by Christine Bejerasco, CISO, WithSecure
As technology develops, there is an ever-expanding workforce and the need to fill vacant positions in the industry. However, women are still hugely underrepresented in tech. There are several reasons why this is so, and it comes from both sides of the gender spectrum.
For females, reasons can span as far back as early childhood, through to the formative decision-making years, and well into working life. However, there is also a deep-rooted gender bias in tech that all too often keep women from advancing in the workforce, let alone achieving leadership roles.
I have certainly seen improvements in the past two decades. Since there is already a natural support network between women for advancing in the tech workplace, the progress has been predominantly with men.
I have encountered more men in leadership positions who consciously support women in advancing towards higher roles as well; this is essential because men still primarily hold these positions. If they are not aware of any unconscious gender biases they may have, it can be the difference between promotion or career stagnation for a female employee.
Although we have not yet arrived at what I consider a state of equity, it’s worth noting that we are not in the same position as we were twenty years ago.
Like many women in tech, I have also faced negative bias earlier in my career. For example, I was once hired in a similar role as a male colleague but with a lower salary.
Although I thought my male colleague was significantly more experienced than me back then, in hindsight, I realized there was a bias, but more of an unconscious one.
The hiring manager for that particular job was a very pleasant guy to work with, but he seemed to have a bias that he wasn’t aware of and most likely hadn’t received any training to recognize it.
However, my managers have all been men, and those who have hired me into higher leadership positions and opened doors for me have also been men, so I see that change is already happening, giving me even more hope for the future.
Getting more women in tech leadership starts with getting more women in tech in the first place
One of the biggest values an organization can nurture is to train its workforce, especially those in leadership positions, to be aware of their unconscious biases.
For example, show them different scenarios, make them experience things outside of their comfort zone, and allow them to test themselves and expose any biases they may not know they have.
This can give managers more evolved tools to draw from rather than relying on “common sense”, which could mean going on autopilot and operating based on those ingrained behaviors they may already have.
Women can be subject to feelings of being evaluated, even if they are qualified enough. These feelings often go away after they have proven they have what it takes, but if this behavior is only exhibited towards women, then it’s discriminatory. I can only attribute this to a lack of exposure to having female classmates while at the university level.
Even when I was teaching a technical cyber security course at a university in Finland, the classes I taught had either a single woman or no women at all. So, it’s no surprise that sometimes when younger men suddenly have a female colleague in the workplace, it “feels” unusual.
To get more women in tech, we need to make it more attractive earlier in life
It seems that women are not choosing tech courses when they have the option to do so. I can only say that perhaps we are not “selling” the subject well enough, especially when they are at a younger decision-making age.
The key is to have women interested in tech earlier in their lives so that they will gravitate towards these courses, which will bring them to tech roles. Interest starts at a young age, and there is a tendency for kids to grow and speak to what they know.
I was very fortunate to have a mother who gave me both dolls and remote-controlled cars (from which I developed an interest in tinkering, opening up and understanding what’s inside).
Parents should really try to curate their child’s interests, give them options to explore and not isolate them from things that may have a gender label attached.
A crucial part of positive change is fulfilling the need for more female leadership role models, of which there are still way too few.
Growing up, we look for role models to aspire to be like, but girls may not see those careers as options without many women in tech leadership positions. As such, it helps that those of us in these positions today help raise the next generation of female tech leaders.
I have been mentored by a strong female executive and have also been doing one-on-one mentorships with aspiring leaders.
In these mentorship sessions, we talk about very practical things that we can do given our specific situations. I have found value in the mentorship I received and have been told that my mentees have also found our sessions valuable.
Tech organizations can play more of an active role
Instead of just reaping the harvest of talent from the universities, go to primary and secondary schools and set up experience centers and labs where younger children can be exposed to these technologies.
Not every child may have access to these things in their homes, but if their schools do, they can get exposure and be excited early in life.
This is really a story about breaking out of a cycle and evolving. It’s no one’s fault to be born and raised with the perspectives they have, but life gives us opportunities to evolve our thinking and change the future through the way we act today.
It’s about becoming role models for future generations so that they, too, can update their perspectives when they think back to us at this time.
The imbalance between male and female representation in tech can sometimes look discouraging, but more women are entering the industry and rising to leadership positions. So, while we still have work to do, we also can’t discount the reality that progress has been made.