Men are viewed as having a natural affinity with technology, whereas women supposedly fear or dislike it. Women are considered passive beneficiaries of the inventive flame. This affects the experiences of gender, historical narratives, employment practices, education, the design of new technologies and the distribution of power across a global society in which technology is seen as the global driving force of progress. – Francesca Bray (2007)
This study is about the ways women and men interact with technology and their ability to access resources and opportunities, in their communities depending on their being a woman or a man.
Gender concerns in the industry
We’ll cover gender concerns across three main areas, that affect the industry, that is; education, hiring, and retention.
Education for women especially in some African communities is still seen as low priority. This coupled with cultural stereotypes around women and the sciences led to men gaining first entry into the technology industry. Software engineering is thought to be a masculine field. These negative connotations are embedded in the minds of society that women were not suited for technology and, dissuade women from joining the profession. Society’s deep-seated assumptions about women in tech, inform the expectations and attitudes of teachers, parents, counselors, and peers. This perception can be directly and indirectly conveyed to girls and boys, molding their own levels of interest and attitudes. Men in technology revealed that their gender did not affect their access to education in technology.
Our research revealed that the ratio of women to men in some companies was average 2:10. Experiments by Inc surveys reveal that when hiring, managers, and recruiters sort through resumes that are identical, with the only difference being the name, there was a bias toward men. When the name was a male’s, the resume would be given preference over an identical resume with a female’s name. This is the very definition of unconscious bias, and just one out of what are millions of other examples encountered by women every day.
Retention of the female workforce as compared to males has been the biggest challenge in the sector. Men interviewed revealed that they would quit their job if it ceased to present a professional challenge or opportunity for growth. However, women interviewed for this study revealed that they have quit tech companies on the grounds of sexual harassment and unequal pay with their male counterparts. In February 2017, a report by a former software engineer at Uber, Susan Flowers revealed that she quit her job after repeated requests from her superior to engage in sexual relations. When she reported the incident she was met with inertia and her performance review was downgraded. She said, “When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another engineering organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t change jobs were quitting or preparing to quit.” This is not an isolated incident. According to a survey by First Round Capital Seventy-eight percent of women, founders say they have been harassed or know someone who was. While it seems retention of male employees is largely affected by personal career aspirations, with women it’s a systemic cultural problem about gender.
Evolution of gender perspectives
Given the landscape of the male-dominated field of technology today, you would be remiss to find out that the first computer program was invented by a woman, Ada Lovelace. She was a trained mathematician, quite uncommon for a woman in the 1800’s. She was the first to mention that computers could solve more than mathematical equations and is often referred to as the first programmer. After Ada Lovelace, there was Hedy Lamarr who invented the frequency-hopping technology that allows us today to use WiFi and Bluetooth.
Computer programming was thought to be clerical, therefore more feminine while the hardware part of the computers was considered difficult and therefore masculine. So gendered were aspects of technology that Cosmopolitan an American magazine in 1967 ran an article titled, ‘The computer girls’ which described women as naturals at computing where they described the process of coding as, ‘just like planning a dinner.’ The naturalness of women had little to do with biology and more to do with how women were socialized. So what changes from 1967 to 2018?
In the late 60’s the perception of programming being clerical began to change. It began to be viewed as hard and time-consuming. Being classified as hard also meant it was now lucrative as it’s functionalities increased. Technology, therefore, started becoming more male-dominated.
Fast forward to the 2000s onwards we began to see a lot more engagement of women in technology. The bulk of attention was focused on women’s education in STEM. Education programs such as Akira Chix in Kenya, Girls who code in the United States began to take root. The goal is to create inclusivity particularly of women in technology. Others like Standard Chartered Bank in Kenya partnered with Strathmore Business School in 2017 to offer an incubation program for women-led startups. This was done to fill in a power vacuum in technology where most founders and CEOs are male.
We have also witnessed a change in how media frames and covers gender in technology. We have seen more coverage of women in technology in newspapers and online publications though men still dominate news coverage in technology. The media has also been pertinent to exposing gender inequalities as is the case when they exposed Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for creating a culture of gender discrimination.
The evolution has also seen more men and women leaders stand up for equal gender involvement in technology with notable individuals such as Jack Ma, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the Cabinet Secretary for Technology in Kenya.
