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Singapore, May 12, 2017 – When a computer trained on Google News articles was asked to complete this analogy: “Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to X”, “Homemaker” came back as the answer (phys.org). A result that reflects the gender bias captured in existing datasets and this simple fact: contrary to other industries and fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), the gender gap in computer science has widened, with the proportion of computer science degrees obtained by women dropping from 37% in the 1980s to 18% today (Quartz Media).

At the dawn of the 4th industrial revolution, this under-representation of women in computing exacerbates the skills’ shortage faced by tech companies and the loss of the so-called “diversity’s dividend” (i.e. companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians, McKinsey & Company). From a women’s perspective, their under-representation affects their own capacity to pursue high qualified jobs; in 2017, the top 20 occupations require STEM skills according to LinkedIn.

The explanatory factors commonly cited are perception biases, with a popular culture – impacted by a male dominated computer gaming culture in the 1980s – that conveyed the idea that technology is not for women and that computer science only equates computer programming; problems in the education pipeline that push girls away from STEM; and the lack of role models for girls interested in tech (McKinsey & Company).

Similar barriers have been successfully lifted in other industries that used to be dominated by males, such as law, finance and medicine. Let us have a closer look at the feminization of finance.

(1)  In this industry, feminization progressively happened in sub-sectors which value attributes that women tend to embody more such as long-term and global perspective taking, nurturing, empathy, detail orientation or networked thinking. For instance, in banking, the gender gap has narrowed in private banking where building long-term relationships with clients is critical for success. Female private bankers now outnumber men in Asia 3-to-2 (Straits Times). Fintech is another sub-sector that attracts women. Of the top 20 fintech companies in China, 50% had women in the founder, CEO, or senior management roles; this could be attributed to the diversity of work provided by fintech firms, where women can fulfil roles spanning finance, customer service, digital marketing, and operations (Oliver Wyman).

(2)  Female role models contributed to a gender shift. In Thailand, women represent 31% of board and executive committee members in financial services, the highest proportion in the world after Norway and Sweden. Along with the education system, this performance can be attributed to the leadership of the central bank, which was run by a woman from 2006 to 2010. A central bank job is considered to be of high status in Thailand and parents tend to support their daughters if they plan careers in this field (Bloomberg).

(3) Finally, ensuring that girls are represented in specific curricula led to a higher representation of women in finance roles with technical barriers of entry. Singapore has the highest percentage of female fund managers in the world, with 30% of women compared to a global average of 14% (Bloomberg Reports), which can be explained by a high percentage of women CFA holders.

What lessons can be drawn from the feminization patterns of the finance industry for the tech sector? Tech companies typically offer a wide array of functions and the opportunity to have a diverse career. The industry needs programmers but also sociologists, natural language experts, philosophers, etc. to shape the future of tech and Artificial Intelligence (AI). A progressive feminization is possible, keeping in mind that a gender balance should cover technical roles to ensure that product design addresses the needs of all segments of the population. Gender diversity – and diversity in general – would avoid blind spots in new products (as an example, Apple had once left out a menstruation feature in their health-tracking app) and pitfalls with algorithms that, if not made gender neutral, tend to magnify existing stereotypes and accentuate the gender gap (Bloomberg). As seen in finance, role models can contribute to the perception shift of tech. This is critical to build the pipeline of future talents, together with a continuous support from parents to encourage their daughters to choose STEM.

Equipped with computing skills, girls can dream big. Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to … the answer is in your hands.

Delphine Günther, for Empire Code.

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