This is the last instalment in a three-part series on women in tech. Read part one here and part two here.

While women in technology industries struggle with a range of economy-wide and sector-specific challenges that mean the sector suffers from a high female attrition rate, for many, working in tech is a high-risk occupation because of the level of active harassment and abuse across the sector.

A 2015 Professionals Australia survey of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) industries showed a quarter of respondents had been subjected to sexual harassment and over 40% had been bullied, with more than half either doing nothing about it or simply leaving the company where it occurred. A recent US survey showed 60% of US woman in tech reporting sexual harassment.

More frightening is when harassment turns into actual physical harm. Tech internationally is renowned both for the bonding and deal-making that happens at alcohol-fueled social events and for the the busy travel schedule employees working for companies with international operations, or attending international conferences, are required to undertake (itself a problem for working parents). Sandy Plunkett, who has worked as a consultant and venture capitalist in both the US and Australia, says strip clubs are still a common venue for tech social gatherings. “A quick review of social media and other online fora detailing the pros and cons of Silicon Valley culture from disillusioned women reveals stunning stories of strip clubs and hookers as incentive bonuses,” she told Crikey. “It reveals the culture, whether one is precious about it or not.”

Conferences and post-meeting socialising away from home can prove dangerous for women. One successful female ICT worker at an Australian company tells of being raped by a colleague at a conference overseas. Some American women in IT refuse to drink liquids at conference events for fear they’ll be drugged. Many women in tech fields say they attend functions or travel only with male colleagues they feel safe with, out of concern for the predatory nature of so many men in the industry.

Nor is the threat confined to boozy “networking drinks” at conferences: a senior consultant tells of a meeting at an Australian company where the only woman present was physically threatened by one of the male executives, leading to the CEO asking her to leave the meeting before discussing with the remaining men what she had done to provoke such a strong response.

Sexual abuse and sleazy behaviour occurs right across society and industries, of course (ANZ traders were recently in the spotlight for their predilection for strip clubs), but the lack of women in the tech sector means there is less support for women who decide to speak out against perpetrators of assault and practices they feel uncomfortable about, especially given the pressure women feel to be seen as “one of the boys”. And the male dominance of most tech companies (at least one Sydney company is said to have only a male and a disabled toilet) means that ensuring female staff feel safe and comfortable, especially when the work venue in effect shifts to bars, networking drinks and strip clubs for bonding and deal-making, is a lower priority, or not a priority at all.

Is there a reason, in addition to sheer overwhelming numbers, that the men in tech have created this culture? This is where sorting out stereotypes from reality becomes a challenge. A large number of tech industry figures Crikey spoke to repeatedly blame the type of men who are attracted to ICT (information and communications technology). There’s a strong element of cliche here about geeks with no social skills, but time and again the same comments were made to Crikey about how many people working in the sector — both male and female — are more comfortable working with computers than people and lack emotional intelligence or an understanding of personal boundaries. And such skills are critical to navigating the workplace — especially accurately reading signals from colleagues about their level of interest in non-professional relationships.

This isn’t the complete story of the tech sector, by any means. Several women contacted Crikey to explain they loved working in the sector. A woman who works for Australian company Technology One told Crikey: “They’ve been a great employer and have been flexible with my work patterns. There are a fair number of women who work there, developers and analysts as well as other departments.” “I’ve worked in software for years and love it,” another woman said. “Certainly not disputing there is sexism in industry, but it’s not universal … would hate young people to think tech jobs are all bros and titshare. Totally not my experience.” “Not saying it doesn’t happen,” another woman said about sexism in the ICT industry, “but I’ve done IT/software engineering at uni & work for [a range of companies] & never seen any sexist crap.”

There are also companies that have been more successful than much of the sector in attracting women. ThoughtWorks, a global tech company with a strong presence in Australia, has lifted the percentage of female employees in Australia to 48% and the proportion of female employees in its hard tech areas to 39% — a multiple of the levels achieved by other tech companies that talk about how important diversity is to them. Ange Ferguson, group managing director of the ThoughtWorks’ Asia-Pacific arm, says the result has been achieved by adhering to a quota in hiring, coupled with a strong intention to grow what she calls a “brilliant and diverse” workforce. She sees quotas and that intention to address diversity as separate, and neither is sufficient without the other. “We’ve felt the pressure to abandon the quota a couple of times, but have been supported by colleagues — including male executive staff — to retain it.” Ferguson also believes that parents develop skills through parenting that are potentially useful in the workplace, and the company provides women and men returning from parental leave with as much flexibility as possible in how they re-enter employment.

Liz McLean, in contrast, runs a small Melbourne tech company, Butterfly. Her firm has struggled to attract female staff, especially developers, but McLean decided to try to change that by developing more junior staff. “We interview any qualified woman,” she told Crikey, “and then invest in fast-tracking their development, as well as providing as much workplace flexibility as possible,” in the hope this gives her company competitive edge in recruitment. McLean knows she can’t match larger firms on training, but her staff are structured so there’s plenty of on-the-job training and mentoring. “I benefited from a male mentor at the company who took me under his wing, but I also went outside to access professional mentoring,” she said.

Jude Sutton, who successfully overhauled an IT team in a start-up acquired by real estate giant Ray White, adopted another approach. “In hiring, we ignore everything on CVs but the positive points. So long as there are enough pluses, we interview. Cultural intolerance is simply not accepted. This is actually a hard thing because obviously as the manager you can’t see everything. To keep over this you have to work hard in talking with everyone in the team. The aim is for everyone to feel safe opening up about what’s happening in the workplace. I also worked hard on making things safe for people to make mistakes. I noticed that female team members are much less likely to take a risk and so miss a lot of opportunities [for] which they would later gain praise. Making things safe meant they took the opportunities more often.”

Others focused on addressing the industry-wide bugbear of training. “Workplaces could support this more, either during the leave period via funding access to online study/training” one tech employee told Crikey, “or with focused, supportive training when a woman returns to the workforce”.

Clearly many within the industry not merely talk about diversity, like some of the big companies, but are genuinely committed to pursuing it. Without a reversal of the decline in female STEM studies, however, even the most female-friendly tech workplaces will barely be able to stop the decline in women in tech, let alone reverse it — companies will only be able to try to retain a decreasing pool of women in the sector. And unless programs to reverse the collapse in female IT students take hold, Australia’s agile, innovative tech companies will be almost entirely male in years to come, despite promises to do better.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey