Nature vs Nurture – What's causing the shortage of Women in Tech?

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The shortage of women in tech continues to be a highly contentious issue throughout the business landscape. As a topic of numerous discussions and some heated debates, there is one question that prevails: ‘What accounts for the shortage of women in tech - nature or nurture?’

In this blog, we take a look at what women role models and industry leaders have to say about the various social factors which contribute towards the gender divide in tech. We also catch up with Kate McClorey, our MD for Technology & Transformation recruitment to discuss the nature vs nurture debate, and what employers can do to support equal representation going forward.

We will also be hosting a series of Women in Tech panel discussions across Scotland, lead by industry leaders and chaired by Kate. Watch this space!

If gender targets and initiatives aren’t working, then what is the root of the problem?

According to our Women in Tech 2018 report, women make up 42 percent of the average company’s workforce. While these numbers initially seem like cause for optimism, our researchers also found that women made up just 21 percent of the average tech team.

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Of the study, Search’s MD for Technology & Transformation recruitment, Kate McClorey said: “The overall picture of the contemporary tech sector is one in which women are a growing presence, albeit a slow growth. We certainly still see a shortage of women with the appropriate skills available in the employment market, which is one of the major issues for all concerned.”

Although the recent gender pay gap reports, numerous studies and industry leaders have shone the spotlight on gender discrimination within the sector, the feedback from our survey respondents conveys a slightly different story. Nearly 50 percent of those surveyed said they felt the tech sector offered the same career advancement opportunities to men and women, while just 18 percent said their organisation did not offer cross-training or measures to accommodate women returning to work after career breaks. 

Can the shortage of women in tech be attributed to biological sex differences?

Although 2018 statistics remain to be seen, the latest figures published by the Department for Education show that just 0.4 percent of girls taking A-levels chose computer science last year, compared with 4.5 percent of boys. Furthermore, a recent Tech City UK report –based on a poll of 1,000 young people and 80,000 Reddit posts – reveals that only 13 percent of women have a desire to work in the tech sector. This begs the question: ‘Are women biologically less inclined to pursue tech as a career?’

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Many psychologists give credence to the general idea that prenatal and early postnatal exposure to hormones such as testosterone and other androgens affect human psychology, and there is some research to support the theory. Certain studies in particular have closely analysed and compared the behaviours of boys and girls who are so young that socialisation or nurture has not exerted its full influence, with sex differences emerging in broad dimensions of temperament.

But although the research on temperament suggests that nature instils some psychological differences between boys and girls, scientists still don’t fully understand the pathways from these aspects of child temperament to adult personality and abilities.

One cannot dispute the influence of social conditioning

Given the absence of clear-cut evidence that tech-relevant abilities and interests flow mainly from biology, there’s plenty of room to consider social conditioning in shaping perceptions around tech. These influences may in turn act as a deterrent to girls who would otherwise perhaps be interested in pursuing a role within the sector as adults.

A number of industry leaders, including Fiona Usher, head of Computing & ICT at Battle Abbey School have attributed the shortage of women in tech to how the industry is portrayed at grassroots level. She has observed that the perception of computer science from a girl’s point of view is that it is a difficult, boring subject that is primarily for 'nerdy' boys. She also notes how many female students may not want to be the only girl in the class and are influenced by what their friends do.

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Anna Holland Smith, a former criminal defence lawyer who retrained to become a software engineer at the BBC believes that more can be done to demystify tech at an early age. “There is a lack of information and understanding in schools on what a career in the tech industry looks like, or how studying computer science might translate as a career,” she explains.

Traditional gender roles and stereotypes also shape the perceptions of children during the early development stages.  “Enforcing gender stereotypes from an early age not only sets the stage for prejudice and discrimination directed toward those who deviate from gender norms, but also influences the level of confidence individuals may have in their abilities,” Kate observes.

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“Tech-savvy teenagers (and even adult women) who might be keen to pursue a career in this field may second guess their own abilities. Particularly if they internalise societal stereotypes about women’s inferiority in tech-relevant attributes, thinking themselves better suited to more analytical or consultative type roles rather than coding or cyber roles for example ” she continues.

So if the issue is influenced by both nature and nurture, what is the best way forward?

Neither nature-oriented nor nurture-oriented science can fully account for the underrepresentation of women in tech jobs. A coherent and open-minded stance acknowledges the possibility of both biological and social influences on career interests and competencies.

“While nature may play a role in what a girl chooses to pursue as a career later on in life, we must also ensure that girls are given equal access to information regarding the sector and what it has to offer, without interference from stereotypical narratives which shape perceptions from an early age,” says Kate.

“The good news is that many independent training academies such as CodeClan, Cyber Girls First and Code First Girls are partnering with many leading businesses to raise awareness around the wealth of opportunities across the UK’s tech sector, educating girls at grassroots level to increase their chance of becoming the female role models of the future,” Says Kate.

“As industry specialists in this field, we at Search Technology & Transformation actively support employers through early engagement with female talent, using our expertise to communicate the employer brand and enhance the overall candidate attraction strategy of businesses we work with,” she continues. “In addition, we also recommend that businesses introduce a number of measures to support women in the sector, including flexible working or retraining schemes.”