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More than pretty: Looking beneath the surface of the tech gender gap

Young Asian woman holding a laptop

ARTICLE SUMMARY

We are all aware that the stem industry has a gender problem, but how can we change this and where should our focus lie?
Kelly Burroughs, Enterprise Solutions Director for iBwave Solutions, Inc

Kelly Burroughs, Enterprise Solutions Director for iBwave Solutions, Inc. takes a deep dive beneath the surface of the tech gender gap.

With a rich 15-year journey through the tech landscape with a focus on the wireless industry for the past 8 years, Kelly artfully combines product and market insight with marketing acumen. This passion for technology and wireless has not only carved out her niche but also amplified her voice within the tech community. At iBwave, Kelly’s mission is clear: tackle challenges head-on and consistently deliver innovation and value.  

 

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AS A WOMAN WORKING IN TECH, THERE ARE TWO QUESTIONS YOU’VE INEVITABLY BEEN ASKED AT LEAST FIFTY TIMES:

“Why are there so few women in tech?” and, “What can be done about it?”

Answers vary. Ask one person and they point to corporate recruitment. Ask another and they point to educational initiatives like gender-specific scholarship programs or specialized STEM programs for girls. Yet, even with these initiatives, progress has been slow.

As of 2023, the gender gap in STEM is stark. Women are only 30% of the STEM workforce. Delve deeper and, excepting life sciences, the STEM gap widens even more across different regions, areas of study, and industry verticals. In my world of wireless tech, it’s the norm to see only about 10 women at a conference of over 200 attendees.

The good news is the level of focus this issue is being given. It’s great to see. The question is, are we putting that focus on the right things?

Because while many initiatives focus on surface symptoms, I wonder if we’re missing the deeper roots of the problem. It’s not just about education or corporate bias. I believe it begins much earlier than that.

It begins with the lenses we give our children through which to view themselves and the world when they are just tiny years old. Studies show that by age 4, children exhibit learned biases – and society gives them many opportunities by then to absorb those biases.

I see this as I watch my wildly smart, curious, adventurous, fearless, and funny 4-year-old daughter navigate this world. I see just how gendered clothing and toys can be so early on. I also see how she is constantly praised for how pretty or cute she is, for how gorgeous her hair is, or how nice she is on the playground. And you know what, she is all those things, but she is not only those things. The compliments aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. So, more times than not, I blithely respond to add she is also smart, curious, fearless, funny, or strong. And I respond that way, not because I want the person to know, but because I want my daughter to know.

By ages 2-3, children start to grasp gender roles and what games and toys society expects them to play with. That means that early influence largely helps shape their beliefs about what they should and shouldn’t act like, wear, and do long before entering the educational system or corporate world.

This is where I think the issue begins – and it’s also where I think the opportunity to do better, lies.

Here is where I think we can focus more:

FOCUS ON ENVIRONMENT, NOT JUST SKILL SETS.

Whether it’s at the playground, school, or otherwise, let’s focus on fostering environments void of limitations and gendered expectations. Environments where little girls feel confident, supported, and curious to learn more. Let’s make sure they are given complete compliments, are relentlessly told how smart and capable they are, and are recognized for their achievements and skills, not just their appearance and caregiving skills. Let’s give them a better lens through which to view themselves and the world.

BE VISIBLE, SHARE OUR STORIES.

As women in tech, we are in the perfect position to share our stories and be visible examples to young girls looking for them. Out of the many jobs I’ve had, I remember having just one or two women to look up to and learn from. I would have liked more.  Let’s be visible, share stories and mentor where we can.

EMBRACE ALLIES.

As women in tech, a vast majority of the time we are simply outnumbered by men. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be on the same team as them. Over and over, I am impressed by the number of men I work with or meet in my industry who are allies. In fact, I talk to men about this a lot and recently had a discussion with a male friend who also happens to be the CIO at a large tech company. He had many thoughts to offer but, will share this one in particular:

None of what we’re doing today with grants and promotion of STEM subjects to girls is really shifting the needle overall on female representation in tech. It’s time we start to question efficacy of these solutions and consider other more fundamental factors at play, which includes parenting. It’s engrained how we put the focus on appearance for girls, which directly opposes taking the risks necessary in hard sciences. Attempting to solve these problems in the hiring pipeline 20 or 30 years later, is just bad thinking and is not working. Instead, any reasonable intervention should be around parenting and the environments we raise our kids in from an early age.”

We can propel everyone forward stronger and faster by working together.

Will doing these things be enough? It’s too large of an issue for singular solutions but I like to think it will help. It puts the focus on prevention at the root cause and not just treatment of symptoms at the surface. And if nothing else, we will be doing better to empower girls with the self-assurance to define their own strengths. This way, the first or next time someone tells them they can’t, they will confidently respond with ‘Watch me.’

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