For lack of WIT (women in IT) – how did we get here and why men should care

Women in IT

The lack of women working in IT, particularly software engineering, is well documented – just google “why women don’t work in technology”. There are a number of reasons that these articles put forward as to why and most of them have merit. It is certainly true that a number of them feel like they have no immediate solutions – e.g. the overwhelming cultural stereotyping that steers women away from science and technology which in turn kills the pipeline, reduces the number of role models and makes it hard for women to see themselves as future technologists.

It’s probably no surprise to most of you that women have always played a major role in the evolution of the software engineering industry – from Ada Lovelace to Edith Clarke, from Grace Hopper to Margaret Hamilton, from Cheryl Sandberg to Debbie Forster – multiple, critical discoveries and new forms of technical innovation have been led and driven by women.

However, what may be more of a surprise is that in the early years of commercial computing (from the 1940s through to the early 1960s), women made up a substantial proportion of the workforce. At the time, the fledgeling industry was perceived as “administrative” by many male engineers and scientists and even though this began to shift in the late 60s, women remained within the industry in comparatively higher numbers than today until the mid 1980s. 

At that time, the rise in personal computing coincided with a decline in women’s involvement in the industry. The aforementioned articles (many of which are great – I particular liked this one – The Secret History of Women in Coding) give some fairly clear clues as to the drivers of this change, but the most depressing issue is that despite a number of fantastic initiatives aimed at getting more women interested in technology, nothing seems to be changing quickly. Just look at this example from the US which shows that women taking computer science at university remains stubbornly below 20%, when it was one 37% in 1984. I am sure many other countries have similar statistics (noted there are some exceptions, especially India).

Why this matters

However, it is also hard to not conclude that a number of us in the industry (yup, myself included – I have to hold my hand up) have not done much to halt this decline. Are we working in an environment that continues to portray itself as unfriendly to women (unintentional or otherwise)? Are we looking hard enough at the skills that are required and opening our minds to whether graduates from other subjects can be successful in IT (clearly, yes they can!)

So why does this matter? And why does it matter so much now? And what’s it got to do with men who might be reading this?

IT has now pretty much disrupted every industry as new solutions come on line every day that is making it faster and easier to do business, sell products and design solutions. With the rise in AI and assisted decision making, software algorithms are now making decisions every day that affect the lives of millions of people and it’s only going to accelerate.

But as noted by many commentators, especially the excellent work by Caroline Criado Perez, if those decisions are made on the data that assumes an average (probably, white male) human being or is based on data that is highly skewed by the advantages of a previously privileged subset, some of those outcomes are going to be disastrous. Particularly for women, particularly for under-represented communities, particularly for those not in positions of power and influence, particularly for those that need the most help.

And there are now daily stories on where AI is getting these decisions wrong (if you google algorithmic bias you’ll find many stories like this).

Is that the world you want to live in? Or you want your wife, daughter, mother, friends and colleagues to live in?

That’s not too say that AI is bad. It has the potential (in fact, is already) to provide huge benefits to the world. It’s just that without have the right diverse mix in the teams that are developing these solutions, there is a stronger likelihood that these algorithmic biases can creep in. Those benefits could include better health care, better financial planning, better government policy, better personal resilience, better upbringings for children, better education, better decision making….the list is long. And who wouldn’t want that?

So, for everyone who works in the IT industry, greater representation of traditionally under-represented groups is a moral imperative. We must do it to protect us from ourselves. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault. We are all influenced by our own cultural upbringing. But it is everyone’s problem.

So, men (in IT and beyond), I implore you to make women’s history month and international women’s day important to you. This is not just something for the women to get involved in, but something for you to openly embrace. Attend events, publicly celebrate the women in your team and in your life and join them in learning more about what needs to change.

And when you get back from celebrating, take a long, hard look at your team and ask yourself “are we diverse enough?”, “could we make a critical mistake in our solutions by not considering someone different to us?”. And if you don’t like the answer, then discuss as a team, come up with a plan and take action. It may take a while, but it will feel great when you start seeing the difference it can make.

You can be part of the solution. Please feel free contact us at 4i if you’d like to discuss further on how we can do that.

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