Females in IT – Has our gender diversity pipeline closed?

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In 2019, the (mostly female) team at Balance always seemed to be talking about gender diversity in the IT jobs market. Obviously, we’ve talked about nothing but Covid for a year, but with events that have unfolded over the last month, it is good to see that female representation in the tech sector is back on everyone’s agenda.

So is there a problem?

There are not enough of women in IT in Australia with around 20 to 25% representation. The vast majority of females in IT in Australia made their career choices overseas then emigrated here – either as skilled immigrants or overseas students. And with the closing of the borders, the gender diversity pipeline has been turned off.

Why is it important?

Google’s local Managing Director Mel Silva sums up the situation nicely, “In a country as diverse as Australia, we need a workforce that’s representative of the users we serve”.

I couldn’t agree more, how can a team make a service or product that works for everyone when a cohort of society is not equally represented during the design, build or run phases?

Do Australian Employers Care?

Yes, yes, yes, they care – a lot. A LOT!!!

They’re desperate to hire females to tech teams.

Some managers are inherently driven to increase diversity in their teams, however more frequently they are driven by performance KPIs. They are required to achieve increased female representation at all stages of the recruitment process including the number of females hired.

Occasionally, managers want to hire females to break up a perceived ‘bro-grammer’ style environment.

So it has becoming commonplace that at the end of a meeting where a customer briefs us on a role they need us to recruit, they will say, “and we’d like to hire a female”.

Let’s look at the data

At the big end of tech, gender diversity is a major focus and has been for some time.

In the USA, at Microsoft, the representation of women increased by 1.4 percentage points to 21.4% in 2019. At Salesforce their workforce is 66.8% male and 33% female, at Twitter, women currently make up 42.5% of its workforce. However, it’s worth noting that these numbers cover all job functions not just the technical roles.

I’m happy to be open about our own track record. Our analysis from 10 years ago was that 22% of the candidates we placed were female, today, despite a concerted effort this has risen to just 23.5%

In Project Management, Project Coordination, Business Analysis and software testing roles females represent around 40% of the candidates we see.

The numbers are much lower in programming at around 15%. Interestingly we see much more gender diversity in Java than .Net. If anyone can explain why I’d be keen to hear.

In the highly technical roles such as network engineering, cyber and systems engineering we see only around 4%, though slightly higher in governance, risk and compliance.

So, it’s unsurprising that we’re asked to inject some diversity into organisations….

Obviously, it doesn’t solve the broader problem. It just moves a female from one role to another – leaving less diversity elsewhere.

On the supply side….

There are a few reasons why we have a shortage.

In 2001, 25% of the 72,000 students studying IT in Australia were females – and around two-thirds were local students.

In 2011, female enrolments halved dropping from 18,000 to 9,000 and by then less than half were local students. That represents a 65% drop in female domestic enrolments in a decade. And this was accompanied by a 30% drop in overseas female students over the same period.

In the past decade, we have seen significant investment in promoting STEM subjects to young girls, and a plethora of free and commercial coding clubs and programs all aimed at increasing female participation.

And it’s kind of worked. The numbers have stopped dropping and have increased… with the latest female enrolment data showing an increase of more than 50% from 2011 but still down 33% on 2001 numbers.

Sadly, of the 116000 IT students at Australian universities, just 6.5% are local females. However, there are 3 times as many foreign female students than local students giving us a total of around 25% female representation.

Interestingly the IT graduate data from overseas shows USA gender diversity numbers are similar to ours at around 25% but India is nearing 50%.

And what of retention of females?

Not only do females start their careers in fewer numbers, they also exit the industry far earlier.

The 2018 report by IT Professionals Australia, Tech’s Women Problem, is startling.

It states:

….Women leave tech at higher rates than their male counterparts (an attrition rate in the high tech industry of 41 per cent for women compared to 17 per cent for men) “driven out by hostile work environments, isolation, extreme work pressures and a lack of clarity surrounding career paths”. Women generally leave at the mid-career stage – 10 to 20 years into their careers.

Further it quotes a survey stating that 71.4% of female IT workers have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the last 3 years. (Other reports I’ve read put this number at 20%-40%, which still ridiculously high).

It also highlights a significant gender pay gap and a lack a representation in executive leadership roles.

In Summary

Whilst demand is sky high for females to fill tech roles, the supply of skilled female labour remains low, resulting in an unseemly battle for a small number of under-represented IT professionals. The supply side will become much worse due to the Covid border closures. And once the borders open, I would not expect any rapid improvement.

Obviously in the medium to long term we should see the many programs aimed at increasing the numbers of girls choosing STEM careers start to bear fruit. However, this doesn’t solve the short-term supply or retention problems.

The world doesn’t need another privileged white male dictating how to fix a broken system, so I’ll suggest you read the above mentioned report and perhaps we  can all reflect on what actions we can take to improve the environment for the benefit of all.