Bridging the global technology gender gap

Author: Lucy Hocking, Research assistant, RAND Europe

Challenges in overcoming the technology gender gap

Despite recent progression in gender equality, the technology sector is still lagging behind. Women struggle to reach the same technological access and opportunities as men; 250 millionfewer women than men are online worldwide. Women in rural areas of less developed countries are often those which are most affected by this gap. Women also have fewer opportunities to enter and progress in technology related careers. By 2020, it is estimated that women will fill only 3% of the 1.4 million computing related jobs in the USA.

Three challenges emerge when tackling the gender technology gap: women’s access to technology, IT education and the difficulty for women entering and progressing in a technology related career. Reducing this gap is important not only for societal progression and gender equality in general, but also for the economy and businesses. Companies with a smaller gender technology gap show better performance in sales and a higher return on investment. On a wider scale, if 600 million extra women were online worldwide, global GDP could be boosted by $18 billion. Improving women’s access to technology

Access to technology is still a major barrier for women around the world, for example, women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone. Improving access to technology can result in a range of benefits for women, including a better education and improved career progression.

Governments can make progress to improve this by providing women with internet access at an affordable price and some countries have already taken steps towards this. Finland has made it a legal right for its citizens to have internet access at the speed of broadband, the UK published the 2014 digital inclusion charter to promote wide scale broadband access and the USA allows low-income homes to have broadband access for under $10 a month. Improving access does not have to be on a national scale to make a change. Local initiatives, such as setting up computers with internet connection in schools, can also support access.

The time taken to reach global workplace gender equality could be sped up if women had greater access to technology. If women could access technology at double the rate seen today, workplace gender equality could be obtained by 2040 in developed countries and 2060 in developing countries, compared to current estimations of 2065 and 2100 respectively.

Women need digital skills as well as access to technology

Access alone is not enough to overcome the technology gender gap, e-skills are equally important yet, across the world, women often face more barriers to developing their digital skills than men. It is important that women’s needs are considered when creating education and training, especially as technology is often designed by teams dominated by men. As 95% of all jobs now have a digital aspect, having e-skills is vital to female employment and career progression.

America’s ‘Girls who Code’ initiative is one well-known programme driving to close the technology gender gap. 90,000 school-aged girls across 50 American states have been involved with this programme, which supports development of their computer science skills and confidence with computers. The hope is to pave a clear career pathway for young girls into the field of computing. Developing countries are also creating programmes to improve digital education for women. Brazil’s ‘Meninas Digitais’ programme provides short courses for female school students to develop their computer skills, South Africa’s ‘Women’s Net’ tailors training to individual women in basic digital skills and ‘Ellas Hacen’ in Argentina aims to improves digital literacy among unemployed women.

The technology sector needs to be more open to hiring and promoting women

Women are outnumbered in the global technology sector, representing only 30% of the workforce, and this trend is becoming worse in the USA’s computing sector. The lack of girls and women with a formal IT education is part of this issue. Female students’ interest in computer science drops over time, especially between the ages of 13-17. In higher education, the number of women studying computer science at UK universities is falling, whilst women accounting for only 20% of tertiary graduates in IT worldwide.

The lack of female role models in the technology world is partly to blame and initiatives are appearing to overcome this. The historical drama film Hidden Figures tells the story of three black women in the 1960s who worked at NASA. The success of this film led to the creation of an international programme in 2017 called ‘Hidden No More: Empowering Women Leaders in STEM’. This will bring together 50 female leaders from across the world that represent hidden talent in their sector to explore best practice in recruiting, training and developing women in STEM and brainstorming ideas to improve digital opportunities for women in their own countries.

If women do continue with higher IT education, they face another barrier with entering into and retaining careers in the technology sector. Although the number of female senior leaders is low across all sectors, globally only 9% of senior IT roles are held by women. This may partly be due to women leaving at a much earlier stage of their careers; roughly 20% of non-STEM female professionals in America leave within the first 20 years of their careers, compared to 60% of STEM professionals.

There is a range of ways to increase the number of women in IT roles, including having roles which are attractive to women, eliminating gender-based pay differences (women in STEM jobs are paid $0.89 for every dollar made by men) and promoting women to senior roles. Implementing these changes can contribute to the required shift in culture needed in the IT sector, away from the male dominated “brogrammer” environment.

Some companies are implementing initiatives to increase the number of women hired in the technology sector. Amazon’s ‘Women in Innovation Bursary’ supports women from disadvantaged backgrounds to start a career in innovation and technology. Sky has implemented a number of changes to encourage women to apply for their jobs: job descriptions have been made more appealing to women, interview shortlists must contain 50% women and recruitment events are held specifically to encourage women to apply.

The gap is closing, but more work needs to be done

The programmes and initiatives discussed here highlight the progress to reduce the global gender technology gap, but more needs doing to close it completely. It is important for women to be involved in initiatives to close the gap to ensure the design of programmes and new technology is appropriate for their use and involvement.

Multi-county and global initiatives could be the best way to make the large scale effort to close the gap. The ‘Global Funds for Women’s Technology’ initiative is one example, aiming to empower girls and women to develop their own innovative ideas to advance gender equality in their local area.

G20 ministers have committed to a 25x25 target which aims to reduce the gender gap across the labour force by 25% by 2025. Most G20 countries have seen good progress with this so far, especially Brazil, Indonesia and Japan. Not only will these initiatives decrease the technology gender gap, but will drive gender equality as a whole.