It’s really not as hard as it sounds
Is technology closing the gender divide or making it worse? Are we going towards a utopia or a dystopia? As new technologies such as IoT and Machine Learning become more sophisticated and more embedded in daily life, the timeline for ensuring they are inclusive is shortening. Yet, such questions mask the fact that we all very much have a role to play in this decision, should we be given a chance to get a say.
As Amazon, Uber, Google, and countless others have shown, too many blind-spots in the technological world are shaking the foundations upon which Western societies are built. This is why we must ask ourselves about the belief systems upon which new technologies are constructed. More precisely, how do we make sure we do not give Silicon Valley the reigns on this, with its unique set of values which has every right to be challenged?
There are many answers to these questions. Chief among which, of course, is more equal representation to potentially counterbalance biases each and every one of us carries. The Tech world needs it to avoid feedback loops within the digital ecosystem which may amplify said biases if remained unchallenged. It needs it because if one is content with the power dynamics at play, one will likely create technologies which are likely to strengthens it. It needs it because the digital world plays a zero-sum-game which demands high skills and even higher funding, and it needs it because all, especially women, should inspire to be “tech shapers” instead of “tech takers”.
In fact, The Tech world is worse than anywhere else in this regard : 5% of Fortune 500 company are led by female CEOs, while this number is as low as 3% for technology companies (arguably, all companies are now technology companies, but that’s a story for another day).
Clearly, the technologies which were built to be democratised have instead re-created the harms of the analogue world onto the digital world (harassment, flexibility becoming instability, inefficient assistance platforms…). Faced with a system which remains unfair and solutions (Speeches, petitions, training programs…) which aren’t helping much, what are we to do? How does one find a solution to the solutions? Below are a few hints, in no particular order.
One reason we’ve seen so many biases in Tech is because the “majority” is not well-trained enough in ICT and STEM subjects, leading male engineers (are there any other types) to make decisions on their own, not because they want to do so, but because the rest of the world lacks the tools and vocabulary to engage in the conversation, whether it be technical, legal, or even ethical.
Firstly and obviously, then, more women in STEMs and ICTs is important, as has been oh so often repeated.
We know that women who choose STEMs and stick to it receive regular and early encouragements and support to pursue their goals, as early as 6 years old (note: sexism starts during childhood). As such, tackling educational issues early is of the utmost importance to make sure young girls are aware that they need not let the digital world repeat the mistakes of the analogue world. This call has been answered by a handful of companies, but remains widely unaddressed by governments (and schools).
Beyond the public and private sectors, the young age at which decisions can be made also highlights the need for a strong and tightly-knit support system for young girls. This is why we must use the tools we have to help parents, too: if they don’t think their roles entails encouraging their child to go into technical higher education, nothing will ever change.
We’ve known about this virtual circle for decades now.
Indeed, it is important to combat peer pressure, the (perceived) lack of role models, the lack of support from teachers and the misconceptions of what STEM careers looks like. But that may simply never be enough. Did you know that nations that have traditionally less gender equality have more women in science and technology than their gender-progressive counterparts ? There are a few reasons for this :
women in countries with higher gender inequality are likely seeking the clearest possible path to financial freedom (ie : STEM), while countries with high levels of equality tend to be welfare state which offer large safety netsHence, countries that empower women also empower them to pick whatever career they’d enjoy most and be best at, which they do, knowing they are financially safe either way. And STEM is just often not fun (yeah I said it, pick your pitchfork and torches in the comment section)
Knowing this, we may come to the conclusion that the plethora of programs and campaigns encouraging girls into science and engineering (still waiting on campaigns to get boys into teaching and nursing) are mildly misguided, and that we should perhaps concentrate on keeping the women that ARE interested in the subjects instead of forcing those that are not passionate.
2. Keeping women in STEMs
This is by no means easy (mainly because people are the worst). Removing legal barriers to equal opportunity isn’t the same as removing the social pressures that help shape traditional beliefs about gender roles : half of women in STEM jobs experience sexism at work (that’s 21% more than in non-STEM jobs). There are also less obvious reasons why retention is an issue : female engineers are often told in imperceptible ways that their skills and their work are not valued within their profession, increasing feelings of not fitting in and making women more likely to think about leaving.
This is caused by “hard” skills being more valued, and women being assigned roles that involve soft skills within their departments, and often excelling at it, leading to a reinforcement of the chasm between what should be two sides of a single role (it’s also likely that it leads them to be paid less).
Diversity is not the same as inclusion.
The more women accept to take on roles where soft skills are paramount, the less they are respected by their male counterparts. So they leave. This cultural aspect is likely to be very hard to change unless a grass-root approach is taken within companies themselves.
