Why gender equality in tech is a prerequisite for gender equality in society
As a co-founder and CEO of a tech startup that builds products to teach coding to girls, I face constant scrutiny over our company’s mission and the need for our products in the market. Here I outline why we believe gender equality is so important to our future. In a subsequent post I will discuss how we have gone about formulating a solution to inequality in tech.
if: technology = future
and: women ≠ tech
then: women ≠ future
Tech is the future, yet women are not on track to participate in shaping that future
Tech is the most powerful industry in the world. It shapes the way we live our lives and enables us to create new businesses and solve problems at an unprecedented speed. The digital economy currently is valued at $11.5 trillion globally, comprising 15.5% of global GDP, and has grown two and a half times faster than total GDP over the past 15 years. The sector is also generating jobs at a disproportionate pace: the number of ICT specialists in the EU grew by 39.1% from 2011 to 2018, six times greater than the increase in total employment.
Despite the clear importance of tech to our future, women are still severely underrepresented in the sector. In fact, a decreasing percentage of women are joining the industry today. In the EU, women make up approximately 17% of the tech workforce, a decrease from 10 years ago, when 22.5% of the ICT workforce was female. In the US, 37% of computer scientists were women in 1995. Today, that figure stands at 24%.
Closing tech’s gender gap matters for several reasons, including the improved performance that results from having more gender-diverse teams and the ability of women to fill the industry’s talent shortage. But what truly drives and concerns us at imagiLabs goes beyond the health of the industry itself. We believe including women in tech is about economic fairness. The tech industry creates some of the best paying jobs. Women need to have the opportunity to pursue careers that will help them achieve financial security and independence.
Equally important, though, is the impact of who creates our technologies as we hurtle towards a future in which technology impacts every aspect of our lives. We must think about the implications for technology that, as former CIO of Verizon Judith Spitz states, is “destined to be the essence of who we are as a species,” and is being “developed largely under the leadership and guidance of a single gender.” If women do not have equal exposure and access to technology as a tool and as a career opportunity, we also miss out on an equal opportunity to shape our future.
For technology to benefit everyone we need diversity among its creators
Tech has a gender bias problem. Societal biases and inequalities are being reproduced in the form of data inputs used to train AI algorithms and, therefore, being reflected back to us in the technologies we are creating. Biases also form when women’s experiences and perspectives are overlooked in the technologies and solutions that are being built. Common startup advice encourages founders to draw from their own experiences; who is going to identify the problems and create solutions for women and people who are not adequately represented in the tech industry?
Some of these biases might result in mild inconveniences and awkward laughs. In 2019, the Hungarian edition of Forbes published an article about imagiLabs. Because we all have friends around the world who speak many different languages, the article often was subjected to Google Translate. After translating the article, many of my friends asked me, “Dora, why do they refer to you as ‘he’ in the article?”
The Hungarian language doesn’t have gender-specific pronouns, so in translating the article into languages that do, such as English, it was up to Google Translate to determine the appropriate pronoun. Since the article mentioned that I was a CEO, and more specifically a tech CEO, the Google Translate algorithm presumably made an “educated guess” that I would more likely be male than female.
Oftentimes, however, these biases negatively impact women’s lives by demonstrably reducing their wealth, opportunities, and prospects. For example, the algorithm developed to establish credit limits for the Apple Card had the effect of limiting women’s access to capital as exposed by Ruby on Rails creator David Hansson. In a Nov. 2019 tweet, Hansson reported that despite his wife’s better credit score and their jointly managed finances, he still received an Apple Card credit limit that was 20 times greater than hers. This wasn’t an isolated incident; even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak responded that he had had the same experience. In response to the Twitter thread, Apple indicated that it was Goldman Sachs’ fault. Goldman Sachs, in turn, said it was “the algorithm’s” fault.
The list of tech industry misses and errors go on: VR headsets that don’t fit women’s heads; voice recognition that doesn’t recognize female voices; phones that don’t fit women’s hands or pockets (together with technologies that assume everyone carries their phones in their pockets). These errors would almost certainly be less likely to occur if we had more women among the creators of our products and technologies.
Women can and will identify markets that would otherwise remain underserved and overlooked. While menstrual cycle tracking was initially missed by Apple in its “comprehensive” health monitoring system, female entrepreneurs, like Clue-founder Ida Tin, stepped in to cater to this need. Tin is not the only one: women entrepreneurs are creating solutions to a wide array of overlooked problems, most of which are experienced by women.
The question, then, is: how do we attract more women into the tech sector?
How focusing on girls between the ages of 11 and 16 can fix tech’s leaky pipeline
The lack of women in the tech industry has been described as the result of a leaky pipeline: at every step of the way from high school to college to early career, women are dropping out. As a woman in tech I have observed and experienced this phenomenon first hand. But I have also been involved in and benefitted from initiatives for women in the industry, and I have set out to create a meaningful impact on the pipeline of women in tech. I started by digging into the research and data to provide guidance on where I could create the most significant change.
According to a study on primary school computer science education in the US conducted by Google and Gallup, there is no difference in interest in computer science between boys and girls at age 12. However, a significant gap is created from the ages of 12 to 14, when 47% of boys report being very interested, but only 12% of girls express interest.
We see a similar phenomenon in Sweden, where up until age 11 boys and girls show similar interest in technology, according to data collected by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate. However, as discussed by Womengineer, a nonprofit organization promoting engineering to girls, the percentage of girls who claim to be interested in technology “drops from 86% at age 11 to only 37% at age 15.”
Given that girls’ interest in technology drops dramatically between the ages of 11 and 16, we at imagiLabs have decided to focus on this critical age range. Our goal is to engage girls when they are most likely to be interested in tech and use the power of community and shared interests to maintain their engagement as they get older. Our thesis is that by providing tools and a community at the right age, and doing so through a scalable solution, we can contribute to equipping and empowering the next generation of female engineers, developers, and tech founders.
To be continued… This is part 1. In the next part, I will talk about how we have gone about formulating a solution to gender inequality in tech. Stay tuned! 🙌
Thank you for the editing work done by Melinda Szekeres. While the examples collected in this article were mostly contributed by the imagiLabs team, Caroline Criado-Perez’s “Invisible Women” has made a huge impact on my thinking about the gender data gap. For anyone interested, we highly recommend reading!