Early computing was dominated by women, most often working as machine operators. Since the 1970s, however, they have been side-lined by the tech industry, replaced by higher paid men. Professor Debra Howcroft critically examines the increasingly gendered environment within the IT sector, and offers solutions to encourage women to return to the industry they played a crucial role in starting.
- Over the last 20 years or so, advances in digitalisation led to grounds for optimism – particularly as women have more access to a wide variety of ICTs. Yet, the IT industry remains riddled with gender inequalities.
- Tech firms employ few women, people of black, Asian and ethnic minorities (BAME) and people aged over 40. If technologies of the future are developed by a particular demographic, they are likely to reflect their worldviews.
- A key challenge is not simply about increasing the number of women entering the profession, but about retention and progression. The challenge will involve removing embedded gender discrimination in working environments where women aim to build a career.
- As the GMCA Digital Strategy shows, it is imperative that efforts are made to reduce gender inequalities within the IT sector. However, this approach needs to be combined with other resources that intend to correct the gendered nature of the workplace.
Technical knowledge and expertise have long been associated with masculinity, but this has not always been the case. In the UK, the post-war computer industry was dominated by women working as machine operators, but by the 1970s, the technologically-minded female workforce were no longer welcome, becoming side-lined as the potential of computing began to be realised; women were phased out and replaced by higher paid men with better job titles.
Over the last 20 years or so, advances in digitalisation led to grounds for optimism – particularly as women have more access to a wide variety of ICTs. Yet, the IT industry remains riddled with gender inequalities. The enduring under-representation and marginalisation of women in technology occupations and professions is becoming more severe. There are decreasing levels of female employment in ICT professions (in the UK, this has reduced from 18% in 2016 to 17% in 2017) and those women who are employed in the sector tend to be concentrated in lower-paid jobs. IT developers consist of predominantly young male workers with ‘zero drag’ (highly motivated with little personal responsibilities and flexible working availability) who are inclined to work long hours. The ‘computer geek’ stereotype is pervasive and is associated with dedication and doing whatever is required – characteristics which are deemed ideal for working in an industry where delays and overruns are common.
While forecasters of a jobless future rarely agree as to how this will play out in practice, one area of consensus centres on the expansion of the technology sector. This is of concern when the people who design and develop technology are unrepresentative of society: tech firms employ few women, people of black, Asian and ethnic minorities (BAME) and people aged over 40. If technologies of the future are developed by a particular demographic, they are likely to reflect their worldviews. This lack of representation perpetuates the reproduction of inequality since competence in technology design and development often leads to command of higher incomes.
In the tech industry, the lack of diversity and ‘missing women’ problem is so entrenched that various policy responses have attempted to address this. Most of the initiatives are based on an ‘add women and stir’ approach, which barely scratches the surface. Consequently, numerous equal opportunity recommendations – largely based on sex-stereotyped assumptions – have failed.
For women working as a minority in the industry, dominant male work practices have been likened to frat house cultures and labelled ‘Brotopia’. This has led many women to vote with their feet and exit hostile work environments within a couple of years of being appointed. The prevalent macho dynamic has been amplified in numerous discrimination and sexual harassment cases in Silicon Valley, which suggest that this environment is far from ‘female-friendly’.
The GMCA Digital Strategy aims to tackle growth and productivity by achieving a gender balance in digital companies. This is especially relevant to GMCA given Manchester’s position as one of the creative capitals of the UK. Current figures show that in 2016/17, the ratio of men to women of those employed in technical roles in Greater Manchester was 79:21. The Digital Strategy aims to redress this gender imbalance and has set two key targets: achieving 60:40 by 2020, and 50:50 by 2025. While these aspirations are laudable, setting such ambitious goals will entail serious challenges given the gendered nature of the IT sector.
A ‘technology problem’
Given the endemic gender inequities within IT work, rather than focussing on targets which aim to level up gender representation, an alternative approach could involve tackling endemic inequalities from the bottom up.
A key challenge is not simply about increasing the number of women entering the profession, but about retention and progression. The challenge will involve removing embedded gender discrimination in working environments where women aim to build a career. Rather than expecting women to adopt a more masculine identity in order to fit in and succeed, the sector needs reshaping to accommodate women, so that it is no longer a ‘women problem’ but a ‘technology problem’.
To attract more women to the industry and increase retention, more equitable models of working, such as a shorter working week, job sharing, enhanced parental leave and a reduction in wage inequalities could help challenge some of the gendered boundaries in the workplace that shape the perceptions of employability and promotion. Expectations of excessive working hours – particularly around periods of ‘crunch time’ – need to be re-configured. Fluctuating demands are especially problematic for primary carers. Working in an industry with fast-paced technological change means that higher salaries are associated with those working at the cutting-edge. Given that the IT sector is characterised by start-ups and small enterprises, there is limited opportunity for training and career development during the working day. Instead, there is an expectation that ‘keeping up’ lies with the individual. Consequently, those with care responsibilities find it hard to progress, and those requiring a career interruption find it especially difficult to re-enter the labour market.
As the Digital Strategy shows, it is imperative that efforts are made to reduce gender inequalities within the IT sector. However, this approach needs to be combined with other resources that intend to correct the gendered nature of the workplace. As we have no local knowledge of the issues, in order to understand how to best provide concrete support and implement strategies for change, it is critical that we hear about front-line experiences from workers in the tech industry. This is vital if Greater Manchester aims to pave the way and reduce the inequalities within an industry deemed critical to the future.
This article was originally published in On Gender, a collection of essays providing analysis and ideas on taking a gendered lens to policy in Greater Manchester and devolved regions across the UK. You can read the full publication here.
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