As clichéd as it sounds, the concept of women in technology, or in any senior business role, is somewhat of an attention grabber at the moment. Names such as Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Virginia Rometty are paraded about as impressive female role models with the aim of showing that women are capable of anything. So why do females still only make up a quarter of the workplace, and does this matter?
Earlier this year, the UK government released its third annual progress report into women on boards, with its authors claiming that “real progress” had been made, with more women than ever before in the boardroom of the UK’s top companies. The study also highlighted what it called the “growing recognition of the benefits gained by business, the economy and wider society” of diversity and inclusivity.
Speaking at an event to launch the report in March, the then Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, said: “It makes clear economic sense for women to be able to rise to the top.
“Good progress is being made in Britain through a cultural shift that promotes on merit, not through the mandatory quotas advocated by others. “Supporting women to fulfil their full potential should be a core business issue; not just so we can reach our target of 25 per cent of female appointments to FTSE100 boards by next year (2015), but for the long-term sustainability of our economy,” she said.
The 2014 Cranfield FTSE Report found that just two FTSE 100 companies still have all male boards, compared with 2011, when one in five boards were all male. Things are also becoming more equitable in the FTSE 250, where all male boards are down by more than half compared to three years ago.
Miller is not the only one campaigning for better diversity in UK businesses. According to a string of recent reports, including one by the UK government, women are particularly underrepresented in the field of technology, with only 17 per cent of the country’s technology-related jobs held by women. In Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, women make up just 13 per cent of the workforce, while in engineering alone, the figure falls to as low as 8 per cent.
A separate study produced in 2011, found that women fared slightly better in the financial world, with females accounting for 40.5 per cent of employees in the securities, investment banking and commodities industries combined. However in investment banking alone, women make up just 25 per cent.
As a result, many campaigns and lobby groups have been set up with the aim of raising these figures. Stemettes, one such group founded with the aim of inspiring the next generation of females into Stem fields, has set a goal of getting the number of women in the Stem workforce up to 30 per cent by 2020.
“We need people to become role models, but they can also facilitate changes that allow women to feel more comfortable in these positions,” Professor Maria Tamboukou, professor of feminist studies at the University of East London, told Brickendon.
Tamboukou believes that the key is to change the way women think about their roles: “Children learn gender from a very early age and while historically there has been a lot done to address these issues, there is still a long way to go.”
So why is female under representation in parts of the workforce an issue? It is widely acknowledged that diverse groups are stronger, more creative and more innovative. This makes them more competitive and enhances their ability to exploit growth opportunities and generate revenue and profit. A recent study by recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, also highlighted the fact that women are traditionally associated with the soft skills that are increasingly important attributes for business leaders.
According to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, women are being put off careers in science because of the pressures of family life combined with “biases” in the workplace. Others believe the reasons are more inbred.
“The issue stems from how we raise our children and teach them who they are,” Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, says in her book ‘Lean In’. “The toys we give them and the words we use – girls are pretty, boys are brave.”
Sandberg has recently launched the “Ban Bossy” campaign aimed at encouraging young girls to become leaders. “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a leader, yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded bossy,” she says.
According to Sandberg, words like bossy send the message: “don’t raise your hand or speak up.” By junior school, girls are less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood.
Tamboukou believes there has to be a change in mentality before the number of women in leadership roles increases. “Management roles are structured in a very male way which makes some women feel uncomfortable,” she says. “For a woman to be a good manager it is almost always a difficult position to be in. If you are a good manager then you lose out on your feminine side. If you hold onto your feminine side then you are seen as too soft and not a good manager. It is hard to find a balance.”
Moreover, hiring women into particular roles is not always easy. Multinational oil giant BP, which employs 85,000 people in 80 countries around the world, has pledged that a quarter of its group leaders, and One agency recruiter who declined to be named, spoke of being tasked with finding only females for a particular role within a large multinational organisation and being told that the company would pay “significantly” more money for such a candidate.
Still, quotas are not to everyone’s taste. While most respondents to the Harvey Nash study believed that moving towards gender parity (at least 30 per cent female representation on boards) would take at least 10 years to achieve, mandatory quotas to force more rapid change were unpopular. Just 22 per cent of respondents were in favour.
The key, said one industry source, is to look at companies that are successfully embracing diversity and seek to replicate their actions. Newer companies such as Google and eBay have built diversity, flexibility and childcare support into their organisations, making it easier for women, and where desired men, to manage the balance between their work and family life.
Alexandra Bradstock, a management technology consultant who has worked in a variety of IT and project management roles in several large investment banks, agrees. She says that while her own experiences of working as a female in very male-dominated environments have been “pretty positive,” the presence of senior females within the organisation, such as at Standard Bank, where the chief executive Jenny Knott and head of risk Roselyne Renel were both females, make the inclusion of women into the work environment more acceptable.
So, if the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s warning that the UK risks failing to find enough workers to fill vital jobs in science and industry without increasing the number of women is to be heeded, there is much to be done.
But with a technology industry not lacking in impressive female role models – three of the most powerful technology companies in the world are headed by women: Facebook has Sandberg; Mayer, once the first female engineer at search giant Google, is chief executive of Yahoo!; while Rometty is president and chief executive of IBM – some might say the foundations have been laid.
So before you give your young daughter a Barbie doll and your son a computer game, you may want to think twice about what you may be encouraging…….