This is the second instalment in a three-part series on women in tech. Read part one here.
The declining proportion of women in the tech industry, and ICT companies in particular, isn’t merely a “pipeline problem” about the supply of qualified females. There are a range of other factors that create a substantial attrition rate for women.
ICT and software industries can be stressful for all employees, not just women: the work can be exhausting and many leave for lower-stress occupations. “If you value seeing the sun at times, and do not get excited enough, you’re inclined to not invest too much time and not take shit from colleagues and leave,” one sector employee told Crikey. “This will not go away until the IT workers are working normal hours.”
“Some of this stuff is very hard and turns the people tackling it into emotionally crippled zombies,” another manager said.
Diane Dromgold, who manages a Sydney-based company, noted “the pervasive culture is still around hours put in rather than outcomes achieved.”
Training is a particular issue. Given the nature of the sector and especially ICT, keeping skills up to date is a constant necessity, but many workplaces can’t or won’t support training. With a much higher proportion of workers on contracts than other industries (the uncertainty of which has its own consequences for workers with kids), and the large number of start-ups and small companies that have limited training budgets and little capacity to cover staff training leave, training is a challenge for many workers.
Even in the best workplaces, such unisex pressures are more difficult for female employees to bear. Women who have taken time off for parenting particularly face being deskilled. “The pace of change in tech is now at warp speed, so many women have to figure out how to keep their skills current if they want to take maternity leave,” Sonia Cuff, a small business IT consultant, told Crikey. “I was fortunate to have two children while being self-employed, giving me the flexibility to keep my technical skills current.”
There’s also less support because of a dearth of female colleagues, and few female mentors (and many senior men prefer not to mentor women out of fear of being seen as predatory). “All the role models for women are not in tech and all the top jobs (with the notable exceptions that prove the rule) are men,” Dromgold said.
(This can be seen in the speaker line-ups at tech conferences. This week’s Tech Leaders 2016 conference near Sydney featured an all-male line-up — although a woman subbed in for an unavailable male. The upcoming Comms Day Summit features one lucky woman in the featured presenters. These are typical, rather than atypical, events; increasingly women and some men are boycotting male-only panels and line-ups.)
Often times, in response to such pressures, women shift away from the engineering and hard tech roles they entered the industry to pursue, especially after having children.
Tech also has the kind of problems that women face anywhere. Women in ICT face the same gender pay gap as in other industries. And several people who contacted Crikey talked about the impact of unconscious bias. Sandy Plunkett, an adviser, consultant and venture capitalist who has worked in both the US and Australian tech sectors, says unconscious bias is prevalent both in the sector and in tech curricula, and a fundamental reason for the lack of women in what she describes as the tech ecosystem. “It happens across all industries, but it’s exacerbated in tech.” She also says women entrepreneurs are often not perceived by investors to have the right blend of tech and finance acumen, which is why they are so massively underrepresented when it comes to tech start-ups.
But tech also has, in simple terms, a longstanding problem with women. It’s a problem that’s been well-documented in the United States but is increasingly being discussed in detail here, as Australian women collaborate on initiatives like Code Like A Girl, The Ventura in Sydney or the Tech Girl Movement, aimed at girls. While the days of companies simply refusing to hire women (the experience of one woman who applied for a tech job in the late ’70s) are over, and illegal, others say the lack of women isn’t purely because of a lack of applicants.
One male who’s been in ICT for five years said, despite the industry’s complaint about the lack of female applicants, “only the real stand-out women get in. These women are usually at least twice as good as the average worker in the teams I’ve been a part of.” A respondent told Professionals Australia’s survey of over 400 women in tech, science and pharmacy sectors last year that “I got the impression that a number of companies only interviewed me to see what a female engineer looked like, and I was never a serious contender for the role.” Over half of the respondents to the Professionals Australia survey said they had experienced discrimination, three-quarters of the time based on gender.
Again, this isn’t an Australia-only problem. Diane Dromgold relates how she was told by a US industry figure, “I’d like to hire more women but I find it hard to read them and work out if they’ll be any good. It takes me a lot longer to hire a woman as I have to meet with her several more times than I need to meet with a guy.”
Then there is the issue of workplace culture, which is the subject of most of the horror stories Crikey was told — the majority of them with requests for anonymity, because of fear of career repercussions. “You had to develop a thick skin,” Sonia Cuff says of the industry when she joined it. “The general non-politically correct chatter (and emails) in a male-dominated workplace was going to upset you pretty quickly if you didn’t.”
However, she says, those more overt examples of hostile working environments are now on the wane. But a recurring theme from many women is that male colleagues don’t value, or simply ignore, their contributions unless they were validated by another male. “My daughter comes home from a meeting frustrated as hell that she is spoken over or ignored,” one mother of a tech worker told Crikey.
One woman relates — as just one example — being told she should have asked male colleagues to raise a significant work problem after she had repeatedly raised it herself. Dromgold tells of female colleagues being excluded from management meetings and bonding lunches at an Australian company. She explains her own treatment by a new CEO in a company where she was running a project:
“A new male CEO came in and took the males out to lunch to talk about — wait for it — working with the women. I found out when the new CEO called me to tell me the outcome of the lunch and that the men asked that the women be ‘nicer’.”
Rosie Williams, who started late in tech but who has now decided to leave the sector for teaching, told Crikey “whenever I consider going to hackathons I have to think about what it is likely to do to me emotionally if I am prevented from participating due to my gender. The irony is that the men involved in IT generally imagine themselves to be above sexism.”
Many women in ICT are also exhausted by the relentless focus on their bodies by colleagues. These are employees who want to do the jobs they love as well as they can, but find it impossible because of their treatment by co-workers. What seem to be stimulating discussions about professional matters with male colleagues turn out to be extended pretexts for invitations for sex. They’re pressured to fit into male environments in order to avoid being seen as disruptive or not a team player, but then labelled “sluts” or “prick teases” when they do. Their Twitter DMs and one-to-one Slack chats with colleagues and other men in the industry are filled with sexual comments and abuse. And as with so many women in other male-dominated professions, they feel they have to work twice as hard to get half as far as men.
For some women, however, their problems in tech don’t stop at discrimination and casual harassment, but are far more sinister. We’ll look at the dangerous side of tech tomorrow — but also at what some companies are doing to reverse the trend and increase the participation of women.
*The third and final instalment of this three-part series will be published tomorrow. Read part one.