Key Players in the industry
The Key players in the industry include
Government: Technology firms do not operate in a vacuum they are backed by government policies that affect their day to day operations. In Kenya, the cabinet secretary for ICT launched a government digital literacy program named Ajira aimed at increasing capacity for men and women in the workplace. This program will ensure that women, as well as men, have equal access to opportunities in technology.
Media: The media is responsible for disseminating information and creating perceptions. As such in a gender study, it is important that we not overlook the role media plays in shaping public perception of gender roles. Nanjala Nyabola a well known female writer and academic organized a cultural event in Nairobi, a local daily interviewed her for the event. However, when she opened the paper she was met with shock. She said, “I open the paper, and in the entire article, I am referred to as ‘Mr. Nanjala.’ Like, consistently,” she said. “And I should say at this point, it is definitively a girl’s name.” The paper’s mistake “is like saying Mr. Julie or Mr. Barbara,” she says. She asked the article’s reporter whom she’d met several times, and who was therefore quite clear on her gender what happened. “And he said, ‘I’m really sorry, the copy editor changed all the Misses to Misters.’”
Such is the attitude of the media towards women. As a key player in gender perspectives, it is evident that the media can be deterrent rather than an advocate for gender inclusivity.
Software and Hardware companies: Technology is divided into software and hardware. Hardware companies play a critical role in the tech industry as without that most technological activities would not be undertaken. Software, as they say, is where the magic happens, it involves stringing code that performs a function. It is software that is the driving force of technological advancement in the 21st century.
Venture Capital firms: It is venture capital firms that invest in technology startups around the world. Gender perspectives in the Venture Capital trickle down to whom they fund and why they fund. An article on the Globe and Mail titled, ‘Venture capital firms have a gender problem. Here’s how to fix it’, stated that Female startup founders have to work harder and receive far less investment than their male competitors. Stephany Lapierre, the founder of Teal book, a fast-growing tech venture, says she never thought of herself as a female founder until she started pitching for investment. Suddenly, her gender and status as a mother entered the conversation. “As female VCs, we know this isn’t straight-up gender bias. Without women at the table, perspectives that represent half the population – and customer base – are being lost.”
In 2018-2019, Kenyan technology startups have been funded to a tune of ninety-one million dollars according to Capital FM Kenya. None of the companies funded were female-led though there exist female-led startups in the market such as Weza Tele and Farm Drive among others.
The consumer: The consumer is the ultimate target. Be it fintech or social media the consumer plays a huge role in the longevity of a technology company. In 2017 we saw a lot of consumers, male and female become more involved in gender aspects of the business. This was especially during the Me Too movement that saw consumers boycott Uber after it came to light that they had a toxic culture of gender discrimination. Consumers remind the tech industry that gender discrimination in the workplace has a huge effect on the company’s reputation.
NGOs: NGOs have played a big part in technology both as consumers and advocates for the rights of workers. Policies such as the UN system-wide policy on gender equality and the empowerment of women that cuts across all industries have increased equal representation of genders across the board. Other NGOs include The African Centre for Women, Information and Communications Technology (ACWICT) that was established to promote women and youth in the technology sector by offering training, employment, and mentorship.
While gender sensitivity training has increased to engage men and women in the industry and create awareness they are seen as a formality. According to my research, in Kenya, the idea of promoting a gender-sensitive workplace is seen as a future endeavor and not one that needs immediate mitigation. Interviewees admitted that it had not been prioritized.
A behavior campaign among all stakeholders is needed to change attitudes about gender in general. A suitable framework for analyzing the relationship between gender and technology is one that understands that technology and gender are not fixed but given as a cultural process that which like other cultural processes are subject to negotiation, contestation and ultimately transformation.
Speaking of culture it is important to note that all the key players mentioned above are majority male. Venture capital companies have a very low female representation. A 2014 study by Babson College revealed that the proportion of women partners in U.S. venture-capital firms declined from 10 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2014 and that number is still on the decline. The government follows suit with a majority of legislators being male. How then are we to create gender-inclusive work environments or have sincere discussions about gender perspectives when the key players don’t promote the same among themselves?
We must all be introspective and find what gender biases exist within us if we are to create gender-inclusive environments in the technology industry and indeed all areas of employment.