Home OPINIONS Be the force for inclusion by enabling women in tech

Be the force for inclusion by enabling women in tech

In the 1970s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra started to implement a blind audition experiment where players were concealed behind a screen to eliminate gender bias and increase diversity. Despite this measure, the numbers barely moved at first. It wasn’t until players were asked to remove their shoes that women started to make it to next round of auditions. Just the sound of heels clicking on stage resulted in a hiring bias against women regardless of ability.
A story that reminds us that the subconscious biases are far stronger than what can be perceived easily.
In the tech industry where I relish working in, I believe that almost all tech companies have come a long way in establishing the basic and “most visible” measuring for ensuring Inclusion and Gender Parity. It is now time to address the invisible portion of the iceberg.

Gender inclusion, no longer under debate

The conversation about gender equality has been pushed to the forefront in recent years. It has sparked fresh and positive changes across multiple industries and ignited greater awareness about gender bias. A recent McKinsey study shows that the contribution of women to India’s GDP is 18 per cent, one of the lowest proportions compared to rest of the countries, reflecting the fact that only 25 per cent of India’s labour force is female.
However, with recent developments in digital and technology space, India is growing faster than any other Asia-Pacific country in terms of women in work and society. Over the past few years, India has experienced large advancements in education and a focus from the government on women-related policies and therefore can serve as an example of gender equality for the rest of the countries.
We know that better gender balance in organisations makes good business sense. Companies that have gender diversity are 21 per cent more likely to have above-average financial returns, according to market research company Forrester which indicates that the leadership gender imbalance is a clear missed opportunity.
There are notable leading female faces in India’s tech who serve as inspiring role models and are paving the way for future female leaders through their innovative work but the gender gap undeniably persists.

Is it the talent pool?

A widely cited reason for this disparity is the pipeline problem – suggesting that the pool of female talent with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, is limited. There is some truth to this – a PwC study found that women represent only 32 per cent STEM graduates worldwide. But the reality is an educational qualification in technology isn’t always a prerequisite to join a technology company. Almost six in 10 women in tech did not study computing in universities, according to Accenture and Girls Who Code research. In fact, the problem starts earlier on; a major cause being the stereotypes influencing the career choices of women.
Research from UNESCO shows that starting in their early teens, the performance of boys and girls in STEM-related subjects begins to shift. Social bias, classroom dynamics, educational material, policies and economic opportunities are some factors driving this behaviour.  Over time, these compounds to produce a performance gap as well as a representation gap when it comes to boys and girls choosing to pursue STEM-related subjects.
With advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), companies have enormous amounts of data at our fingertips. We should leverage this data to help us make more informed decisions that allow us to mitigate bias through the process. In some instances, we’re already seeing this play out. LinkedIn recently announced new features to help recruiters hire more diverse candidates and ensure they’re not missing out on top applicants who may have previously been overlooked.
L’Oreal announced the implementation of Mya, an intelligent chatbot that interviews and evaluates job candidates. The chatbot is programmed to ask objective questions strictly based on performance with an ability to avoid unconscious bias among recruiters.
Tech companies can also make an impact at an early stage by getting involved in programmes that focus on engaging youths, getting girls excited about technology and building interest in STEM at a young age. Girls are 18 per cent more likely to show interest in computing throughout high school and university if they have a prior computing experience, according to another Accenture study. A good place to start is by partnering with programs such as STEM initiatives, Women in Tech, IT is not for Geeks and Girls who code to drive interest in careers in technology from young. Such programmes can move the needle, not just for the tech industry, but also for the information technology horizontal.

Challenge of returning to work

The gender problem persists as higher we go up the seniority funnel, where women returning to work after taking leave for childcare tend to drop out of the workforce and too often, do not return.
Gaps in their CV from anywhere between three to 10 years makes rehiring after a work hiatus a significant challenge, especially in the tech sector which is often disrupted by huge advances.
Corporations are often risk-averse to hire someone without specific experience, no matter their background. Self-perpetuating issues like women being put off by tech as a career as they view the industry as too male-dominated (and lack of women role models) also add to the challenges of returning to work.
But leaders and employees can change this pattern. At Dell, for example, we have started a pilot programme called Career Re-start, which helps us bring talent in and provide support for women returning from a career break. The response so far has been optimistic and we’re confident this will help change mindsets moving forward to increase the number of women returning to work successfully.

Could it be subtle gender bias?

The tech industry has to be aware that subtle gender bias can come through in the hiring process and the way roles are communicated. Vodafone, for instance, reportedly rephrased job ads during a three-month trial last year, and this move increased the number of women hired by 7 per cent.
What was previously the description for a cloud service operations engineer – “seeing outstanding individuals with a passion for mission-critical technology to help on our aggressive journey to improve our premier network and create synergy” – now reads “seeking extraordinary individuals with real passion for critical technology to help on our bold journey to improve our top-tier network and help create alignment”.
Research from the University of Waterloo published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that some language in job descriptions can be perceived as more male-oriented which deters many women from applying. In these cases, women reported that jobs with more male-oriented language were less appealing and had a lower sense of job fit. Taking steps to mitigate gender-biased language, together with retraining programmes for returners and youth STEM education, can begin to correct the imbalances with far-reaching effects.
Gender parity is not a zero-sum game, where one group wins and the other loses. We do have all the ingredients to get it right. Let’s recognise that this is a journey, and if we can work together, we can help change India’s gender parity landscape.

Sheenam Ohrie is Vice President of Enterprise Data & Mobility Engineering at Dell Digital. She is responsible for the overall IT services support and implementation. She has expertise in diverse & multicultural global team building, strong networking, partner relationship management and team motivation.