Mind the gap
'Why men shouldn’t be the only architects of our digital future'. In the tech world we're always talking about solutions. You hear it all the time, in every pitch deck, on every panel, how if you want to build a successful startup you need to find a problem for consumers or businesses and solve it.
That's what Uber did by reducing the cost of private transport, and why Airbnb made it possible to rent out your air mattress.
But whose problems are people in tech really trying to solve? The European Commission estimates that women make up only 17% of IT specialists, and 91% of raised capital in 2020 European tech went to all male teams. If most of our problem-solvers are male, how can we be confident they are providing solutions for everyone equally?
Diversity in tech is critical if we want to create safe and effective products that suit people from all walks of life. The male-centric tech world has often overlooked the needs of people who identify as women. From VR headsets that give women motion sickness, to voice recognition software that can’t understand female voices, tech’s gender imbalance has led to products with gender bias quite literally programmed into them. Women’s needs are often an afterthought, with developers framing ‘male’ as the dominant or even status quo model, and ‘female’ as an add-on feature.
A shocking example of how this imbalance can impact innovation is Apple’s launch of HealthKit in 2014. One of Apple’s senior software executives described the new app as the place to ‘see your whole health picture’, and ‘monitor all the metrics that you’re most interested in’. HealthKit included features to track a user’s height, weight, sodium intake, inhaler activity, blood alcohol content and more. And yet, in a glaring oversight, Apple managed to omit any tracking feature for female reproductive health. They overlooked all women of reproductive age, which accounts for approximately 25% of the population. Apple’s ‘expansive’ health app for all had overlooked a quarter of the world’s population.
Gender equality in tech is a prerequisite for gender equality in society. To achieve this, we need to look at how we got here, and why women are so underrepresented in technology. The reasons are systemic, and therefore difficult to untangle, but the seed of tech’s gender imbalance is certainly sown long before any glass ceilings, pay gaps or workplace discrimination. It starts with the stereotypes and cultural norms that we unconsciously digest as children.
Dr Ell Boag, a professor in Applied Social Psychology at Birmingham City University, found that children as young as seven years old see male and female jobs differently. These early perceptions of gender-determined roles are likely influenced by a number of things, from the language of teachers and parents, to the implicit messaging of toys, TV shows and books.
A study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that 31% of STEM toys are listed as items ‘for boys’, whereas only 11% are specified as ‘for girls’. These clear perpetuations of gender myths in children are partly responsible for girls lacking confidence in STEM subjects at school. Coding is dismissed as a boys’ club activity. According to the education campaign WISE, only 9% of female graduates in 2018 studied a core STEM subject, confirming that the paths to gender equality split long before Google begins hiring.
We have a historic challenge ahead of us if we want to reach equal representation in tech. As a STEM graduate myself, I started my company, imagiLabs, to provide young girls with the tools, community and inspiration to support them on their coding journey. Programming knowledge is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ skill, but a ‘need-to-have’ asset, relevant across a wide range of career paths. Like a number of other organisations making coding more accessible, imagiLabs hopes to bridge the gender tech gap by debunking age-old myths and inspiring the next generation of female coders.
An equal society cannot exist until we reach gender parity in tech. If that’s not persuasive enough, a report by the European Commission suggests that encouraging more women to pursue careers in the digital sector could boost the EU’s GDP by €9 billion a year. Equal representation of men and women ensures that everyone’s needs are accounted for when reimagining our future. But the work must start now, and it must start with encouraging young girls to see their full potential. As Karen Sparck Jones, the pioneering British computer scientist, famously said: ‘computing is too important to be left to men’.