It started with a supposedly straightforward assignment: “On the occasion of International Women’s Day, please write a short text for us about women in the ICT industry.” But how do you do justice to such a broad topic? There would be a great deal to say and think about. The longer I reflected, the more challenging the topic seemed. And actually, it isn’t just “Women in Information and Communications Technology” but rather “Why are Women in ICT still seen as something rather unusual”? When you look at the statistics, the latter point becomes very obvious. It seems that, unfortunately, one aspect still conditions the other. So here is a very brief attempt to grasp the status quo and, at the same time, to consider its causes.
It is clear that equal rights and equal treatment of girls should begin early in education, socialization and later academic and/or vocational training. Only then can a basis emerge on which true equal treatment as well as equal professional opportunities for women and men exist. The civil status and family situation must also be taken into consideration. It is simply unfair that one half of the population is disproportionately often confronted with the “child OR career” question. In particular in technology and research developments and progress move rapidly. In a large majority of families, it is the women who stay at home for longer periods of time for childcare or work part-time. Therefore, it stands to reason that their chances of getting a senior or research position, etc. are drastically reduced by a longer absence from the workplace (or part-time availability). This inequality is very real. There is still a lot of catching up to do, socially and politically. However – leaving aside the issue of starting a family and the subsequent child care – in an ideal world we should not even have to ask questions about equal treatment of men and women in ICT. We are a workforce. Colleagues. We work with our minds (sometimes even our brains 😋) and it is irrelevant how strong, how old or how tall we are. Therefore, the gender of employees in the IT industry should not be relevant at all. So much for the theory. In practice, however, us women still sometimes get astonished looks when we mention in conversation with others that we work for a software company. And these are the considerations that engulfed me when I got the assignment to write this text.
Causal Research. Why are things the way they are?
The figures, for both Europe and Austria, speak a very clear language: Women in ICT specialist occupations make up only a small percentage of the workforce in this sector.
Yet it would be particularly easy to create equal conditions for all in the ICT sector. Physical strength or integrity are no criteria for success in our professions. We would actually have the ideal foundation for equality, because inventiveness, innovative spirit and problem-solving skills are (I do hope there is general consensus on this point) independent of gender. So why are things the way they are?
The majority of us (I’m talking about Generation X or older) were certainly still socialized with the generally known gender stereotypes. Ambition for boys, modesty and restraint for girls, etc., I’m sure everyone knows what I mean. Will a young man apply for a specialized job when he has not finished his studies or other training, while a young woman resigns herself to doing so later, (“when you are good enough…”)? These are not obvious discriminations, and presumably much of the “treating women and girls differently” in engineering does not and did not happen intentionally.
It may well be the old “boys-are-better-in-math” patterns that were not questioned and thus led to a kind of ‘underlying’ discrimination. That could explain the imbalance that still exists. Of course, there are many different reasons, not just this one. The situation has risen from historical and social developments. And now it is high time for further steps towards equality. I think that once we have realized that, it is already a move in the right direction.
We women in Europe are comparatively privileged and society has come relatively far on the way to equal opportunities for all. The vast majority of women here fortunately have the freedom to take decisions autonomously. Our educational, social and health care systems may have their shortcomings, but they are just as available to us as they are to our male counterparts. Great opportunities are open to us, but we still have to seize them ourselves. In many other regions of the world, however, the future path of life for girls is already mapped out at birth. They are subordinate to men their whole lives and socially strictly confined to traditional roles. They’ll have significantly fewer or in the worst case no educational opportunities at all, and hardly any freedom of choice in family planning or in taking up a profession.
In my further research, I found an anecdote in a New York Times text about Bill Gates giving a lecture to ICT professionals in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. The participants sat separated according to sexes, on the left side of the room 4/5 of the participants: the men. The remaining fifth, the women, sat on the right. A very small group, separated from the men by a physical barrier. If one recalls this very image, one realizes how ‘exotic’ female employees in ICT were and unfortunately still are. The superiority in numbers as well as the barrier were not only symbolic but obvious and palpable in the room. At the end of the talk, participants asked questions, including whether it would be a realistic goal for Saudi Arabia to become one of the top 10 countries in the technology sector by 2010. Gates’ response was that this could not be the case at all if Saudi Arabia failed to utilize half of the talent in the country, which they obviously currently did. The women in the audience applauded and cheered. Right he was. It is a long-standing problem that our research, art and culture lose potential talents because these persons happened to be born as women. Perhaps a woman could have painted like Rembrandt if only she had had the appropriate opportunities and resources. Research and technology have presumably missed out on brilliant female engineers, inventors or programmers who were never able to develop and exploit their abilities due to lack of education, resources or because of social circumstances or religious constraints. This situation should not continue. It’s up to us to change that.
We at Delegate
The global ratio in our company is 18:41 (ratio F 1:2.3 M), therefore more than twice as many men than women. Here at our headquarters in Vienna, we are 13 women and 32 men (ratio F 1:2.5 M). We are much better positioned in terms of women in ICT than statistics would suggest. I am happy to report that women are represented in every department (the only exception being the IT / Infrastructure team). My team lead and our senior are female. We have women working in programming, software testing, as a product specialist, in project management, customer support, service, marketing and administration. My female colleagues are the coolest! Still, it’s clear – us women are outnumbered. And only a few of us actually have specialized training in ICT. Many are career changers, for example from marketing or education. That’s not an obvious career move at first sight, but we all work with great dedication and, even more importantly, with a lot of success. Even as people who originally came from other disciplines, we can hold our own in our working environment. Colleagues treat each other with respect. Still, as a woman – and especially as a career changer – you move way outside the comfort zone in the beginning. But outside of the comfort zone is where you learn the most! Delegate encourages and challenges its employees, and that is a good thing.
There is a positive trend that more and more women are doing technology-related training and working in the ICT sector. However, the percentage of women in this sector of the economy is still low. Much more is needed in terms of labor market policy initiatives, educational support and social rethinking for true equality of female and male workers, regardless of the sector. And now I’m back to where I started. So much could be said, so much to be concerned about. Politically, socially and at a company level. It would be far beyond the scope of this little essay to elaborate on all these things. That’s why I’ll close with a wish: It would be great if future female colleagues could feel directly ‘at home’ in technology and IT based on their training and mindset.
When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.
– Melinda Gates