A survey in Australian women in the tech sector shows two in five face sexual harassment, most have witnessed sexist behaviour, and women say they are routinely ignored by male colleagues.

Fewer girls and women are studying STEM subjects in Australia, and the proportion of women working in the tech sector is falling despite efforts by companies to recruit and retain more women. Earlier this year, a Sydney tech industry body came under fire for failing to include a single female CEO in its ranks. And a new survey conducted by Cath Jones, a software developer and tech diversity advocate following this year’s RubyConf, provides further detail of some of the hurdles women in tech face.

The survey is based on one undertaken in Silicon Valley last year that revealed widespread challenges (and worse) facing women in the San Francisco tech industry. The Australian version, which had 150 respondents, had a much higher proportional response rate among Australian women in the sector.

The results confirm what an uncomfortable environment many women face in the ICT and tech sectors: nearly half say they have been told they are “too aggressive” or “bossy” by colleagues and 57% report being labelled “too emotional”. More than three-quarters report experiencing men directing questions to other men rather than to them and 70% dealt with men who preferred to ignore them in favour of engaging with other men; more than three-quarters endured demeaning comments from male co-workers; and 44% report being given lower-level tasks that men of similar position were not asked to perform. Forty per cent said they were asked about their family circumstances in interviews; more than quarter said they returned from parental leave early out of concern their careers would be damaged.

The survey also gave some insight into the kind of toxic culture for which some parts of the tech sector are renowned. Three-quarters of women reported seeing sexist behaviour at company offsite events or industry conferences, while 39% of women reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances from colleagues; 41% said they had felt afraid for their safety because of work. More than half of women who had experienced harassment reported multiple examples. Nor did tech sector employers respond effectively. Nearly half of those who reported harassment weren’t satisfied with the response from employers, but a third didn’t report harassment out of concern that it would harm their career.

While not comprehensive, and self-selected in terms of the sample, the survey illustrates the hostile workplace situations woman in the sector routinely find themselves in, and hopefully will provide a benchmark for ongoing assessment of how successful the sector is in fulfilling its repeated commitment to improve conditions for women.”Whilst some of these results are disheartening, they should not discourage women from joining the technology sector in Australia,” Jones told Crikey. “In fact starting to identify and discuss these issues is the first step in moving towards a more inclusive tech community. Women and other minorities have a lot to contribute to the future of this industry which is expected to experience continued growth in Australia and overseas.”

Peter Fray

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