The technology sector is notorious for under-representing women. If asked to name top male industry figures, the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the late Steve Jobs roll off the tongue with ease.
But most people would struggle to name their female counterparts.
This doesn’t mean that women aren’t carving themselves out a space in the industry. If you pick a slice of the sector from emerging economies, particularly in India, you’ll find that there are significantly more high profile women in tech there than in the western world.
To start with, 30 per cent of India’s tech workforce is female, compared with one in five in the UK. At the same time, India’s gender parity statistics continue to rise, while the UK’s have stagnated over the past five years.
In most indices (economic opportunity, educational attainment, health), women in India have access to a much narrower set of opportunities than British women.
So clearly something about Indian society and its education system makes the tech industry there both more attractive and more hospitable to women than it is in Britain. If we can figure out what it is that creates this difference, we can begin to improve the landscape in the UK.
In Britain and the US, the tech sector is stereotypically seen as “geeky”. Girls are just as likely as boys to study STEM subjects up to GCSE level in UK schools, but research shows a drop in participation at A-Level and beyond.
The misconception persists that the sole aim of computer science courses is to produce a workforce of programmers. This belief alienates teenage girls, who already have negative cultural ideas of what it is to be a computer geek, and so distance themselves from other tech opportunities.
This stigma is less much prevalent in India. In Indian culture, it seems that students – male and female – are opting for courses with an obvious career path, with the most popular courses being medicine, engineering, law – and now technology.
Indian girls also have a plethora of prominent female role models to look up to, women who have managed to make it to the top in the tech sector.
The likes of Kumud Srinivasan (who until recently was the president of Intel India), Aruna Jayanthi (chief executive of Capgemini India) and Vanitha Narayanan (chief executive of IBM India), are great examples of Indian women excelling in technology, with their success frequently celebrated in the media.
In fact, in addition to her role at IBM, Narayanan is also chairperson of the board of governors of India’s National Institute of Technology, and was the first woman chairperson of the American Chamber of Commerce in India.
In the UK however, the lack of female role models is influencing girls’ perception of what they can achieve in tech.
We need to do more to promote successful female role models to demonstrate the sheer range of jobs in tech out there today, and how they can be a creative, exciting, and powerful way to make a difference in the world. It is only by hearing from people working in the sector that young women with an interest in tech will shed their inhibitions.
The tech industry is already a major driver of prosperity for the UK, and we have the potential to be world leaders, but we must do more to nurture our female talent if we wish to remain competitive.
A lot has been invested at the grassroots level to increase girls’ engagement in STEM, but more resources should be committed to championing the women that are already succeeding in the sector.
Young women in the UK have a choice as to whether they want to pursue technology, but if they see more prominent female role models in a variety of fields, maybe we’ll start to see more of them turning an interest into a career.