I’m a fake. An imposter. I don’t belong here.
Those aren’t Radiohead lyrics. This is how women in the technology industry feel. We feel like we don’t belong. We feel exiled from a sector that increasingly courts us as customers.
When an image of Matt Taylor, the lead scientist of the Rosetta mission, was seen all over the press with a shirt with scantily clad women on it, is it really any surprise that women feel like they do not belong?
This trend is confirmed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014, which shows that the UK has dropped to 26th place in the world rankings, a fall largely due to a lack of female economic participation in male-dominated industries. The report’s gloomy prediction is that if things continue at their current rate, it will take 81 years to close the gender gap.
And yet women are a huge asset to any corporation, whether technological or not.
Operating profit is 56% higher in companies with women on boards. Women bring not only financial returns but diversity of thinking, improvements in product design and ultimately customer satisfaction.
Closing the gender gap in the technology sector requires leaders to confront two inconvenient truths.
First, technology is suffering from an image problem that alienates women and, in turn, causes women to reject the sector as an aspirational career choice.
At Lady Geek, we ran a survey of hundreds of teenage girls from all over the world. We invited the girls to draw a picture of a technologist. Of the respondents, 99% of them drew hideous caricatures – neck-bearded nerds, dressed in unfashionable clothes sitting alone amid the clutter of discarded cans of Mountain Dew and pizza boxes.
This is not an image that girls aspire to.
The second truth is that this problem is too big to be laid entirely at the government’s door. You cannot make women feel they belong in the sector simply through new legislation, policy shifts or awareness campaigns. The UK government’s Your Lifecampaign, which shows girls how a career in maths and science can open up the world to them, is doing a brilliant job. But it needs to be supported by all of us, as the signals that make women feel like outsiders are found everywhere.
What has been shown to work is painstaking, ongoing attention to detail – the global dismantling of these signals.
Women are more attuned to their surroundings. A study at Pittsburgh University showed that while men tend to have better spatial ability, women excel at location and object memory: in other words, women are attuned to their environment and tend to be more affected by it. In short, for women, the details count.
A study at the Université de Neuchâtel with 150 participants found that in a generic virtual classroom, women tended to underperform in a speaking task. When the virtual classroom was decorated with posters of powerful women (e.g. Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel), the performance of the female participants matched that of the males. The presence of similar images made no difference at all to the performance of the male participants.
The conclusion is that even the tiniest cues that signify a sense of belonging can have a big impact on women’s ability to participate. Fixing these cues comes at no cost to male colleagues’ sense of inclusion.
In another study, at Waterloo University, women were shown a set of TV adverts before being asked to complete a verbal reasoning task and a maths test.
Half the participants were shown adverts that showed passive, stereotypical images of femininity (e.g. a woman drooling over a chocolate cake), the others were shown empowering images (e.g. a woman impressing a man with her knowledge of automotive engineering).
Once again, the women exposed to the more positive gender messages outperformed the women who received the stereotypical messages. The effect occurred despite any kind of thematic relevance between the assigned task and the nature of the stimulus.
This is called “situational predicament stereotype threat” – and women are most susceptible when they risk being judged by, or treated in terms of, negative stereotypes that provide a plausible explanation for their behaviour. Given the deluge of images in the media and in advertising that habitually show women as weak, passive and objectified, perhaps it’s no surprise that the gender gap remains so wide.
The companies that excel at hiring women and including them in their technology teams know how to focus on the small things. Easily overlooked signals can define who “belongs” in this space. We need to sweat this small stuff.
This might be the tone in which we word our job adverts, the language we use in our software, or the way our waiting rooms are decorated. These tiny things are the way we signal to technology’s exiles that they have come home.
Image: A Google employee works on a laptop in front of a mural of the New York City skyline, at the New York City company office March 10, 2008. REUTERS/Erin Siegal