This piece is authored by Reshma Ramachandran, Group SVP and Head of Transformation at the Adecco Group.
Are we really breaking the bias when it comes to women in technology?
While we are making progress, the statistics of women in technology and engineering are far from even closing the gap. Only about 25% of jobs in technology are held by women in 2021.
I studied engineering and have held engineering positions for the first 20 years of my professional life, and I have personally faced several adversities to make headway in my career. Our purpose of making the future work for everyone requires breaking the bias along several different stereotypes.
The future of work will see women taking up more and more of the non-stereotypical roles. I feel privileged to be part of this incredible journey, where we are not only using technology to disrupt our ways of working but also breaking the bias having several women leading our digital transformation and creating products for the future.
Women in Tech
In the early days of Silicon Valley’s tilt at world domination, tech start-ups operated according to a now-famous motto: ‘Move fast and break things’.
One thing they have failed to break, however, is the gender bias within the global tech sector. According to growth platform Tech Nation, less than one in five workers in the UK tech sector are women – and almost six in 10 of those women believe gender inequality occurs either frequently or very frequently within the sector, compared with 32% of their male colleagues.
These are all good reasons to break this bias but there’s an increasingly strong business case for doing so, too. The more gender-diverse an organisation’s executive team, the more likely that company is to outperform its peers.
What can organisations and leaders do to start closing this gender gap? The most important step, according to Laila Iftikhar, VP of Digital Success Management at Adecco Group, is to foster a culture in which everyone feels heard and able to flourish. As in many industries, technology has become central to the way Adecco works, making her role pivotal.
Although not from a tech background, three years ago Iftikhar became Adecco’s Head of IT and Transformation. It was a male-dominated team working in an area outside her expertise at the time, and it wasn’t always plain sailing.
‘I would second guess myself,’ she recalls. ‘You get a lot of impostor syndrome when you get in those situations – do I say something if I don’t agree with that decision, and it’s being taken by people who are more knowledgeable than me? You doubt yourself a lot.’
Encouragement she received from those around her was key to overcoming these challenges: ‘Thankfully I had allies within the organisation locally and globally that would ask my opinion, knowing that I always have one!’
A blocked pipeline
As well as welcoming women in from other sectors, however, breaking the gender bias will require, over time, a more balanced influx of new blood. But this pipeline has a blockage. Women make up only around one in three STEM students in higher education worldwide – and just 3% of those women choose to study information and communication technology.
We shouldn’t need science to tell us this isn’t down to any gendered aptitude for the sciences. Nevertheless, a 2018 study by researchers from the University of Queensland found that girls and boys perform equally well at STEM subjects in school, from the top of the class down – and that girls in fact routinely outperform boys.
Why, then, aren’t more young women taking jobs in tech? The Australian researchers suggest this could be partly due to longstanding cultural biases, such as the notion that tech is not a welcoming field for women. One way to help dispel that is by ensuring that when graduates and older pupils look at the tech sector, they have strong female leaders to look up to; women who have beaten the path they hope to tread.
Kelly Griffith, Global Director of Coaching Services at Ezra Coaching, an online platform that delivers executive-level coaching to people at every level of an organisation, a part of the Adecco Group, says she has benefited in her career from exactly that kind of support.
"My experiences in tech have been very positive," she says. "I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by very strong female leaders and role models."
There are signs that the sector is moving in this direction. Griffith says that among Ezra’s clients are several big technology firms: "We’re doing a lot of work with them around building an inclusive culture. We have coaching programmes dedicated to that area," she says. "We’re working with organisations on meaningful change, identifying and addressing systemic issues… A lot of what we are doing is helping to elevate diverse talent but then also helping leaders to become more inclusive."
Izabella Khazagerova, Global Head of Career Services at HR firm LHH, a part of the Adecco Group, was another newcomer to the tech space when she took up her current role two years ago. Her mission was to develop an online career activation portal – a product that helps individuals working within a company to find new roles within that organization, helping to retain talent in-house while helping valued employees build their careers. The portal also identifies any gaps between the skills an employee possesses and those they require to do the job they want – and enables users to sign up for training courses that will help them close that gap.
One major enabler of this, Khazagerova says, was the network of female colleagues already there – and one in particular. "I connected a lot with other women who are in positions of power in my company," she says. "One senior colleague – and I’d encourage others do this – reached out to me at the start of this project and said “Would you like me to be your career mentor?”. That meant a lot."
Culture above all
As for the next generation of female talent – that pipeline blockage could be shifting, too. At Adecco Group, Iftikhar says she began a programme to recruit more graduates into her department, both to create opportunities for talented youngsters and to broaden the perspectives available to her team as it set about creating digital products.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the number of females who applied for the positions," she says. "You can see there are more women entering the STEM education path, or who have a willingness and desire to improve things in engineering, science and technology."
Ultimately, the key to breaking the bias lies in attracting female talent into the sector. If a workplace is truly inclusive – if everyone feels valued and heard, no matter their gender, personal or professional background – then that workplace will be a welcoming environment for anyone with the right drive and talent. That’s good for society, good for equality, and ultimately good for the bottom line.
"The culture for me is the most important thing," says Iftikhar. "You have to be willing to be honest and open, and not afraid of failing. And the more resilient we are and the quicker we go through the change curve, the better it makes us."