The technology sector is generally perceived to be dominated by men. Ask someone to name a prominent figure in the tech industry and they will invariably blurt out the names of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckeberg. How many will recall the names of Meg Whitman, Sheryl Sandberg, Rana el Kaliouby, or Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan? How many undergraduate students will recall the name of Grace Hopper, who developed the compiler as we know it today, thus paving the way for the development of modern programming languages?
Before we start thinking about ways to bring about gender diversity into technology, it is worthwhile to explore how the field of technology came to be dominated by men in the first place. The Atlantic has a great explainer on the topic.
The situation is worse in South Asia. Take Sri Lanka for instance, where Calcey is based. According to the World Bank, only 1 in 3 women participate in the labour force, and between 2010 and 2016, the female labour force participation rate has dropped from 41 percent to 36 percent. The World Bank has also released a report titled “Getting to Work : Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labor Force” which shows that women at all levels of educational attainment find it harder to secure high paying and high-skilled jobs.
These developments have all occurred despite the Sri Lankan economy expanding rapidly since the conclusion of a 30 year civil war in 2009. Positive infrastructural developments such as increasing numbers of girls being enrolled into the education system, and an extremely low female mortality ratio which is way above par even when compared with much more developed countries, has not managed to reduce the gender disparity and wage gap prevalent in the workforce.
So what’s preventing the assimilation of more women into the workforce, especially in the technology sector?
Marriage and Culture
The World Bank study referenced above found that for women, marriage can serve as an additional obstacle to participating in the labour force. A woman’s odds of becoming a paid employee after marriage goes down by 26 percentage points. Interestingly, marriage marginally increases the odds of a man becoming a paid employee by 2.5 percentage points.
The Asian cultural dynamic, which emphasises the family structure, naturally puts it at odds with the structure of the tech industry. When culture places the onus on women to take care of the family and attend to the needs of the kids, this invariably creates a problem where a female would find it hard to balance both the demands of a fast-paced job and a family. Neglecting the family is a no-no, which creates a natural incentive to bow out of the workforce.
Human Capital Mismatch
Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, Executive Director of the Women and Media Collective highlights how the education system fails women by failing to equip them with the skills demanded by employers. In this case, the problem appears to be a case of lack of inclusivity rather than lack of availability.
Dr. Kottegoda notes that there is a general impression that girls are not good at math. As a result, boys are pushed more towards mechanical pursuits, while girls are pushed more towards service-oriented roles, which is why Sri Lanka has fewer female computer science graduates.
The statistics prove it too. According to the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka, of the 1,713 students who graduated in an Engineering-related discipline in 2017, only 420 were female. Similar behaviour can be seen with science graduates. When it comes to non-STEM fields however, the proportion of female graduates is much higher, indicating a reluctance to obtain STEM-related qualifications.
Lack of safe transportation options and harassment
The World Bank points to the lack of safe public transport solutions for women and the harassment faced by women in public and at the workplace as major obstacles towards attracting more women to the workforce. This is actually a major issue faced by women everyday, everywhere. Thankfully, awareness is being raised thanks to the efforts of a few volunteers and organisations.
So what can be done to encourage more women to join the IT industry?
We at Calcey think there are a few solutions to this problem, but all of them are long-term and will not yield results overnight. After all, we’re talking about changing the culture of a country here.
- Encourage more flexibility
As an industry, we have a responsibility to shape our workplaces so that they are supportive of everyone.That means creating systems which enable people to build their careers around their personal lives, and not the other way round. At Calcey, we have made sure that flexi-hours are made available to everyone, regardless of gender or status. In the same way, new dads at Calcey are entitled to generous paternity leave, which is not something that is widely available throughout corporate Sri Lanka. Calcey employees who end up working at night, are provided with transport so that they don’t have to worry about getting home safely.
- Educate to educate
The industry must work together with the government to change the discourse around STEM education for the better. While it is the government which can encourage teachers and principals to encourage girls to take up STEM-related subjects, the industry must play the role of the lobbyist by educating the government on the importance of IT, and the opportunities available for women. At the same time, as players in the industry, it is up to us to shine the light on our female employees, and highlight their achievements. This added visibility could potentially help change how parents perceive careers in the IT industry.
- Enforce equality and non-discriminatory policies in the workplace
It is our opinion that technology companies ought to adopt and strictly enforce policies of equality and non-discrimination across the board. This is easier said than done, and companies which have been built ground up with such ideals in mind arguably have it better, compared to ageing elephants of the corporate sphere, where entrenched norms can be very hard to change. This is also one of the reasons why Calcey was envisioned as a complete meritocracy from day one.
While it is impossible to predict that simply making these changes will eliminate all the problems faced by women when trying to enter the workforce, we are pretty sure that they will go a long way towards helping make things better.
Much better, actually.