Alexa: The gender disparity in tech
By Andressa Kalil, Director of Engineering, Tapad
With daily lives reliant on technology, where for many spending as much (or even more) time with devices than speaking to humans is common – it’s no surprise that real life and digital experiences get blurry.
As Hasan Chowdhury pointed out in a recent article in May, today’s largest and most broadly utilised digital voice assistants are set as females, with notable examples including Apple’s Siri, Google’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. When coupled with the antiquated stereotype of women being “docile”, it’s understandable how technology is helping perpetuate gender bias.
Good news is that some work is being done to fix this. In September, Apple engineers announced they have deliberately set out to make Siri as gender neutral as possible. What this means is that one of the world’s most widely used female voice assistants will respond to questions on feminism, women’s rights, gender equality, and other gender-related topics in a more neutral way.
It’s in real life where additional progress is needed. The challenges that aligned to modern technologies are evident in the workplaces of the very people who make the tech.
When only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women, it’s hard not to wonder: are we prioritising gender equality in products before the workforce?
With only 29% of corporate or executive positions in the advertising, media and technology industries are held by women, a significant 30% decrease from last year – it appears so.
And that’s just women in senior positions; the number of women working in the industry is just as dire. According to WISE, only 23% of people working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics roles (otherwise known as STEM) across the UK are female.
So why aren’t more women in the tech industry?
Increasingly, research is finding that barriers to entry start at school and university. In a recent PwC UK study of millennials, only 27% of females said they would consider a career in technology, compared to 62% of males.
And it’s likely due to reinforced ideologies or stereotypes. In the same study, 33% of male respondents – and only 16% of females – had a career in technology suggested to them.
This was certainly the case in my experience. In high school, I was always interested in Math, Physics, and Chemistry, so it was a natural progression for me to study Engineering at University. But it wasn’t until my first day that I realised there was a gender gap – only four of 50 students were women. And it wasn’t only the curriculum, gender stereotyping was pervasive: at first, we weren’t invited to parties, sports, and other social gatherings, or included in classroom conversations about cars and video games because it was assumed these weren’t our interests at first.
A few of us felt compelled to change degrees. One woman switched to design after three semesters because she couldn’t stand the social alienation. I started a second degree at a business school, so I could feed my passion for Engineering, but also enjoy the social aspect of the university that’s so important.
I was lucky: I had the support of my family and friends to quash my doubts when I started questioning if I was supposed to be an engineer, and later they helped me get my start in my career. While there were assumptions made at first, some of my male study partners did step-up to encourage my studies and became good friends of mine as a result. But I also appreciate not everyone has this kind of support system.
Speaking with some of the other senior women I work with at Tapad, it was evident we shared a lot of the same experiences, particularly when it came to support and encouragement from our network, which we can attest to our success in the tech industry.
My colleague Laura Koulet, who is VP of Legal and Privacy at Tapad, believes that the best way to encourage more women to enter tech is to ensure that educational opportunities pave the way to technology.
“We need community and educational institutions to invest in programs that support females and encourage them to continue to pursue educational paths that will bring them to the industry. There are many challenges unique to women in the field and parsing them all can be a complex exercise. If you are a female leader in tech, the best thing we can do is to lead by example and share successful strategies for navigating a new and ever-changing industry.”
And for the businesses and institutions hoping to recruit more women into their ranks, don’t underestimate the power of promoting diversity: 83% of British female millennials stated that they actively seek out employers with a strong record on diversity, equality and inclusion.
We, as mentors and leaders, together with the technology industry, could play a greater role in educating students about technology and how it’s shaping the world we live in. As well as awareness, we need to increase access to technology careers and help women reach their full potential in the industry.