International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020: Why do we still need it?

Four influential women in science and tech share how the diversity issue is leading to social and gender biases in technology.

On February 11, the United Nations, partners worldwide, women and girls, marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

The day provides an opportunity to reflect on the significant contributions made by women in the technology sector, and why more women are needed in the industry to safeguard the UK’s future prosperity.

Just 17% of those working in the UK technology sector are female, which is significantly lower than most other UK industries. So, what can businesses – and individuals – do to increase gender diversity in tech, and how will this improve the sector?

We asked some of the industry’s leading women to share their thoughts.

Start the conversation early

Karen Waters, Product Director at Engage Hub, comments: “Long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science-related fields – according to data from the UN Scientific Education and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3%) globally.

“To achieve true gender diversity, on the board level as well as on the shop floor, organisations can start with something as simple as educating girls at school about what roles may be available to them, using real-world contexts and role models to make the sector more accessible. While guiding girls towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects are important, it is also essential to elevate the role of non-technical roles within tech organisations, alleviating the misconception that you need to know how to code to step into the tech realm.”

Hala Zeine, Chief Product Officer at Celonis also emphasises the need for a change in mindset:  “Even though the number of females in STEM subjects has increased – 35% of STEM students in the UK are now women – in early schooling, girls are generally not expected to be as good as boys when it comes to math and science and are not given enough appreciation and accolades even when they are; reinforcing negative expectations from an early age.

“I see this every day in my own children. I have a boy and a girl equally talented in math. However, the school system, our family and friends are quick to label my son an engineer while my daughter often gets ‘wow, so smart and pretty!’

“Unfortunately, our current situation is due to many years of policies that discriminated against women. In the 1970s for instance, women – including my own mother-in-law – were required to provide their husbands’ permission to work. Fifty years later, we are all working to overcome the effects of this and introduce new pro-diversity policies to counterbalance years of injustice.

“I applaud Goldman Sachs for announcing that it won’t take start-ups public unless they have at least one female board member, recognising that gender diversity must start at the top if it’s to permeate throughout the organisation. This is also being seen in national regulations – in 2015, Germany introduced a law enforcing a 30% minimum quota of women on boards, which will enable more women to break the glass ceiling and rise to the top.”

Build your own network

Paige O’Neill, Chief Marketing Officer, Sitecore comments: “With less than 11% of women holding executive positions in Silicon Valley, there is a clear responsibility on those of us who have been successful to support other women following this path, while being a mentor for younger females considering careers in tech.

“To be a leading organisation you need a greater diversity of experiences, and this is the environment we’re striving to create at Sitecore. We’ve put measures in place to ensure a healthy gender balance is maintained across the organisation. For example, we’ve developed the Women of Sitecore initiative, which I’m very proud to be a part of, to create a vibrant community which aims to help women develop leadership skills.”

Aine McCaughey, Senior Software Engineer, Civica found support from her father: “My Dad was a huge inspiration to me in my decision to join the technology industry. He worked in tech for many years and most definitely instilled a love for tech in me.

“His support and guidance throughout my journey has been second to none, and I feel incredibly lucky to have someone like him to look up to. After more than 30 years in the field he is still so passionate about what he does, which is incredibly motivating.

“I was lucky that my Dad inspired me to continue with my STEM education, but women in the industry also need to encourage young girls to continue with STEM subjects after GCSEs and consider a career in tech and science. The focus for International Day of Women and Girls in Science Day this year is on how science and gender equality are needed to achieve inclusive green growth in our global development goals, so we as women need to be breaking down gender biases and helping young girls learn about how fulfilling a STEM career can be.”

The consequences of gender imbalance

Paige O’Neill continues: “It’s great that calendar events such as International Day of Women and Girls in Science are getting ever more recognition, as we get to not only celebrate women in STEM but also raise awareness of the wide gap between the number of men and women in the tech industry.”  

Hala Zeine continues: “Efforts need to be made – in all sectors, not just tech – to level the playing field, and not just stop after giving women the right to play. The inclusion of just a couple of females in a workforce is no more than tokenism, and it is only when an organisation’s workforce is beyond 15% female that the dynamic begins to change, and companies can start to reap the benefits of gender diversity. I have been on leadership teams where I was the only woman, and on some where we were more than 15% – the difference is palatable.”

Do we want to live in a world where we are discriminated against at the hands of a machine?

Karen Waters argues, no: “The input of female leaders and women on boards lead to greater creativity, less groupthink and a broader viewpoint when making key decisions. This is increasingly relevant as we see the biases existing within the workforce, translating into an inherent bias in technology such as Artificial Intelligence. To avoid data sets that are fed into AI algorithms reflecting an implicit social or gender bias, we need diversity within the workforce handling these data sets, ensuring a balanced and complete picture is painted within the data.”

Advice from the current experts to the next generation

Paige O’Neill says: “The one piece of advice I’d like to give girls is to never be afraid to speak up, as you cannot make a difference if you aren’t heard. I think women in particular trust that if they work hard someone will notice them and they will earn recognition, but I know from personal experience that you have to speak up and ask for what you want and be extremely proactive to get ahead.”

Hala Zeine adds: “For young girls looking to enter the technology world, or women looking to make a career, my one piece of advice is don’t try to do it on your own. First, choose your partner wisely – this always applied to men, as the old saying ‘behind every great man is a greater woman’ shows. Then create a strong network of mentors, sponsors and guides who believe in you and help bring you to navigate to the next levels. I am blessed to have a supportive husband who even helps me create some of my important essential announcements and keynotes and gives me space to participate in various networks, both male-heavy and women-only such as GenCEO – we need both in this world.

“I look forward to the time when there is no longer a need to celebrate female-specific achievements with awareness days.”

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