Women in Technology: The Global Optimum

22nd Nov 2015
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In this series on women in technology, we’ve examined the different initiatives undertaken by various stakeholders to improve gender equality within the science and tech ecosystem. The status quo is like an iceberg. The visible effect of these initiatives is small like the tip of the iceberg at sea level compared to its immense mass underneath. The propagation of the impact of these efforts is similarly inconspicuous under the ocean of the workforce. This article dives into some of the many ways long-lasting effects of the initiatives that are being instituted now will be felt.


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Employee movement within the STEM ecosystem

Within the technical workforce, scientists and engineers are always moving around. They leave their companies and join other corporations, start new ventures, or join VC firms as subject matter experts or partners. Students, undergraduate and post-graduate, join companies or start their own businesses. Many professors, while pursuing their academic interests, start new ventures or join VCs in an advisory capacity. While donning new roles, we always strive to implement the best practices we learned from our previous workplaces. As more people, men and women realise the benefits of the diverse workforce initiatives at their current workplace, they will endeavor to implement those measures at their new workplaces. In this manner, results of the initiatives being undertaken now will make a difference in the future as employees move around.

Startups and small companies

A lot of startups and small companies are paying close attention to the proceedings of diversity initiatives at large companies. When several large companies divulged their diversity data last year, the entire workforce realised how much effort was required to make the playing field even for minorities to grow in these companies. From considerable funds for diversity initiatives to going through payroll records to identify gender wage gaps, bigger companies have to put a significant effort to change their practices. Smaller companies like Slack, Twitter, and Pinterest immediately acted upon this realisation and published their workforce data as well as detailed accounts of how they intend to tackle the problem. They are also deploying implicit bias training and compensation reviews at this stage itself.

Smaller companies can take advantage of their growing hiring practices and agility to quickly put in place inclusion measures. Apart from the advantages they can accrue from a diverse workforce, there are many other benefits they can reap as well. With diversity becoming an increasingly important priority, the public will come to expect this proactive behavior from companies that are going public. Similarly, investment arms of large companies like Intel Capital are already expecting the prioritisation of diversity when startups approach them for funding and the rest of the VC industry will follow soon.

Academia and government STEM initiatives

Universities are already putting in place initiatives to improve enrollment and retention of women in STEM fields. Similarly, government bodies are looking at policy changes to improve compensation and other gaps in the workforce. These initiatives will automatically improve the pipeline for women in academia and government research institutions like national laboratories and so on. Presently, the problems women face in these research environments are very similar to the corporate workforce – wage gaps, discrimination when they become mothers, and so on. Most women in research remain in associate roles instead of tenured positions. Women also face tremendous discrimination while publishing research, including instances where they have been ‘advised’ by a peer reviewer to have a male researcher as the co-author to add weight to the research. In research environments, not being able to publish and attend conferences can affect careers very badly.

With universities placing safeguards against bias and discrimination, more women will be able to climb the academic and research pipeline. Other initiatives are also being implemented. Research journals are instituting measures like double-blind peer review and open review to prevent discrimination. Academic conference organisers are arranging childcare facilities at academic conferences so that all the women who can’t attend because of childcare responsibilities will be able to plan their travel easier. In an age where more women are working but are still having to shoulder most of the household responsibilities, initiatives like this will go a long way to improving the pipeline.

Women play the biggest role in this wave

More and more women are striving to bring about changes in the mindset and practices of the workforce. There was a time when the fight for identity within the construct of the STEM world was very intense with problems ranging from being paid half as much as men to not having restrooms for women in the workplace. My colleague was recently at an alumni meet at Georgia Institute of Technology. An older alumnus told her of the time where all the women researchers on campus had one restroom located at one end of the campus. When they worked late nights, it was a nightmarish logistical problem using the restroom. The struggles of women who came before us have made it possible for us to join the workforce with greater ease. It is now our responsibility to carry forward this initiative, celebrate their effort and gift of freedom.

Some of the ways women are moving this forward are:

– In companies, women are forming Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to effect change from within regarding bias, discrimination, and other problems they face as a cohort. These ERGs are also leading ventures outside of the company like providing mentorship to girls in schools and universities, and so on.

– Many women have started organisations like TechBridge, Roominate, etc., to combat bias and conditioning that society effects on young girls regarding their interests in STEM.

– More women are using social media tools to tweet and write articles about the discrimination they are facing or observing within the industry. With this open platform, companies and research institutions face higher scrutiny and pressure to rectify their practices. A recent example is the deluge of tweets and articles attendees of Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual tech conference, let loose about the absurd manner in which Wojcicki and Alba were treated in a panel advertised for women tech leaders. This magnitude of response by attendees who are Dreamforce’s target audience will drive Dreamforce to make amends in their next installment.

 – Women are starting VC funds to provide capital to women who want to start companies. The VC ecosystem today is more male-dominated than the broader tech industry, with just 3% of partners being women. Not only are women facing a problem climbing the corporate ladder, but they are also finding it difficult to obtain funding for their startup ideas. Just as we tend to hire and refer people like ourselves, investors also tend to invest in people who are like themselves. Women are starting funds like Women’s Funding Network to provide assistance to women founders. Women are also using crowd-funding to obtain the necessary funds for their venture when denied by investors.

 These are few examples of the way women are effecting change towards a workforce that will one day become gender neutral. This article is incomplete without an acknowledgment of the efforts of men towards gender neutrality. Men are increasingly becoming cognisant of the struggles of their female colleagues, mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives. They are undertaking various initiatives themselves to improve the situation – sponsoring women to climb the corporate pipeline, shouldering childcare responsibilities so their wives can resume work after maternity, funding startup ideas by women, actively taking steps towards reducing their unconscious bias, and so on.

As these interconnecting activities between various stakeholders are increasing, the STEM ecosystem now stands a real chance of providing unbiased opportunities to women within the system. The goal here is not to force more women into STEM. No one, regardless of gender, should be forced into a line of work or study. The global optimum is for everyone to be able to pick their field of interest without societal pressure, pursue it with passion and work in an environment where they can immerse themselves in their interests without having to deal with external demotivating factors. Everyone stands to benefit from this optimum. Given everything we’ve accomplished so far and how much further we will push forward as a society, this is not too much to ask. I’m sure the best from us is yet to come, and I’m looking forward to it.

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