The tech world has been largely designed by and for men, as women have traditionally been left out of the data story that feeds the development of the products we use. This is evident in tech goods, like the mobile phone, designed for men’s bulky hands, and virtual assistants programmed by default to be in the female voice.
In some parts of the world, the number of women pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education has increased, according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. However, in the United States, Accenture and Girls Who Code’s research finds that while the number of women in tech careers has increased in the past decades, the proportion of women to men in tech roles has actually declined over the past 35 years. We are still not seeing the change we need in the tech industry, as women continue to be a small and smaller minority of the teams that design and build the technologies that are a fundamental part of our daily lives. The problem is even more pressing as the task of designing and building technologies are increasingly carried out by machines trained to make decisions based on existing data sets; “automated decision-making (ADM). But if machines make the technology we use, they are learning to make tech from an already biased system.
The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), whose Digital Inclusion Benchmark tracks how companies are helping to advance a more inclusive digital society, and Women at the Table, the first organisation focusing on systems change by helping feminists gain influence in sectors that have key structural impact (such as technology) have come together to share the following recommendations that we see as necessary if we are to fundamentally and urgently move the needle on female representation in tech.
Recommendation #1: Create a standard definition for ‘technical roles’
‘Women in tech’ should not be defined as the number of women who are working at a digital company. While female representation at all levels is important, it is crucial to understand what constitutes a technical role at a company. Are women working in the tech company’s call centers and human resources, or are they part of the teams conceiving, building and programming digital devices and services? The World Economic Forum finds that women are currently only 14% of the workforce in Cloud Computing, 20% in Engineering, and 32% in Data and AI. While these may be helpful data points, they feel incomplete as they are based on LinkedIn data of only 20 economies. The Digital Inclusion Benchmark tracks how companies in the benchmark define technical roles and it is clear that companies are struggling to find a definition for this category.
Some companies simply describe technical roles as “STEM-related” or “technical”, others like Telstra refer to the Australian Workforce Gender Equality Agency’s definition that includes ‘Information Media and Telecommunications’ as a category. Organisations like AnitaB.org go the extra mile to align with, what could be considered current and evolving practice:… define[s] the technical workforce as all technical occupations in computing and information technology, all occupations that require deep technical specialisation and knowledge, as well as managers, directors, and executives who oversee technical employees and the development and delivery of technical products. Additionally, the workforce is defined by position, not department.
With such a wide variety of definitions of what is considered a technical role, it is difficult to understand who ‘women in technical roles’ refers to in a company’s annual report. Only just over a third of the 150 companies (52/150) reported the number of women in technical/engineering roles in the Digital Inclusion Benchmark. We also looked at whether companies report the number of women in their research and development teams. However, only 7/150 companies reported this figure. So, coming to a consensus on how we define technical roles is a first step in understanding how many women are truly in technical roles in digital companies.
Recommendation #2: Make gender diversity data publicly available
Women at the Table’s paper ‘The Deadly Data Gap: Gender & Data’ reminds us that “[t]he lifeblood of our world’s decision-making is data.” Read Women at the Table’s paper ‘The Deadly Data Gap: Gender & Data’ But if data is incomplete, then the story is incomplete. Unless companies disclose the data on the number of women in their teams, it is impossible to understand the true state of women in these companies. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) makes it mandatory for companies to report occupational data by gender (and other criteria like ethnicity). However, even when mandatory, some companies do not make this report publicly available. Diversity data is almost being treated as a trade secret in the tech world. To know the current status of women in digital companies, companies must make this information publicly available, because only then do we see gaps and areas for improvement. That said, in the last Digital Inclusion Benchmark, it was encouraging to see companies from Asia (excluding China) disclose the number of women in their technical teams for the first time.
Only when information is made public through company disclosures are we able to compare data of various companies against a desired change. The 30% Club sets a target for female representation at the highest governance body level at 30% (which should be a floor and not a ceiling on representation) as research shows that only at 30% do underrepresented voices get heard and their representation normalised. Yet the Digital Inclusion Benchmark found that while most of the 150 digital companies reported the number of women in its highest governance body (usually the Board of Directors), only 54 of these companies had at least 30% female representation on their board and most of those companies were based in either Europe or the U.S. Comparison of the data is critical as only then can we point out what evolving good practices should be shared throughout the industry and which practices must be phased out.
Recommendation #3: Support more women-led businesses
Digital companies who have venture capital funds or other programmes to support start-ups can also be an important catalyst to increasing the number of women in tech: women who are not just working in digital companies, but who are creating and leading them. In 2019, an astoundingly meagre 2.8% of VC funding went to women-led startups, (and let’s not talk about the amount that that went to women of color: 0.27% to Black women, 0.37% to Latinas); in 2020 the overall amount of VC funding to women fell to 2.3%. This immense gender divide in VC funding makes it harder for women to secure the funding necessary to grow their businesses.
The Digital Inclusion Benchmark also assesses whether companies have venture capital funds for underrepresented groups, including women. While 65 of the 150 companies made venture capital investments, only 11 out of the 65 companies had a venture capital fund for underrepresented groups; out of which only 3 were targeted to women-led start-ups/companies. See more findings of the 2021 Digital Inclusion Benchmark.
Beyond VC investments, companies also have the opportunity to provide mentorship, resources, and networking to women-led startups through accelerators, incubators, or innovation labs. Along with doing the work necessary to increase female representation within their technical teams, digital companies should also be helping women to take their businesses to the next level. Research suggests that businesses founded by women deliver higher revenue than those founded by men. Money, along with mentorship is crucial to help take women-founded businesses to the next level and digital companies have a major role to play in this space.
The lack of women in tech stems from the global digital gender divide that continues to persist today. The need to close this divide led the UN to make it part of its Sustainable Development Goals: “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology to promote the empowerment of women”. More than ever, the private sector has a crucial role to play to bring about change and help reach the SDGs by empowering women. The time to move the needle on female representation in the tech industry is now. Companies can make a start by agreeing on common definitions for ‘technical roles’, disclosing gender diversity data and increasing their support for women-led start-ups and businesses.
About the authors:
Samita Thapa (World Benchmarking Alliance)
Samita is a Research Analyst at the World Benchmarking Alliance where she focuses on the topic of women and tech. She is part of the Digital Inclusion Benchmark and the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark teams.
Caitlin Kraft-Buchman (Women at The Table)
Caitlin is the CEO/Founder of Women at the Table. A serial coalition builder she is also the co-founder of the International Gender Champions (2015), and the <A+> Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms (2019).
The complete findings of the Digital Inclusion Benchmark will be published at the end of March. You can see the key findings and the ranking of the 150 companies in the benchmark here and the methodology here.
If you are a civil society organization and would like to be part of the discussions around the role of women in tech with the Digital Inclusion Benchmark Team, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org