There’s no denying it – tech companies still suffer from an underrepresentation of women, despite efforts in recent years to draw them into STEM careers. And this problem is not only hurting women, it’s hurting the organisations’ bottom line.
According to a recent report from Deloitte Access Economics and the Australian Computer Society, in 2021 women make up only 29% of the workforce in tech. The percentage is actually climbing, but at only 0.75% per year since 2015, it’s not a number to be excited about. And as women are also leaving the sector at twice the rate of men, the figures begin to look even worse.
It’s also a sad reality that women hold fewer positions in top-tier roles. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the Information Media and Telecommunications industry currently comprises 14.1% female CEOs, 31.2% female Key Management Personnel, and 24.3% female Directors. So even companies with gender parity don’t necessarily have true gender balance.
And creating more diverse leadership teams not only benefits women, it increases profitability. Findings from a 2017 survey from Boston Consulting Group show that companies with diverse management teams reported 19% higher innovation revenue than those with below-average diversity. Their overall financial performance was also higher.
The case is there for making gender balance a priority. The question is, what’s the hold-up, and what can we do about it?
Who says it’s a women’s problem?
One of the main issues is that the push for gender equality has become a women’s problem. This can be seen through diversity initiatives that focus solely on women, such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These bring women in an organisation together to mentor and support each other, the idea being that there is greater power in numbers, and by sharing their experiences and struggles they will be able to enact change.
But while these efforts are helpful to some extent, the reality is that as women don’t have gender parity in the top-tier roles the changes these groups are able to make can be limited. So although it’s necessary to have the support of other women, without the involvement of men in leadership positions any results are hard-won.
There’s also been a push for women to ‘lean in’ and adopt the leadership styles of men. But this doesn’t address the real issue, which isn’t to make women more like men, but to allow them to bring their own unique ideas and styles to the table.
“Too often, it’s like we need to be fixed,” Whispir head of diversity and inclusion Kerry Boys says. “It’s the systems we have to fix. It’s not the women who need to change… Businesses need to understand that masculine and feminine traits are often different and we need systems that allow that.”
So the aim shouldn’t be for women to fit into the pre-existing culture, but to be part of shaping a better one.
Unfortunately, well-intentioned diversity initiatives such as these have also created a backlash among some groups.
In a study of 1,000 men working in ‘white collar’ positions in Australia, The Dream Collective found that 52% felt that gender diversity initiatives have led to reverse discrimination. Interestingly though, 57% said that their opportunities for workplace advancement had remained the same, or in the case of 26%, actually improved. The perception here clearly doesn’t reflect reality.
So how do we get to true gender parity at all levels, give women greater agency when it comes to their careers, and eradicate inaccurate perceptions about reverse discrimination?
By making men part of the conversation.
What is male allyship?
“Allyship is not just paying lip service to diversity, or practising ‘performative
allyship’ –saying you’re all for gender equality, but doing nothing about it.”
Male allyship is developing a greater understanding of the barriers that women face and by doing so, playing a critical role in shifting entrenched cultural norms.
The key idea is that to create true gender parity, men have to be more involved in the process. This is because they currently make up the majority of the top roles, and their involvement is therefore crucial to hasten change.
Allyship is not just paying lip service to diversity, or practising ‘performative allyship’ – saying you’re all for gender equality, but doing nothing about it. Being a true ally allows you to see how inequality works, and be part of the solution. It’s about taking action.
So, how do you practise it?
Wade Davis, Vice President of Inclusion Strategy for Product at Netflix and former NFL player, talks about the need for men to look inward, and take ownership of the ways that they’ve been brought up to believe men are inherently better than women. About how they’ve been conditioned to only feel valuable if they’re in a position of power. And how only by understanding and challenging these beliefs, can they become accountable and a true ally to women.
He also talks about the importance of getting an accountability partner. That is, someone who’s part of your same identity group to talk to about the uncomfortable truths you’ve uncovered. This will help you overcome your biases by effectively holding up a mirror.
David Smith and Brad Johnson, authors of Good Guys, say it’s about actively listening to women. Ask them what they need, what their experiences are, or if they’re struggling. Better still ask to ask, as not all women are going to want to share these details. Above all, embrace the opportunity to learn.
Intersectionality is also a key part of understanding. Race, sexuality, disability, and so many other factors create different experiences. Don’t assume all women are the same, or want the same thing.
And make sure to talk up the women you mentor or sponsor. Speak about their accomplishments to others in leadership roles, and put their name forward when appropriate.
Finally, pay attention to what’s happening around you – who’s been left out of the meeting, who gets interrupted or dismissed, and what’s the mood in the room? By developing situational awareness you can get a better understanding of how your experience differs from the women around you. Don’t stop there though – call it out if you see something that’s not right.
“Allyship isn’t a feel-good exercise. It’s complex, meaningful, and involves facing difficult realities.”
It also isn’t about swooping in to rescue women – it’s about being vulnerable and holding yourself accountable. And by questioning and working to change entrenched cultural norms, you benefit everybody.
Achieving true gender parity will not only make working in tech a better experience for women, but it also makes good business sense.
The time is now. By incorporating male allyship as a crucial piece of the puzzle we can create fairer, more diverse, and ultimately more productive workplaces where everyone is able to thrive.
Project F takes a systemic approach to solving the problem of low gender diversity in technology teams and leadership. Contact us to find out more.
Article researched and written by Barb Skeggs