Technology and Tiaras:
Understanding the Role of Women in Technology Innovation
We are living through the “fourth industrial revolution” in which digital technologies and cyber physical systems are changing and shaping the ways in which current and future generations work, live and interact. But the UK’s information technology sector may be suffering because only 15-20% of its workforce are women, with even fewer in software engineering (4%). The position is similar in France and many other countries of the EU. Women’s skills and knowledge as designers and innovators of technology are thus lost to this highly influential sector, and is alarming both for the sector itself and women’s careers. This picture is not unique to the UK: it is similar in France and many other Western European countries.
The aim of this project was to carry out an exploratory study to try to discover the ‘sticky problems’ that prevent the IT sector from recruiting and retaining women technologists. We interviewed 26 men and women individually, and carried out four focus groups, in the UK’s and France’s software development and IT sectors.
What we found:
- Being encouraged from an early age to explore technology encourages ‘gender blindness’ in embryonic female software developers, that is, they do not see it as a ‘male only’ industry;
- Schools on both sides of the Channel fail to inspire young women to develop their interests in IT, although single sex girls’ schools in the UK often encouraged female students to follow their interests.
- Women entering the UK’s IT industry, can move from development to general management or project management with relative ease. This was not the case in France.
- While in both countries there were no reports of blatant discrimination, there were instances of “casual sexism” aimed at women, but they were more frequently reported by our French respondents of both genders.
- The stereotype of the coke-guzzling, pizza-eating geek persists on both sides of the Channel. Although, some objected to this stereotype, its perpetuation is used as a way of explaining women’s exclusion from these industries: they just cannot work in such a geekish environment.
Male respondents from both sides of the Channel thought women’s presence led to less risk taking, with women not “allowing things to happen”. Female respondents thought women’s participation would lead to exciting technological innovations in end products, processes, relevance and functionality.
We asked participants what changes could be made to redress the gender imbalance. Many focused on socialisation, education and society, locating ‘the problem’ outside individual organisations. Some men on both sides of the Channel did not see gender imbalance as a problem – they felt that women have equal opportunities but simply choose other careers.
The study suggests the gender imbalance in the new technological industries has arisen through many complex and overlapping causes. These may differ in some ways between the two countries, but in both the UK and France, cultures have been established that alienate women from working in IT development. There is no simple solution to changing these entrenched cultures, but given these insights the next stage of our research will be to find out more about them. We need a deep understanding of the causes so that we can address the problems at their root. We need to understand the nature of the tasks in technology development and why most are regarded as ‘men’s work’. Comparisons with countries where there is more gender equality (such as Iceland and Finland) and more women working in technology development (such as Malaysia and India), will help us find ways of tackling this phenomenally complex ‘sticky problem’.
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