Commentary: Where are all the women? The myth of the pipeline problem in Asia’s tech sector

Commentary: Where are all the women? The myth of the pipeline problem in Asia’s tech sector

The gender disparity doesn’t arise solely from the low numbers of female STEM graduates, says Dell Inc’s Sophie Guerin.

here are all the women? The myth of the pipeline problem in Asia’s tech sector
(Photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

SINGAPORE: 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.
 
It’s this story that reminds us that employers must fully realise the role and influence they hold over the entire hiring and career progression process. 

In the tech industry where I work in, I believe that tech companies must lead by example in moulding company culture and policy, rather than wait for employee, education or policy to change. 

GENDER SHOULD NOT MATTER

Almost two decades ago, fresh out of school and having just started my first job in China, it did not take long for me to learn that not everyone was afforded the same career opportunities. Witnessing first-hand the existence of inequality and its impact in the corporate world was a career-defining experience. 

READ: The enormous, avoidable waste of human capital caused by gender inequality, a commentary

At the time, diversity and inclusion were not top business priorities, and I made a decision to devote my career to changing that. The technology industry, with its commitment to transformation leading towards a better future, was the platform I chose to drive meaningful change in terms of improving female representation across all professional fields. 

Much has changed since then. The conversation about gender equality has been pushed to the forefront in recent years, sparked fresh and positive changes across multiple industries, and ignited greater awareness about gender bias. But despite these improvements, huge gaps remain. 

A McKinsey study The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific shows the Asia Pacific average gender parity score for equality in work is 0.44, compared to a global best of 0.73. 

In the technology industry specifically, female representation decreases as you look up the corporate ladder. 

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks near high-rise buildings in the high-tech business area of Tel Aviv, Isra
A woman walks near high-rise buildings in the high-tech business area of Tel Aviv, Israel, May 15, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Amir Cohen)

READ: The unequal, unnoticed life of a female worker, a commentary

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. 

Mindful of the known economic benefits and tech’s potential to drive innovative growth opportunities from both a social and economic standpoint, the leadership gender imbalance is a clear missed opportunity. 

There are notable leading female faces in Asia’s tech sector including Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling and Pocket Sun, founder of SoGal Ventures 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 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 university, 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 and 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.  

Period hormone menstrual cycle office woman
(Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

Overtime, this 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 recently announced the implementation of Mya, an intelligent chatbot that interviews and evaluates job candidates. The chatbot is programed to ask objective questions strictly based on performance with an ability to avoid unconscious bias among recruiters.  

Tech companies can 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 prior computing experience, according to another Accenture study. 

A good place to start is by partnering with programs such as 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, where the percentage of female IT leaders remains at 9 per cent, according to a 2017 KPMG survey. 

IS IT THE CHALLENGE OF RETURNING TO WORK?

The gender problem persist the 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. 

READ: The myth of the superhero career woman is holding us back, a commentary

san francisco pregnant woman
A woman walks with a child stroller across a pedestrian crossing, in San Francisco, California February 19, 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

READ: Women quit for their husbands too, a commentary

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 too 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 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 career break. 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.

Companies can also partner with Return to Work organisations such as the NTUC U Family Unit’s Returners Programme or social enterprises such as Mums@Work that offer training programmes and support women in getting back into the workforce.  

Apart from improving the male-to-female ratio, these partnerships expand companies’ access to a huge and valuable talent pool, for an industry that so often face talent shortage.  

READ: 'Super mums' have one simple request. Don’t hinder them from returning to work, a commentary

COULD IT BE SUBTLE GENDER BIAS? 

The tech industry is admittedly male-dominated, and 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”.

A woman works on her computer in San Francisco
A woman works on her computer in San Francisco, California, U.S., July 16, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie)

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. While the tech industry does struggle in some regards to gender equality, as the driving force being transformation across multiple industries touching every aspect of our lives – tech has all the ingredients to get it right. 

Tech companies need to recognise it’s a journey, not a sprint, and if we can work together, we can help change Asia’s gender parity landscape. 
 
Sophie Guerin is Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Asia Pacific, Greater China, and Japan at Dell Technologies.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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