3. Work Experience in Tech Companies
Giving girls WHO ARE INTERESTED more hands-on opportunities to learn about STEM can help close the gender gap. As such, companies must try and commit to giving this experience to women, if only for their bottom-line. The education system can give self-confidence, hard skills and critical thinking. This is important. But nothing replaces real-world experience.
So just hire more teenage girls in internship already, if only for a couple of weeks. It costs very little and can make a huge impact in their lives. how is this even a hard decision to make?
Companies need to (wo)man up and just commit, already.
We’re asking kids to make decisions about their futures earlier and earlier nowadays. Why not expose them to the real world to help them navigate tools and information (aka Tech) and encourage an informed decision. This either solidifies their want for a specific career or teaches them what they don’t want to do. It allows to create the leadership of tomorrow. It’s win/win. In just 6 weeks, companies could change dozens of lives at virtually no costs.
Note that for all our discussions about technical roles, a tech background only allows individuals to navigate the technological world. Shaping it requires a knowledge of humanities. How did we forget this?
4. Give women entrepreneurs a chance
If many current technological tools and solutions are built by men, it is because there are too few women entrepreneurs, who attract too few investment rounds, and who, as a result, lose out on shaping the economy of tomorrow. Startups received $85 billion in VC funding in 2017 overall. Women got just 2,2% of that, and are likely to get even less in 2018. Why is this the case? It boggles the mind, especially knowing that startups which have at least one female founder outperform by 63% other young companies.
There are a variety of answers. While some point to an innate aversion to risks (they are wrong), many recommend better networks and relevant advice (anyone who’s been patronised by a banker recently knows what I’m on about). More precisely, women need access to key kinds of information that men don’t when making going to see VCs. Does this company treat women well? Are women leaders respected? Is this a hostile work environment? Men, conversely, don’t need to worry so much about whether a potential new job will be a hostile or supportive fit because of their gender. And how can they get this information? From other women, of which there are too few in this sort of environment. Indeed, women entrepreneurs won’t succeed without BOTH formal and informal support networks.
Beyond this, one clear culprit of the lack of Tech female entrepreneurs is the lack of female-friendly VCs, which, if they were more wide-spread, would encourage more women to catch the entrepreneurship train. In the U.S, 74% of VC teams don’t have a single woman in it, and the situation is much worse in large parts of the developed world. This issue parallels that of women in boards, which, as we now know, has been a productive and beneficial conversation leading to many positive changes. In fact, it has become an odd paradox that we now have more women in boards but fewer women entrepreneurs : large companies invest in startups, do they not? Why not use this as a leverage and put equality and women as a criteria for VC funding, with deal flow to women entrepreneurs and team composition as criteria.
Corporate teams have the means, and the ways to put pressure on unfair actors.
Joining forces within the corporate world could encourage some visible progress rapidly: once again, 2.2% of entrepreneurs are women. Doubling this number and reaching 5% honestly shouldn’t be this hard.
One caveat, though: concentrating solely on women could create two parallel economies. We’re however stronger when we work together, and neither men or women can thrive in a world where the other is diminished.
5. Connect women to the rest of the world
I spoke earlier about women networking to better influence the design of new technologies. This is relevant, too, in the developing world. More so than anywhere else as a matter of fact.
In low- and middle- income countries, women are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into over 200 million fewer women than men owning phones (for all you money-obsessed SF guys : closing the mobile phone gender gap in low income countries is a $700 billion opportunity). And even when women own mobiles, they use them less intensively to access the internet than men.
Ensuring women own and use mobile phones has substantial social benefits for societies: mobile phones can help increase education and employment opportunities, and women tend to invest these benefits in their children. Mobile phones are also a scale-able, efficient tool for delivering both public and private services such as mobile banking, emergency response, and government-to-person communications, all of which are beneficial to the economy. For many countries, this would be a low-tech easy-win, as costs of mobile phones have drastically decreased in the past decade and subsidies would have an easy to calculate ROI.
The key to any of this however, is removing current barriers — including affordability and literacy rates — to mobile ownership among women.
There are many ways to conclude this article.
We could discuss the roles of tomorrow, which women have a duty to actively shape to avoid recreating past systems. Shape, and navigate, such is the modern woman’s duty. Maybe the real question isn’t “how is technology going to help women overcome”, but how are women going to shape technology to serve them?
We could argue that current roadblocks are analogue (government, funding, education…), and that the tech is value neutral. But that is simply not true: technology and responsibility go hand in hand.
At the end of the day, technology is not created in a vacuum. When designing, deploying, maintaining and using the technology, all the stakeholders should be represented in a way which ensures their safety with regards to these potentially dangerous algorithms. This is the right thing to do not only ethically, but also economically, and so the whole world over.