Bridging the Gender Gap

Much more needs to be done to boost the number of women in the global tech industry.

By Zeid Nasser

Despite the success of female tech industry CEOs like Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle’s co-CEO Safra Catz, it seems such prominent women still haven’t inspired a great deal of others to pursue studies and careers in IT. What’s more frustrating is that women who do work in the tech industry are often paid less than their male counterparts, and tend to hold less senior positions.

In some countries, there have been in-depth studies of this issue which provide valuable insights. For example, in the United Kingdom, girls actually do better than boys in tech skills exams. But fewer girls take the tech-related GCSE subjects and even less do so at A-Level, which in turn means that this affects their numbers in higher education. Surveys show that they are less interested in tech careers in the UK, which has resulted in a tech workforce with only 16 percent females.

In the United States, 46 percent of the advanced placement calculus test takers are females, but three-quarters of them don’t end up taking a computer science class. This explains why only 9 percent of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) in the U.S. are women.

This is what education specialists consider to be a problem in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) funnel, which shows that only 35 percent of girls are interested in these fields at school, compared to 65 percent of boys.

In global companies, the employment numbers seem more encouraging but still reflect the imbalance.

In May this year, Google statistics showed that women made up 30 percent of its total workforce, but that they only held 21 percent of its senior positions. Yahoo’s workforce is 37 percent women, Microsoft’s 29 percent, LinkedIn’s 39 percent, and Facebook’s 31 percent, but only half of them have technical jobs.

Most of these companies say they intend to tackle this issue, especially Google which has announced that it will invest $50 million in programs to get more girls interested in coding. The company is also working with Girl Scouts of the USA and female celebrities to spark more female interest in computer science.

Looking at tech startups also provides some indicators, but it seems there’s an even more horrendous gender gap there. A Harvard Business School study revealed that only 7 percent of startups that attract venture capital are led by women entrepreneurs. On the funding side of the industry, the percentage of women working in VCs is also small at a mere 11 percent. Add to that the fact that around 20 percent of coders in tech startups are women, and you start to think that there must be some socio-economic reasons holding them back.

Sociologists claim that the ‘geek’ factor is to blame. The surprisingly clichéd result that appears in surveys is that women believe a career in computing would involve hours spent writing codes in a cubicle alongside a host of socially awkward characters, working in teams dominated by men in which a female would feel alienated, or worse yet, discriminated against. Recent studies show that the work-all-night and work-on-weekends culture is pushing women away too. Accordingly, a common response from women is that working conditions and culture in the tech world aren’t welcoming enough. So the sector is becoming a boys club which alienates girls.

A significant percentage of university graduates in the Middle East are women, but the workforce is still dominated by men. In Jordan, 51 percent of university graduates are women but they only constitute 16 percent of the workforce (the lowest in the region). In tech startups, however, the numbers appear a bit more encouraging with around one-in-five being led by female entrepreneurs. However, these entrepreneurs say there are many challenges to overcome still, such as proving to investors that they’re as capable as their male counterparts in managing and leading teams of males, and balancing work and family life.

Without grassroots action, the situation isn’t likely to get any better soon. Accordingly, there are various initiatives around the Arab region to address the problem, mostly as local chapters of global initiatives like “Girls In Tech,” “Women in Tech International (WITI),” “Girls Who Code,” “Women Who Tech,” and “Women 2.0.” “Girls In Tech” has been active in the region this year with Egypt and the UAE chapters organizing events. While WITI has representative offices in nine Arab countries, including Jordan, to conduct surveys and spread awareness.

Clearly, all parties involved must strive to encourage women to vigorously pursue technology careers. As economic growth becomes more dependent on technology, this gender inequity could be a detrimental factor to that growth.

Bill Gates summed it up by saying: “Any country where half the population is not allowed to reach their full potential is not going to be competitive.”