It’s a Woman’s World
Opening up the ICT industry for women
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
April 22nd is Girls in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) day, but there isn’t much to celebrate since women only make up around 25% of the tech industry. Women are 45% more likely to quit within a year of taking a job, and they lack support to climb the corporate ladder.
If we zoom on Europe, only 16.7% of the nearly 8.2 million ICT specialists are women, and on average, they earn 18.9% less than their male counterparts to do the same job. What’s even worse is that this number is even lower than it was in the 80s, since the number of female ICT graduates was close to 40% back then.
But women are essential for the ICT industry. If you were to ask me what is that one thing that women bring to the sector, my reply would definitely be completeness. With all the effort that male software engineers put towards creating a good product, they will never cover all the aspects that a diverse group brings to the table. It is simply impossible.
This was further accentuated in McKinsey’s study on why diversity matters. They claim that diverse companies hire better talent, retain workers, engage employees who perform better, and eventually get the company to earn more. It is relatively easy to see why.
When you’re hiring people, excluding female participants results in the automatic elimination of around 50% of people from your talent pool. In a globalised world fuelled with fierce competition, can you really afford to lower your odds of finding the right talent?
Companies that are open to recruiting a diverse workforce usually value their employees’ wellbeing and have specific initiatives in place. These might range from gym memberships to family-friendly measures.
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that these are in some way associated with gender. In a world where both parents work, raising children is a joint responsibility, and family-friendly measures are essential for both males and females.
The knowledge that family issues are being dealt with effectively helps employees engage better; they can focus on their work and deliver. Of course, having happy employees results in better earning for the company.
This does not mean that men and women are the same because they’re not! And this is where the strength of having female employees lies. We live in a world full of biases, people are used to different customs, and some still believe in certain stereotypes. According to these stereotypes, tech is a man’s world.
But these harsh conditions made the few girls in tech more resilient and, in some cases, capable of achieving much more than their male counterparts. Of course, we have to pull down these barriers and usher more females into the tech world.
Even without these moulds, girls offer much more to the tech industry, something missing in a male-dominated industry. They provide different perspectives, ideas and considerations. When we think about the personas using our applications, they can shed some light on the female market; their likes, dislikes, expectations, context, the baggage they bring, etc.
But they can also offer incredible insights on the entire product by applying problem-solving and analytical methodologies, which might be different. And this, without diminishing in any way, the technical capabilities of females.
Even though girls are capable as much as boys, the fact remains that the industry is still dominated by males. This creates an invisible artificial barrier that might intimidate some girls in choosing this path.
Of course, the stereotypical images that have been hammered into these girls’ minds do not help. Some guardians push girls away from the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers.
They are usually guided by gross misinformation, which portrays STEM careers as complex, highly mathematical, less creative and boring.
Some STEM careers fit in that description (like in any other field) but definitely not the absolute majority.
We cannot deny that there exist complex projects in ICT, but STEM careers are vast and range from rocket scientists to user testers. It’s really up to the individual to decide the level of complexity that she would like to deal with daily.
Mathematics forms the basis of most ICT projects, but this does not mean that everyone who works in tech needs to understand complicated mathematical functions. Today we have libraries, which contain complex algorithms created by reputable labs which are tried and tested.
To create a system, one only needs to use those libraries rather than make them from scratch. Programming is becoming more accessible, with low-code or no-code initiatives sprouting worldwide, allowing anyone to write a program almost without coding.
A STEM career that is less creative and boring is just a big fat lie. Most STEM careers deal with problem-solving; thus, creativity is a central ingredient in what they do. Most techies rack their brains, looking all over the place to find a solution.
Their first port of call tends to be nature, and in fact, we have various algorithms (such as Swarm Intelligence) inspired by social insects like bees. We also look at how humans work! This led us to the development of Artificial Neural Networks, which are loosely based upon the human brain.
But our research doesn’t stop there; we look at philosophy, psychology, sociology and practically all the fields under the sun. We try to teach a machine how to talk, see the world, understand how it works. And if we’re still lost, we take a dip into science fiction to get inspired by the world of tomorrow.
The tech industry needs to do some soul searching. They need to understand why women retention is much lower, why gender discrimination still exists in our workplace, why women are still underrepresented and why we still have an ICT leadership gap.
The industry needs to wake up. This problem has been going on for way too long, and these companies will soon start losing out if they don’t do something about it!
Notwithstanding these issues, there are many good organisations, and thus, there is no reason for women not to choose a tech career. I dare say that STEM careers are more creative and exciting than others.
The stereotypes are untrue. Females have nothing less than their male counterparts. Such jobs tend to be highly flexible, and companies go to great lengths to retain their talent. Techies tend to be highly fulfilled in their career because many of them have the liberty to work from where they please.
Be it the office, their home, or even a beach in an exotic location. All they need is just a laptop and a wifi connection. So what are you waiting to take the plunge and start a career in ICT?
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.