International Women’s Day: Why Women in Tech Must Be Our New Norm
Celebrating the success of women is crucial to closing the gender technology gap.
Many people are surprised to learn just how big a role women have played in the development of the modern, digital world. They shouldn’t be. Women have been there right from the very beginning, when a young Ada Lovelace provided the mathematical brain power to help make Charles Babbage’s mechanical computational engine work in the early 1840s.
More recently, Hollywood finally shone a light on the pioneering black women who played a critical role in the US space program taking flight. Their contributions had gone unacknowledged for decades, almost entirely because they were women.
Not having women as a visible part of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has created a false impression that women are not interested in technical fields, or even worse, that somehow they’re not suited to them. In our increasingly digital society, that idea has profound consequences.
Taking action for equality
Despite being among its earliest pioneers, women in tech have had to fight for their place.
At World Tour Sydney this month, Preena Johansen, Trailblazer and Tableau CRM Analytics Ambassador, described the challenges she faced personally embarking on a tech career.
“When I started in tech, it was a very male-dominated industry, especially when you start looking at coding, developing and data. You have to fight your way through, and in a way, prove that you’re worthy to be up there with everyone else,” she said.
Worldwide, there is a growing acknowledgement of the need to fight this bias. For International Women’s Day 2023, UN Women has chosen the theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, acknowledging the contributions made by women in technology and the challenges they still face.
In Australia, the theme is ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’.
Overcoming the gender technology gap
While the stories of women in tech are finally starting to be told, the challenges women face in the field of STEM remain significant. According to UNESCO, globally, only 28% of engineering graduates, 22% of artificial intelligence workers and less than one third of tech sector employees are women.
Here in Australia, the number of women enrolling in STEM courses is growing, but there is still a major gap. Women only make up 36% of enrolments in university STEM courses. On average, women still earn 18% less than men across all STEM industries in Australia.
Women’s low representation in these fields means many are missing out on high-paying STEM jobs. Just as important in the long run, women are not given the credit for their influence on technology developments.
Why does this matter? Because the technology and products we develop may not represent the richness and diversity of the real world. As Jessica Macpherson OAM, founder of inclusion-focused Salesforce partner Blaze Your Trail explains, “you end up talking to one of your customers, but you miss out on all the other customers”.
She urges businesses to be “thoughtful about your end user, who’s going to be from a community that doesn’t [necessarily] look like yours.
“Any marketer knows that you can’t have one persona,” she said.
Diversity in STEM is also essential to recognise flaws in coding as a result of implicit bias. According to UN Women, analysis of 133 AI systems across industries found that 44% demonstrated gender bias. In one high-profile example, AI was discovered to be actively discriminating against women in recruitment.
As Johansen points out, this is a complex problem to solve, as AI consumes data without considering its inherent biases, and biases can then become self-reinforcing. She offers internet search as an example: “Bias can begin from the very first search term someone uses to look up a topic on Google, that creates a data point,” explaining that any search from that point on could be influenced by that initial data.
But the effects of the gender gap in technology and innovation go well beyond any one company or product, with consequences for the global economy. The UN’s Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report found that USD $1 trillion was lost from the GDP of low- and middle-income countries due to a lack of inclusion of women in technology.
Creating new norms for women in tech
The UN has proposed a more gender-responsive approach to innovation, technology, and digital education. Specifically, this means advancing the availability and encouragement of technology and education for young women interested in pursuing STEM-related careers.
This change targets the source of some societal biases creating these issues. But in the more immediate term, giving women in technology access to further development, support and networking seems to help alleviate some barriers. This is often done through meaningful communities of women working together to share skills and experiences.
Trailblazer Communities like Women in Tech Sydney and Women in Tech Melbourne are providing the networks and community to help women pave the way for more women to follow in their footsteps. Tableau CRM Analytics Ambassador Johansen says the Salesforce Trailblazer community has helped her find her own voice as a woman in tech.
“For me, it’s helped me really get the courage to just speak up to talk about my experiences,” she said. “It’s given me opportunities, like speaking at Dreamforce, and sharing my journey and story to help others potentially jump into the tech space.”
And Johansen says the learning is not just one way. “It’s been knowledge sharing—not only me sharing my knowledge, but I’ve learned skills from a lot of other people, a lot of my co-leaders, I’ve been able to learn skills from as well.”
Blaze Your Trail’s Macpherson said increased access to training, delivered the right way, represents a huge opportunity for closing the gender gap in technology. For example, Salesforce’s Trailhead program, she says, “has actually done a lot to level the playing field”, offering free, fun education that people can take on at their own pace—a crucial factor for those juggling family responsibilities.
“Ten years ago if you wanted training, it was expensive. It often involved in-person training and was time consuming. There were significant barriers to entry for a lot of people. So I think that there has been real improvement.”
‘We can’t be what we can’t see’
Visibility also helps. At World Tour 2023, Trailblazer and 2023 Golden Hoodie Winner Anne Fitisemanu described how her organisation TupuToa, is helping to provide professional pathways for underrepresented groups, like Maori and Pacific Island students.
Visibility and representation, she says, are a huge part of driving change. “In order for us to tackle some of the biggest problems in the world, you need representation. You need people at the table” she said.
Fitisemanu said her organisation strives to grow a “pipeline of professionals” so that “people coming in behind can see what’s happening”.
What your business can do
While some of these issues can seem global in scale, or seeded through decades of structural gender inequality, there are some strong steps any business can take to strive towards equality for women in technology:
- Provide safe environments for women to share any biases or adversities they face within your organisation, whether that’s limited opportunity or online violence
- Encourage employees to access appropriate communities and support groups, to help everyone further their own knowledge and skill sets
- Take any chance to help invest in STEM education for aspiring girls and women by donating money, time, or taking part in internship programs (you can learn more about Salesforce’s investments in STEM education here)
- Build inclusive teams that encompass more than one perspective
- Champion diversity outside your organisation. For example, support events that actively support diversity and give a voice to underrepresented communities
At Salesforce we believe creating a culture of equality isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing. Empowering women in technology helps us to innovate, build deeper connections with our customers, and ultimately become a better company.
We want to help spark change. Equity means acknowledging that not everyone starts from the same place, so just talking about equality isn’t enough. Equitable action is required.
We’ve introduced a new multi-year global gender goal to reach 40% women-identifying and non-binary employees globally by the end of 2026 and we tie executive remuneration to our representation goals.For more information or advice on how Salesforce is striving for equality, you can read our approaches to global equality here.