Ada Lovelace Day, which is held on the second Tuesday of October each year, is meant to be a vehicle to celebrate women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the annual live event at London’s Institution of Engineering and Technology moving online this year, its laudable aim is to promote potential new role models in order to encourage girls to embark on a STEM career and encourage those already in one to stay.

But the reasons for them choosing to do so are not necessarily very clear if the findings of a report by Women Who Tech entitled ‘The State of Women in Tech and Startups’ are to be believed. The study reveals that a huge 48% of the 1,000 or so females interviewed have experienced some form of harassment, with 63% of those affected being subjected to sexism and 43% to either sexual harassment or offensive slurs/’jokes’ respectively.

The most common venues to experience such behaviour were in the office during the day (88%) and at an offsite work event in the evening (32%) or during daylight hours (28%). The most likely perpetrators were colleagues (76%), direct supervisors (42%) and senior leaders (25%).

Even more worryingly though, less than a third (30%) of the women affected by abuse reported the situation to either HR (30%) or a senior leader (45%), with only a third indicating they trusted their employer enough to handle the allegations. And such feelings may be well-founded – of those who did report inappropriate behaviour, a mere 30% said their harasser faced any repercussions, although unfortunately 45% did so themselves.

To make matters worse, a massive seven out of 10 women felt their gender resulted in them being treated differently to their colleagues at work, compared with only 11% of men. Just under two thirds (64%) of women (compared with 28% of men) also said they found questions were directed to colleagues of a different gender rather than to them. 

As to what Ada Lovelace herself would make of it all, Jill Gates, Vice President of Culture and People Experience for Europe and Asia at managed services provider Ensono, believes she would be less than impressed:

Ada would be pretty disappointed. Technology itself has developed exponentially since her day, but it’s a sad fact that we’ve not been able to create diverse working environments where women can feel safe and be treated equally. It’s a sorry fact that she’d be far prouder of our technological developments than of our developments in equality terms.

Toxic tech bro cultures

Merici Vinton, co-founder and Chief Executive of Ada’s List, a global community for women in tech, agrees. She says that while campaigns, such as #MeToo, were important in giving women a voice, enabling them to have their stories listened to and taken seriously, subsequent action did not take place “at the level we’d have liked”:

It forced some companies to address the issues, but definitely not all of them. If you’re starting from a low base and have a number of significant organisations that decide to do the work, it’s great. On the flipside though, is it good enough? Absolutely not, and the report says there’s still too much discriminatory behaviour going on. It’s exasperating to be treated differently at work every day and the little things add up – only sometimes it’s not little things. It’s harassment.

The problem here, believes Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, which funds women-led tech start-ups, is two-fold. On the one hand, many tech companies have “toxic tech bro” cultures that are neither inclusive nor welcoming of “anyone that doesn’t look like a white man”.

On the other, because the focus of many HR departments is on protecting the business from litigation and liability rather than protecting employees, little action is taken to improve the company culture and a blind eye is often turned towards harassers.

The situation also does not seem to improve as women move up the career ladder but can, in some instances, get worse. According to a report by Ensono called ‘Speak Up 2020’ 29% of a sample of 500 women from the US and UK acknowledged they had been sexually harassed while attending a tech conference. But the figure rose significantly among keynote speakers – that is, high profile women generally in senior positions – to a considerable 39%. Vinton explains what she believes is going on here:

Firstly, if you come from the perspective that you’re entitled to the power and role you’ve been given and you see someone else who could challenge that, the misogyny comes out and people become a target. Secondly, when women use their voice to speak to power, they either employ deep expertise and knowledge or they paint a better picture of the world. That’s intimidating if it challenges your own vision so people lash out. In other words, sexual harassment is a form of aggression as it’s the quickest way to make women feel as small and powerless as possible.

The upshot of this kind of behaviour though is that women are not only put off joining the tech sector, but they also fail to stay very long. While figures from the National Center for Women & Information Technology indicated that females made up 26% of the US tech workforce in 2019, their turnover rate was more than twice as high as that of male colleagues (41% and 17% respectively). 

Interestingly, another study by Adeva, which specialises in recruiting programmers, revealed that a huge 56% of women leave their employers mid-career, which is double the rate of men, but is also a time in life when many are having children. 

Time for culture change

So what can employers do to address this rather shocking situation? The first thing, believes Vinton, is to decide whether they want to take the issue of diversity and equality seriously or not, particularly at board level.

If the answer is ‘yes’, it makes sense to hire in an outside consultant to objectively assess where the company is at and to help rethink policies, procedures and ways of working in order to “create an environment and culture that works”. The usual, unfair alternative is to overburden existing workers with additional responsibilities for which they are rarely paid. Vinton explains the importance of getting it right here:

Tech companies specifically tend to have environments in which perpetrators feel they can get away with bad behaviour as there are no consequences. But it’s just as much about culture as it is about an individual bad actor, so you have to make it clear what your values are and live them. Policies also have to reflect your culture too because if they don’t, it’s easy to exploit that.

Another important consideration, says Gates, is setting clear expectations around what constitutes acceptable behaviour and ensuring that reporting structures are clear and easy to follow should they not be met. Such messages also need to be continually reinforced or they will simply drop off the radar, she adds.

But in order to really be sustainable, Kapin believes a shake-up is required at the organisational level. This includes an “overhaul” of the way HR works and the creation of a more diverse board at all levels, so not just in terms of gender, but also in areas such as race and age too. She explains:

If you start building environments that focus more on employee wellbeing and safety and less on protecting the company from litigation, you’ll inevitably build a more inclusive workforce, your recruitment efforts will be more effective and customer retention will improve.

But doing so is far from a check box issue and instead takes commitment. As Vinton concludes:

The idea that tech is a meritocracy is very common, which is the idea that good people mean well. But it doesn’t make for a diverse company or one that works for diverse people. That’s about creating something that works for everyone and it takes hard work.

My take

If the tech industry is serious about attracting and retaining women as part of its response to the ongoing skills crisis, it really needs to start putting its money where its mouth is and introducing cultural change – fast. 

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