent and create stuff and not worry about selling it? Alas, to think that any business could ever succeed just by creating something cool is naive. Without getting the product or service to market, having a sales and marketing strategy, the product will most likely fail. It doesn’t matter how great it is if no one knows about it. So the idea that you don’t need a diverse skill set on the team running the business, especially in tech, is nonsense.

Also, more and more agile teams include people from all different parts of the company in the creation of technology. Engineers, Testers, Product Owners, Project Managers, Support, UX, etc. The world is much less siloed.

Lastly, we’ve seen on this blog that people have decided to re-invent themselves and learn to code. And these people have been in environments where this was welcomed and nourished.

Myth #4: Someone expects you to go from 0% women in technical roles to 50% overnight

I’m throwing this one in because I feel like tech is suffering from a serious case of psyching itself out about gender equality right now. No one expects miracle changes overnight. What people do expect, though, is the following:

  1. That you do a wage survey to make sure that you’re paying women and men equal pay for equal work (required by law in Sweden)
  2. That you have a policy against harassment at work, with an action plan and contacts (required by law in Sweden)
  3. That you do an analysis of your company and have time-specific goals regarding gender equality and diversity work, where the CEO is ultimately responsible. (required by law in Sweden for all companies with 25 or more employees)

Complaining about not having enough people to recruit before doing these three basic things is like not voting, and then complaining about politics.

But back to our comment from the blog. I assume you’ve put in the above, basic work. I assume that you actually have a fair recruiting process. I assume that you do look outside of your industry for recruits, have reviewed your ads for gender-neutral language, and use wide channels for recruiting. You’ve argued that “a fair hiring process will result in a gender balance that approximates the balance in size between the groups.” Have your company’s hiring processes yielded a result of 29% women and 71% men  among total employees and 22% women and 78% men in programming? If so,  your company’s gender balance reflects the market. It’s not perfect gender balance (seen as at least 40% of the underrepresented gender in a given group), but you’re on pace with the market.

That being said, though, there are always people and companies who do better or worse than average. HP, IBM, Tieto, and Netlight stand out on the market as companies that have worked really hard with gender equality, and their results reflect the effort that they’ve put in. Do you want to be a winner or a whiner? :=)

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*Note: The Swedish government notes that 40% of the underrepresented gender can be the short-term goal in terms of gender balance among roles, although 50/50 balance should be the long-term goal, in groups where this is possible - like in management teams with an even number of people.