Time to walk the walk and change perceptions of women in IT

After all society has been talking about gender equality across all professions for decades. And while a great deal of progress has been made, it is an inescapable truth that we are yet to achieve gender equality, both in terms of career paths and pay, in a range of sectors, particularly STEM.

We now find ourselves in 2015 with the topic trending on Twitter, as a result of some raised eyebrows at a woman featuring in an advert for an engineering company. It’s a wake-up call for us all, that the time has come to stop just talking about gender balance and actually start taking action.

Walking the Walk
Corrective action is exactly what we’ve taken at ForceManager, a rapidly growing international start-up. But while I’d like to claim that gender equality was a company mission from the outset I must confess that at the beginning we were a very male dominated organisation. Started by a collection of like-minded colleagues and friends we spent our formative days as a very introspective organisation focussed solely on product development.

It was only as we looked to start refining the product, after initially taking it to market and looked to export it to new international territories that this began to change. As we grew from a small, incubated start-up to an international CRM firm, we began to bring in external talent from a range of backgrounds. As our employee profile began to expand our outlook too, began to sharpen in a range of ways, including our hiring process.

This included a desire to diversify the workforce to ensure we had a wide range of perspectives and skills in the business. We now have an almost 50:50 split of men and women – there are not many software companies that can make that claim – and we have reaped the benefits of it as a company. We have seen a definite value in a diversified approach to IT and have benefitted from fresh perspectives on areas such as design, where we have gained enhanced insight into how the code will translate visually onto a user interface, as well as many other aspects across the business.

Rejecting Stereotypical Thinking
The IT sector as a whole could realise the same benefits as ForceManager if it put greater parity between the genders at the top of its priority list. Key to this, in my experience however, is to break the cycle of stereotypical thinking that many organisations sleepwalk into.

A prime example of this are the concerns about maternity and child rearing that many businesses hold when it comes to employing, or giving parity to, female workers. The misconception here, setting aside why the stereotype is morally questionable, is that by employing women, organisations expose themselves to a greater risk of losing staff to maternity leave, and have a less committed, less reliable staff member to deal with further down the line. Instead, organisations should be looking at what they stand to gain from employing a prospective parent. Having children can develop new skills, in both men and women, including organisation, increased patience and multi-tasking skills which can be beneficial in a professional environment.

Changing Perspectives, Greater Accessibility
Breaking, or turning these prevailing stereotypes upside down is only one part of the puzzle for the IT sector in achieving greater gender parity. Perhaps more importantly the industry must begin to change perspectives of careers in the sector for female professionals.

For whatever reason, IT has always been associated with men. Building computers, gathering data and writing code have typically been identified as “men’s work”. At the same time there has been a distinct lack of female representation in the sector, creating an absence of role models to inspire women as they start shaping their careers during their teenaged years. As a result the lack of women, IT has become a self-perpetuating cycle that still remains unbroken.

As female representation increases the pattern will gradually be eroded, especially if women, such as Marrisa Mayer at Yahoo, continue to be appointed to high profile roles. However the IT sector should be aspiring for better than simply waiting for time to solve the issue and should be looking to proactively accelerate the process.

IT companies need to be looking to promote the industry within the education system to encourage young women into acquiring the skills the industry will need, and should be demonstrating that IT is a viable career choice for both boys and girls. Initiatives should include STEM speeches delivered by the talented women that work in our profession and ensuring that internships at IT/Tech firms are promoted equally to boys and girls.

Only by expelling the lazy stereotypes that seem to plague the STEM sector and working to engage girls in technology from an early age, will we start to see more females electing a career in IT. This two-pronged approach will break the self-perpetuating cycle that exists, and draw a wider variety of skills and perspectives into the sector. And that can only be a good thing.

Oscar Macia, CEO of ForceManager