The ratio of women to men in the IT industry is low and this needs addressing, says Hannah Dee. This imbalance begins in school and its echoes are felt throughout our industry.

There are lots of things I could say about the business case for diversity, and about how diverse teams produce better work. But I'm not in business and I am sure some other people will cover this topic better than me. Instead, I want to talk about the importance of getting more women into tech from the perspective of the minority - the women.

First up: the gender ratio is bad. Across the UK, at GCSE, just over 20% of those taking computing are girls. At A-level, it’s about 15%. In higher ed. we hover between 10 and 20% women. Once you graduate, you’ll be in a similar proportion in the workforce.

There will be some non-binary and other non-gender conforming people too, so let's say for the sake of argument in a group of 100 people doing tech we’ll find 80 guys, and 20 non-guys - mostly women. What's it like being the only non-guy in your tutorial group? Or your GCSE class? Or your engineering team? What's it like being the one person who isn't the same as all the others?

Ratios of men to women in IT

Given the statistics of small numbers, you’re going to find many situations where things are a bit better, and occasional situations where things are a lot worse.

I once gave a conference talk where I was the only woman in the room, and there were about 100 people in the audience. As a middle-aged woman who’s been in tech for ages, I am pretty thick-skinned, and am also used to this situation. But even for me, 1:100 was a strange ratio.

If you’re a guy in tech, I’d like you to pause now and think back to a situation where you were the only man in a room of all women. I’m going to guess that for many of you this is a rare experience and felt unusual. Maybe not uncomfortable, and probably not threatening, but... disconcerting.  

Hold this feeling in your mind, then realise:

This is our every day.

This is why diversity matters - why we have to shift the ratio.

Guard against assumptions

There are other things that gender minorities in tech have to deal with above and beyond the strange undertone of oddness. I expect a lot of guys just don’t realise this happens, but we deal with:

  • The assumption that you only got in because you’re a woman.
  • The assumption that you’ll want to take on caretaking roles in a team, rather than technical ones.
  • The assumption that you don't really know what you're talking about on technical matters.
  • The gendered nature of social events (beers aren’t for everyone, some computer game-based activities are frankly misogynistic).
  • The occasional assumption that you are the secretary, or that you’ll be happy to make the tea.

This is not unique to gender minorities in tech.

In all heavily gendered professions (primary school teaching, nursing, construction, tech) the minority gender(s) are assumed to be less competent, more in need of support, and there due to tokenism (‘you only got into uni / got the job because you're a girl’).

Right now, all the evidence points the opposite way: those women who have made it into computing are probably more into tech (they've been dissuaded all their lives, and they've had to fight to be let in).

So actually the woman in tech or the man working as a nurse has had to be more dedicated, and more skilled than the guy who just drifted into computing because it was what was expected of him, or the woman who went into nursing because she's always been told that's a good job for a woman.

Bad gatekeepers

People in many fields have a tendency to gatekeep: that is, to guard their specialist knowledge and to use the knowledge (or perceived absence of knowledge) to exclude those who don’t fit. This could be as innocuous as a music fan testing another fan’s devotion by asking about obscure album tracks, or it could be as damaging as a careers’ advisor suggesting to a young woman that she’d find it more comfortable doing a subject other than computer science at A-Level.

This is why inclusion matters. We all need to stop treating minorities in tech like they (we) don’t belong, and instead work to make them (us) welcome.

It’s natural for people to like people who are like themselves. But it’s important to see those who aren’t like you as equal, rather than other. A skewed ratio is damaging. Bias is damaging. Gatekeeping is damaging. Next time you hear the phrase ‘diversity hire’ used to describe someone because they're black or a woman or trans or whatever... instead look at everyone else and ask yourself: ‘Are these homogeneity hires?’

What can I do?

To contribute to the debate about diversity in IT and help us all play our part in building a lasting solution to the challenge, a team of women from BCSWomen has written a book 'Women in Tech: A practical guide to increasing gender diversity and inclusion'.

The text aims to inform regarding background, theory and policy; advise on concrete actions that can be undertaken, and to be an exemplar for companies, organisations, establishments and campaigns in the form of real-world case studies.