While the tech industry leads the world in innovation and represents an enormous portion of the developed world’s economic potential, it lags far behind when it comes to social progress. In an Australian survey by the Human Rights Commission, 29 per cent of women over the age of 15 reported being sexually harassed at work. While that number is high overall, this general figure stands in stark contrast to the rate of sexual harassment in the tech industry.
Within the tech industry specifically, 81 per cent of women indicated harassment in just the last 5 years. In the US, a 2017 study involving Silicon Valley workers found that over a third of women had experienced unwanted sexual advances at work. This, combined with other forms of sexism, also serves to keep women out of positions of power within the industry.
Not only does this directly harm millions of female tech employees, but it also has devastating effects on the entire tech industry. Its toxic industry-wide cultural environment has had a noticeable chilling effect on labour participation and has throttled the recruitment pipeline for tech businesses all over the world. This not only limits the growth of the tech industry but also deprives it of some of its most promising leaders.
Lack of advancement opportunity smothers labour participation
A study by Indeed found that women leave the tech field at a rate of 45 per cent higher than their male counterparts. The most common reasons cited were a lack of growth opportunities, followed by poor management. In response to this, many business leaders have argued that women need coaching to become more assertive in their pursuit of leadership positions. Research, however, has not borne this out as the actual issue.
Multiple other controlled studies have found that women who exhibit assertive behaviour in front of men are generally perceived as rude, untrustworthy, and emotionally unstable, while identical behaviours were seen as positive leadership qualities in men. Combined with the more overt sexism prevalent in the male-dominated tech industry, this makes women in leadership rare and drives female leadership talent out of the tech sector entirely.
Misogyny is exacerbating the skills shortage
In western countries, women represent approximately half of the workforce. In tech, however, they’re deeply underrepresented. In Australia, just 28 per cent of tech employees are women. That figure drops dramatically in the US and the UK, with 24.6, and 16 per cent respectively.
As western economies increasingly begin to suffer from a skills shortage, businesses cannot afford any preventable attrition of their talent pool. To combat the issue, businesses and governments in the US, EU, and Australia have launched major programs to encourage more women to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. Despite this, the number of women entering STEM fields in all of these markets have sunk drastically in the past decade.
This means that, as a direct result of sexism, businesses are suffering from elevated employee attrition, a shrinking pool of new entrants into the field, and all the damage to general morale and productivity that is associated with toxic company cultures. In a word, sexism is very uncompetitive.
Tech businesses need to protect their labour pool
Facing long term skills shortages, tech businesses need to address these issues if they want to grow sustainably in the future. To get the workers they need to succeed, the tech sector needs to retain, and then find ways to recover female STEM talent.
The first and most obvious issue to fight back against is institutional sexism. Businesses need to take sexual harassment seriously and take aggressive steps to eliminate and prevent workplace misconduct by employees and managers. Additionally, businesses can reduce attrition by introducing accommodations that enable mothers to continue working, and by taking steps to ensure that women are afforded the opportunity to advance their careers.
Recapturing talent from other fields
The tech industry needs all the help it can get. That means also working to recover some of the many women who have left the tech sector entirely, either to enter other fields or to quit the workforce entirely. A good way to start with this is to consider introducing flexible working arrangements that allow mothers and carers to return to work part-time.
As the demand for their tech talent grows, skilled women will gain increasing leverage in the field. While those businesses who fail to adapt will likely be left behind, those who address sexism in their industry first stand to benefit significantly from the underutilised labour resource that women STEM professionals represent.