On International Women’s Day, we take a look at the major news stories featuring women in tech from the past year to assess the situation for females in (or trying to break into) the industry.
The stats are not stacked in our favour. A research report on diversity in tech by Tech London Advocates found only 9% of venture capital goes to women-led companies, only 7% of tech firms are started by women and only 4% of all people working in venture capital are female.
From Silicon Valley sexism to subservient female virtual assistants, problems for women are still rife in what is otherwise considered the most forward-thinking and innovative industry in the world.
Workplace sexism: Uber
This February, ex-engineer at Uber, Susan Fowler, penned an essay alleging disturbing claims of workplace sexual harassment at the ride-hailing service. Alarmingly, Fowler outlined that her many reports of sexism submitted across a year at the company were ignored by HR personnel.
The essay went viral, triggering many calls to #deleteUber. It is estimated that over 20,000 accounts were deleted at this time.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded: “What [Susan] describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for … there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber.”
Ex-Reddit CEO Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit over sexual harassment at a Silicon Valley investment fund in 2015, but many have pinned hopes onto Fowler’s exposure of sexism at Uber as a watershed case in the treatment of women in tech.
International Women’s Day Strike
To highlight sexism and under-representation in the workplace, many women in the US tech industry are thought to be striking today, dubbed #aDayWithoutaWoman. This is also in solidarity with females from a range of other sectors.
Silicon Valley firms are hyper-conscious of appeasing their females workers in light of the recent headlines. Both Uber and Lyft have informed employees that they are free to participate in the strike.
A Google spokesperson said the company supports employees “participating in the many grassroots efforts happening to mark International Women’s Day, just as we do other movements like Pride parades”.
Can tech giant support of the strike be seen as a helpful solution to industry inequalities? It seems their desperate statements are merely symptomatic of just how severe the problem is.
Female virtual assistants
2016 was the year Amazon introduced virtual assistant Alexa, to join Apple’s Siri and Windows’ Cortana. This raised the question, why are digital bots almost always female?
Tech giants have been criticised for purposefully designing bots to use demure or flirtatious responses that play into sexual stereotypes.
Ilya Eckstein, CEO of Robin Labs, a bot platform for drivers and mobility workers, said more than 5% of interactions with their bots are sexually explicit.
That AI developments have led to subservient, even sexualised virtual assistants must surely be a reflection of our social dynamics, particularly in the workplace.
Some firms have attempted to avoid perpetuating an image of the dutiful female servant by creating gender-neutral assistants, such as Google Assitant and Sage’s Pegg.
The feminisation of bots is a signal the tech industry generally, and product design sector specifically, remain a man’s world.
This issue has been flagged repeatedly in other industries such as car design, which favours, for example, size and speed over so-called female-friendly practicalities.
Female success stories
It has, of course, not all been doom and gloom for women in tech.
Many inspiring and high-powered females hold the top spot at some of the globe’s largest tech firms. Just three include Marissa Mayer, Meg Whitman and Susan Wojcicki, CEO’s of Yahoo, HP and YouTube, respectively.
Indeed, female tech entrepreneurs are being increasingly recognised. Last year, Sarah Wood, co-founder of video adtech company Unruly, received an OBE for services to the technology industry. Receiving an MBE alongside her was Alice Bentinck, co-founder of startup accelerator, Entrepreneur First.
Women in Tech initiatives
To help increase the number of women in tech in the UK from the pitiful 17% of the industry workforce that it is now, there are dozens of female initiatives, organisations and events.
Just one such event includes the Women of Silicon Roundabout, held on 11th May 2017 and designed to inspire and connect women in the industry.
Much underrepresentation of women in tech stems from a lack of education, training or confidence in technical knowledge and skill. An exciting and promising initiative to combat this is Facebook’s programme to deliver digital and mobile tool training to 10,000 female business owners in the UK.
The programme, led by partners Facebook and Enterprise Nation, is predicted to unlock £45m for the domestic economy.
This UK-based initiative forms part of the global #SheMeansBusiness campaign, backed by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. The tech industry would do well to embrace this message in the quest of increasing diversity.
Although we are making steps in the right direction for the education, inclusion and celebration of women in tech, it is a drop in the ocean compared to full female potential and the current ubiquity of men.
Will 2017 be the year women break the glass ceiling in tech? Perhaps not, but we’re at least edging towards it.