When the first-ever black hole image was released earlier this year, the other thing that took people by surprise than the major breakthrough moment in the field of science was that it was made possible by a woman’s idea and effort. Katherine L. Bouman, 30-year-old American computer scientist made possible the historical achievement through her consistent efforts since 2016 in creation of algorithms and tests of five petabytes of data for the Event Horizon Telescope Project. Naturally, there were mixed showers of praises as well as criticisms from the public on her way. Public criticized, rather say passed sexist attacks as per Andrew Chael who is the part of the project, that Bouman got too much of credit for the work that was done by two men.
This is a one small but a vivid example on how innovation and technology is still considered a male dormitory. Although, number of women in technology continues to rise, there are visible gender gaps seen in the field. Information and Technology is a booming industry with its domination over economy and science increasing rapidly. In such case, women being in the industry have been essential requirements to meet the needs of economy. However, women representation in the coding world still manages to awe-struck and awe-inspire people at the same time.
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), 25% of the computing workforce was female in 2015. Globally, it is observed that developing countries like India have the highest rate of women in technology (35%) whereas western countries still have a long way to go. The rate of women in technology in the UK is 17% and the US is 20%. Astonishingly, the rate of women having computer science degree has fallen to 18% in 2008 in comparison to 37.5% in 1985. However, it is increasing gradually, with 21% of increase in women majoring in Computer science from 2000-2015 and in recent days, tech sector has been attracting increasing numbers of women. As of 2019, the Female Tech positions are growing 238% faster than their male counterparts and 20% of the startups across the world being found by women.
What are the challenges?
The facts and figures highlight that even though tech is traditionally a male dominated sector, women are breaking the bars and marching ahead, and yet they are not free of challenges. There is still a long way to go to close the gaps and the reasons are numerous. Data shows that number of women leaving mid-career in tech industry is 56%- double than that of men. The retention of women in the sector is more challenging than their enrollment. While it is claimed in every other sector that women drop out because of their child care duties, in IT sector, only 20% of women quit mid career because of it. Majority leave to join other workforces or start their own ventures.
Environment plays the major role. It was reported in 2016 that 74% of the women quit their job because of unsupportive work environment. There are persistent cases of sexual harassment and exploitation which makes environment not supportive for female workers. 78% of the female founders of tech startup reported that they know or have been in the cases of sexual harassment themselves. 70% of women also believe that the problems of harassment go mostly underreported. The gender gap in this issue gets further highlighted as only 46% male founders reported on knowing about such cases while only 35% of men believed that the issues get underreported.
Technology and sexual harassment
Gender equal representation in tech sector cannot be analyzed only by the numbers of women in the sector. It is also important to dig deeper by considering the position and types of role that women play in their job. Most of the positions filled by women in the tech field is often limited to non-technical positions- such as, expertise in online business models, digital marketing, e-commerce, new media, social media strategy etc. While non-technical resources are equally essential, it is important to address the fact that there are only a few women who with technical i.e. coding expertise. Anneke Jong, enlisted as Top 50 women to watch in tech by Femme-o-nomics, shares that the number of women who can actually code is only handful. Therefore, the actual numbers as ‘Women in tech” can be misleading, as the women in the industry hardly possess the core tech skill. She writes: “Imagine your disappointment if only a third of the “Top Women in Music” were musicians. Similarly, it would be a little weird if an overwhelming majority of the leading women in medicine had never studied science. There are lots of ways to lead and shape an industry, but shouldn’t mastering the core of the craft rank near the top?”
Making the technology gender equal itself
Further, the gender gap lies in technology itself, says Sara Wachter-Boettcher, the author of Technically Wrong, the book about sexist apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. Here she raises voice on how a small white male community has shaped the technology without considering about people of color and gender. One of the simple examples is the image tagging systems not recognizing people of color which ultimately favors the white community. Such biases of the tech people internalize the stereotypes which will create a long term impact.
“Algorithmic inequity” as she puts it highlights on how the gender gap is harming the growth of technology itself as we can see how our coming generations will depend on technology and it is a hot booming sector. Lack of inclusivity and voices from people with different backgrounds in shaping the industry will create spreading differences. Therefore, having women in table while discussing the tech product is important, however, the work for its advocacy shouldn’t be completely imposed upon women only. She argues that spending 20% of the time in pointing out the biases of organization does no benefit, therefore, a more equal legal framework is required.
Technology is a growing industry providing every means of survival in each individual’s hand. The demand and use of technology is only growing which means the demand of human resources and skill will also rise up. Therefore, having more women on board is essential for meeting wider human needs, as well as for breaking the myth that computer science men’s arena. At the same time, awareness about existing biases, prejudices, problems and need of gender equal frameworks and policies is also a requirement that tech should turn its mind on.