Breaking the glass ceiling: 5 reasons why women have not excelled in the tech sector

In the last 40 years or so women have been recognised as significant contributors in the work force, but there are still some sectors where they are poorly represented. This post provides 5 reasons why women have not excelled in the tech sector.

In April this year, McKinsey, the global management consulting firm published the outcome of a study that examined, among other things, the factors that prevented women from making greater contributions to their companies. Although the exercise was not sector-specific and limited to the United States, it does offer some insights that might be relevant for some traditionally male dominated industries, such as IT and Engineering. This post hopes to start a conversation by highlighting a few of the reasons why more women are not as widely represented in the tech industry, and especially in senior management and executive positions.

1.  Women not expected to succeed in Maths and Science. Although considered anecdotal, there is still a widely held view that females are no good at STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. As a result, although female enrolment at university generally outstrips that of men by 2 to 1, in fields such as IT and Engineering, the ratio can be reversed with much wider disparities. For example, in 2009 at the University of Technology in Jamaica, men exceeded women in Computer and IT by 2:1, and in Engineering by 6:1 (Ministry of Education, Jamaica) Further, many successful female engineers have reported that some of their lecturers and tutors made it clear to them that they did not posses the necessary skills and were wholly unsuitable for certain courses. So even entrenched in the learning process can be prejudices and deterrents to women pursuing historically male-dominated careers in the first place.

2.  Few role female models. Starting in university and even on the job, there are few women in senior management positions. Hence there are relatively few female mentors available to guide other girls and young women getting into the industry, or to be role models of what can be achieved, or even to share their experiences and keys to success.

3.  Organisation and superiors still implicitly nurture certain stereotypes. Although women have come a long way in the workplace, especially in relation to pay and benefits, employers still make certain assumptions about women and their capabilities that ultimately limit their professional development when compared with men. The McKinsey study made the following observation:

… The most insidious barriers for women are imbedded mindsets that halt their progress. Managers (men and women) still tell diversity officers that “Everybody ‘knows’ you can’t put a woman in that particular slot.” Or “That job could never be done part-time.” Even at major corporations, not-so-subtle differences linger. Several diversity officers and experts told us that despite their best efforts, women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential. Management may be acting with best intentions—to prevent women from failing—yet another mindset that forms a barrier to advancing women…

4.  Women limit themselves and their own ambitions. Separate and apart from corporate prejudices that still exist, many women although clearly intelligent, limit themselves and their own ambitions. This issue is linked to some of the earlier points made, where women might not feel as encouraged to succeed, and there is also an argument made that girls are not socialised to succeed. For example, in a team, although the female members might be key contributors to a project – as hardworking or even more so than their male counterparts – they often shy away from leading a project or making presentations. In essence, they are prepared to work in the background, satisfied to contribute to a common cause, but are uncomfortable with individual recognition of their contribution to the team’s or project’s success. On the other hand, men generally are more prepared to take the lead and to welcome having their contributions acknowledged.

5.  Societal and cultural issues. Consider this all too frequent observation: A single woman; she has solid academic credentials – perhaps even a Master’s Degree or PhD, and appears to be ready to take the world by storm. A few years after starting her career, she is in a committed relationship, and may even be thinking about starting a family. Her professional aspirations seem to have ground to a halt… Admittedly, many women are prepared to lower their horizons to make space for a life outside of work. However, there is still an expectation, especially in the Caribbean, that women should be the primary caregivers, with organisations trying to facilitate these circumstances.

In December 2010, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a widely publicised speech on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders”, at a TED conference. She also provided three tips to women, who wished to advance up the corporate ladder.

The above five points and even Sheryl Sandberg’s talk have, arguably, barely scratched the surface of a complicated situation, where societal, organisational, academic and personal views and biases are at play. Suffice it to say, there are no easy answers or quick fixes. Those of us in the tech industry – both men and women – would either have experienced or have observed the challenges women face. Do you agree with the issues raised? Do share your thoughts…