Getting to equal in technology: What can we learn from Silicon Valley's women leaders?

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Two colleagues discussing ideas using a tablet. Photo: AYA Images/Envato
Photo: AYA Images/Envato

To some, technology offers solutions to many of the world’s most pressing challenges. To others, it might represent an increasing threat to privacy or a new way to sow instability. Regardless of how you view the exponential growth of tech innovation, at the very least, we should be able to agree that those developing these solutions should represent the vast diversity of the communities they serve. Prioritizing inclusion at all levels of tech promises to not only reduce the risk of embedded biases, but also ensures that technology is harnessed to address a wider range of social issues.

The famously deep gender gaps in tech are a prime example of an area where inclusion is sorely lacking—underrepresentation is even worse for Black and Latinx women. So, to better understand the experiences of women working in the tech sector, we recently invited 30 women leaders from Silicon Valley to the World Bank Group to share their insights. This group serves as professional mentors for TechWomen—a structured mentorship program that empowers and supports the next generation of women leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics around the world.

What we learned from these women was powerful. For example, we heard that extra-curricular activities like science fairs and coding programs helped bring science and technology to life, sparking an interest at a young age. The importance of representation was also salient: ensuring that girls can see themselves represented across a range of careers in media and movies is key. Interactions with female role models, like math and science teachers, also help to break down regressive gender stereotypes about who belongs in these fields.

One of the strongest messages was about the influence of male role models. Several technology sector leaders cited fathers or uncles—typically engineers—as a main reason they pursued STEM. Fathers would teach advanced math or encourage daughters to tinker with objects from early ages, instilling skills and confidence that would serve them in their careers. World Bank research also shows that male relatives are instrumental in helping female entrepreneurs enter male-dominated sectors.

“The pipeline actually starts from home,” remarked Sepideh Nasiri, Founder of Persian Women in Tech.

Within the workforce, problems of gender bias loom large. Many described a deep love for the work but had challenges with the climate and culture of tech companies. Once entering tech, many cited a lack of support in the workplace. Old boys’ networks remain intact and women leaders and board members remain few and far between. And, while flexible working arrangements, such as remote or home-based work, are often in place at these companies, many women report being penalized or passed over for promotions when they actually use them.

Women cited the importance of external networks as well. Many spoke highly of efforts, like the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest gathering of women technologists, as an important way to not only meet potential mentors and sponsors but also to increase women’s visibility in technology.

So as the World Bank Group scales up its digital development work program across low and middle-income countries, what should we keep in mind?

Here are some takeaway points from our conversation with women leaders in tech:

  • School and industry can partner more effectively to ensure that students have the experience they need to jump start their careers. Local tech companies can work with secondary schools to facilitate access to extracurricular activities that provide a window into these professions. At the tertiary level, structured partnerships can enable access to internships and apprenticeships. Participants also shared examples of tech companies working with professors to identify promising talent and offer structured internships. These students were then offered a job right after graduation.
     
  • Women are underrepresented in STEM degree programs, but a degree in STEM is not always a prerequisite for a career. US research shows that about half of those with a STEM degree do not end up working in STEM careers. And, women with a computer science or engineering degree are less likely than their male counterparts to work in these occupations.  But at the same time, about one-third of STEM workers (female and male) do not have a bachelor’s degree. It appears that a traditional STEM education is not necessarily a prerequisite for a career in STEM. More and more tech companies are recruiting people from non-STEM backgrounds as they begin to see the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches. Advanced tech skills training programs like bootcamps are also working to prepare young women and men for careers in these fields.
     
  • How we communicate about technology and STEM overall could discourage women from exploring these career options. According to the participants, conveying skills like coding as impossibly hard and even mystical is a narrative that keeps the field male-dominated. This perpetuates the myth that men are “better suited” for these roles despite clear evidence that women are equally capable. Approaches like the growth mindset theory aim to counteract these harmful stereotypes at the individual level by communicating that intelligence is malleable through effort. When it comes to math and science, this may be especially beneficial for girls.
     
  • Companies also need to be better about gathering, analyzing and making available their own data. Certifications like EDGE provide independent assessments for organizations on a range of issues, women’s representation at all levels, equal pay for equivalent work as well as leadership development, training and mentoring. These kinds of tools generate the much-needed sex-disaggregated data that can help companies create more inclusive workplaces. Other approaches include Great Place to Work, which assesses organizational culture. In some OECD countries, the legal framework requires companies to inform employees of average wages by sex and occupation. Evidence from Denmark shows that the 2006 pay transparency legislation narrowed the gender wage gap by 7%.

Keeping in mind the need for evidence-based solutions, the Gender Group has undertaken a comprehensive review of the research related to women and girls in STEM. Through shining a light on what works, we hope to complement the efforts of those who champion equality every day. These compelling strategies provide a roadmap that policymakers can test and adapt to their contexts to help us get to equal in tech.

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