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A glass ceiling in male-dominated Big Tech is keeping innovating women from making their mark ǀ View

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Parts of the world - especially the online world - are still openly hostile to women. At a time when parts of public life have become more gender balanced, some online spaces have become dark shadows of their real-life counterparts.

This has started to impact on our politics and even the functioning of our democracy, as female parliamentarians bear the brunt of this treatment. But things will not change until Big Tech firms stop being so male-dominated and start to face the size of the problem, perhaps by employing leadership teams who can identify more easily with those on the receiving end.

In the past, as a woman in tech, I have been assumed to be a personal assistant or a secretary (in fact, I’m currently a leader at one of the UK’s fastest-growing software firms). When attending external conferences or events, I’m often the only woman in the room. Is it any surprise that an industry like this can sometimes struggle to sympathise with female victims of online hate, even if they are high-profile political leaders?

Far from being a safe haven where diverse voices can be heard and respected, new media platforms are often reflecting the worst prejudices of the older media when it comes to minorities, including women.

If women aren’t entering tech in the first place, it is impossible for them to reach the top. Male-dominated panels and gender-biased questions mean that things are slow to change at entry level, let alone at more senior positions.
Jessie Smith
Co-founder of Embolden Her

In the UK, for example, female MPs have been driven offline by hate mobs fuelled by a toxic cocktail of sexism and fake news. With rape and death threats becoming a daily occurrence for women in parliament, 18 of them are standing down ahead of the December general election. Many of them cited online abuse as a reason for their withdrawal from public life. The situation is similar for several US congresswomen, particularly those from minorities.

The culture of Big Tech is overwhelmingly male. Google was founded by two men. Twitter was founded by four men. And Facebook was started by one man (or two, according to the Winklevoss twins). Executives like Sheryl Sandberg are the exceptions that prove the rule who, despite being high profile, seem powerless to change the culture or the policies that are endangering women in public life.

Politics used to be an old boys’ club. Silicon Valley is a young boys’ club. Where the two intersect, women are being marginalised. Big Tech cannot even plead ignorance; the James Damore incident last year showed that tech bros are comfortable with the status quo, and sometimes even hostile to efforts to change it.

Not all the blame can be placed at the door of companies themselves. If, starting as early as pre-school, parents or teachers are complicit in boys being nudged towards science and tech while girls are ushered towards other subjects, we will inevitably end up with an industry skewed towards men.

WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) found that less than 1 in 4 of the people working in Stem roles in the UK are female, while PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) states that just 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women. In a sample of 1,000 US consumers by LivePerson, a US software company, only 8.3% of people could name a famous woman in tech - and most of the 8.3% were, on further questioning, referring to Siri or Alexa. Big Tech is sometimes more keen on using women’s voices, than hearing them.

As Big Tech firms continue to evolve into media conglomerates, gender participation schemes like those in other parts of the media (like those at the BBC, for example) should be transferred across to the tech world. This isn’t just about principle - it can be about profit.

Firms with gender-balanced management teams are more competitive, creative and productive. More traditional sectors like the automotive and utilities industry have seen higher levels of innovation since introducing more women to C-level positions. It is time for Silicon Valley to follow suit.

As General Motors CEO Mary Barra said, diversity is all about the pipeline. If women aren’t entering tech in the first place, it is impossible for them to reach the top. Male-dominated panels and gender-biased questions mean that things are slow to change at entry level, let alone at more senior positions.

Organisations like She Can Code train women in software development, but entry does not guarantee progression to the C-suite. Embolden Her, an organisation I co-founded with Abbie Howell and Kamile Matulenaite, works to connect female leaders in tech and create mentoring opportunities for women who are often the only female in their team, department, or sometimes even their company. We also run monthly leadership workshops for women in tech to create collaboration and share resources.

This has allowed me to work with my employer, Theodo, to create an environment where myself and my female colleagues know that we are just as likely to get promoted as our male counterparts. It’s an environment where the diversity we create is taken as seriously as the code we write.

Diversity efforts need to be focussed on where power lies - and will lie in future. Increasingly, the corridors of power will not only be in politics or industry, but in Big Tech. If only half the population is reflected at the top of these all-important organisations, it doesn’t bode well for the other half - even if they are members of parliament.

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