Un-hiding Hidden Figures: experiences and contributions of women in tech
In recent years, we have begun to hear more often about the need to address the gender imbalance in the tech sector by training and hiring girls and women, and the challenges associated with doing so. One of these challenges is gender bias, which remains a major hurdle in recruitment in the industry. For example, according to a 2018 Reuter’s article, corporate giant Amazon’s automated decision-making algorithms have developed a strong bias against women. Similarly, Facebook permits the targeting of jobs advertisement by gender, resulting in discrimination in traditionally male-dominated jobs. At the same time, it is equally important to retain and recognize the women already in the sector. This requires much more extensive efforts to guarantee inclusion.
Fifty years after the events portrayed in the 2016 Hollywood blockbuster Hidden Figures (mentioned previously on the EQUALS blog), and on the eve of the United Nations’ fourth annual Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation in May, nine successful women working in ICTs met at the UN’s New York headquarters to share insights from their careers. The session, Un-hiding Hidden Figures: Experiences and Contributions of Women in Tech, explored women’s visibility — and the visibility of their contributions —in the sector in the 21st century.
The event’s participants reflected on their experiences, which— despite having very different backgrounds— shared numerous commonalities. The panellists came from businesses (both large and small), civil society organizations and academia. Their jobs were diverse and their careers at different stages; but their experiences, resilience and determination united them.
One experience this diverse group of women shared was working in spaces where they were one of the only women in the room, echoing some of the trends highlighted in the EQUALS Research Group’s report Taking Stock: Data and evidence on gender equality in digital access, skills, and leadership.
Another was the observation that, while quality tech jobs are abundant, the work environment in the sector is frequently unwelcoming and not conducive to keeping female employees. Indeed, as highlighted in the 2016 report Women in Tech: The Facts, the turnover rate for women in technology is double what it is for men. Some of the panellists attributed this trend to women feeling undervalued in the workplace, constantly having to prove their worth and capabilities, having their technical skills questioned, and having to work twice as hard as their male counterparts. Participants also recounted stories of sexual harassment and other discriminatory behaviour, such as being “he-peated” (when a man repeats a woman’s idea claiming it as its own).
The women also spoke about the ways in which job opportunities are marketed to women and girls: too often, the language in job postings is gender-biased, leading to fewer female applicants. For the tech sector to be able to overcome this imbalance in the recruitment process, the industry will need to re-evaluate the way it advertises vacancies and focus on making female employees (and their contributions) more visible.
The ICT sector also needs to prioritize mentoring girls and engaging younger generations. Male allyship is also crucial, as both women and men have biases about women in tech that need to be addressed. Male allies should use their privilege to help advocate for gender parity and better working conditions for their female colleagues and better inclusion overall.
Despite some of the sub-optimal working conditions, the panellists all agreed that they enjoy their work, with several expressing their appreciation for the ways in which tech can help individuals in their day-to-day lives. This is encouraging news for the future of women and girls in tech. By closing the digital gender gap, the tech industry can help bring about significant positive change in the world.
Further reading: 25 ways to be a more inclusive engineer
About the author
Jacqueline Traore is a freelance journalist based in New York City, and an intern at the International Telecommunication Union.
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