30 Jun 2023
Gender Bias in Technology: Why Inequality Exists and how we can Change it
A white paper from Diversifying Group
- The current state of play
- Gender bias in recruitment decisions
- Gender bias at work
- Gender bias in redundancy decisions
- History of representation in Tech Sector
- Practical tips
The technology sector has been inundated with an unprecedented wave of recent lay-offs. Since the start of 2023, 125,000 people working in this area have lost their jobs (Isaacs, 2023). Tech Giants such as Facebook and Twitter have cut a significant portion of their workforces, with the former reducing their global staff by 13% in 2022 (Faragher, 2022) and the latter by almost half in the same year (Rushe et al., 2022).
However, these redundancies have not been equally distributed. Twitter laid off significantly more women than they did men, and this trend has been seen in many other organisations (Weissner, 2022). The figures are bleaker when women also belong to other minority groups (Bryant, 2023). This white paper will discuss the current state of play for women within technology; explore the biases that make women more vulnerable to redundancies; give an overview of the history of the sector and women’s contributions to the space and offer practical tips to safeguard women working within technology.
Due to the dearth of research and statistics concerning the experiences of diverse gender identities in regards to Tech lay-offs, this paper will refer to gender in a binary sense (the social construction of perceived differences between men and women). Moving forwards we hope that more research is undertaken in relation to underrepresented gender identities within the sector. Similarly, there is little available data on the experiences of other diverse characteristics affected by Tech lay-offs such as disability. This may reflect on either an underrepresentation of these employees within the sector or a lack of disclosure. Where intersectionality is addressed, we have focussed on gender and ethnicity; the two demographics which have the most available data. Tech lay-offs will seemingly be an ongoing issue. With this in mind, we hope that more diversity data will be captured and disaggregated across all demographics so that a more accurate picture of experiences will be understood moving forwards.
The current state of play
There have been many positive advancements towards achieving gender equality within the technology sector. The number of accepted applications from women for computer science degrees in the UK rose by 29% between 2019 and 2022 (British Computing Society, 2022). This shows that not only are women taking a greater interest in this area, but also that they are successful in pursuing computer science as a subject of study. Initiatives such as Girls Who Code provide further support to young women who are looking to establish a career in this field. The number of women working for Tech Giants such as Apple has also increased. In 2021, 35% of Apple employees across their global workforce were women, up from 30% in 2014 (Tech Funnel, 2023).
Despite this forward movement, significant problems persist for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Women make up just 26% of the technology workforce in the UK but around 50% of the general population, meaning that they are considerably underrepresented in this space (Tech Nation). The proportion of CEOs who are female has also dropped in recent years, with 7% of FTSE 500 CEOs identifying as women in 2016 but only 4.41% in 2021 (HR Review, 2022). These figures collectively show that there are relatively few women within technology and even fewer at the highest levels within the industry.
There are several possible reasons for this lack of female representation within STEM. Firstly, the gender pay gap within technology is higher than average. According to a recent survey, 78% of organisations within the space reported having a gender pay gap, meaning that men were being paid more than women for the same work (Women in Technology, 2019). This is particularly problematic for women at the early stages of their careers, with women under 25 earning 29% less on average than their male co-workers (Diversity in Tech).
Women face many additional hurdles, in the form of gender biases, that are present at each stage of the recruitment process. These reduce their chances of being hired, impede their career progression once they are onboarded, and make them more vulnerable to redundancies. Women have a greater chance of being laid off than men, and this is particularly problematic within STEM. A recent survey found that women working in a technological field were 65% more likely, on average, to be made redundant compared with their male counterparts (Eightfold.ai, 2022). An example of this can be seen in the recent mass lay-offs by Twitter; the company made close to half of its workforce redundant, but men and women were not equally affected. The company laid off 57% of its female staff compared with 47% of male staff, resulting in claims of discrimination and a subsequent lawsuit against the organisation (Weissner, 2022).
Inequalities are further amplified when viewed through an intersectional lens, meaning that additional diversity characteristics such as ethnicity are taken into account. Both women and ethnically minoritised people are more likely to be made redundant than white men, particularly in times of economic uncertainty (Dias, 2021). This bias against ethnically minoritised people is particularly prevalent within technology, with Black workers representing 7.42% of lay-offs within the sector despite making up only 6.05% of the workforce (Shah, 2023). This demonstrates that workers of colour are disproportionately targeted for redundancy within STEM.
Thus, women are disadvantaged in many ways within technology and even more so if they belong to other minority groups. The following sections will discuss some of the key psychological theories which go some way towards explaining these inequalities and address the complexities that arise when intersectionality is introduced as an additional, though very necessary, consideration.
Gender bias in recruitment decisions
Women face considerable discrimination when making job applications. According to a 2019 study, women are 30% less likely to receive an interview than men, even when their qualifications are equal (González, Cortina & Rodríguez, 2019). This bias is more pronounced when considering jobs that are typically associated with men, of which technology is one, and may go some way towards explaining why fewer women are hired in STEM fields. There is an implicit assumption that men will both fit in and perform better in industries that are male dominated (such as technology) because of the traits that are typically associated with their gender. This is known as gender-role congruity (Eagly & Karau, 2002) and is a potential explanation for the gender biases within STEM.
Gender bias at work
In addition to facing bias when applying for jobs, women are also subject to various kinds of discrimination once they are hired. They are judged more harshly than men for the same behaviours, which are often overlooked or downplayed if the person in question is male (Biernat, Fuegen & Kobrynowicz, 2010). Women are frequently the subject of “gender policing”, which limits their opportunities to climb the ladder: women who actively advocate for themselves in the workplace receive backlash and criticism, while men are encouraged to do this (Nittle, 2021). Thus, women tend to advocate for themselves indirectly. However, this can have the effect of reinforcing the idea that women are not suited for certain roles (such as those in STEM) because they are not aggressive or direct enough. In addition to this, women receive less actionable feedback than men (Doldor, Wyatt & Silvester, 2021) and are more likely to receive reviews that are subjective and critical rather than objective (Cecchi-Dimeglio, 2017). Within the specific context of technology, women have to contend with traditional work role expectations, being judged as less capable than men who work in the same field (Michie & Nelson, 2006). Overall, the odds are stacked against women due to the abundance of gender biases that infiltrate the workplace.
Gender bias in redundancy decisions
Empirical research shows that there is a tendency to prefer retaining male staff over female staff. In hypothetical scenarios, participants were more inclined to select women (rather than men) to be laid off (Furnham & Petrides, 2006). This extends to real-world situations, even at the highest levels of an organisation: female CEOs are more likely to face dismissal compared with male CEOs (Gupta et al., 2018). The cumulative discrimination that women face when applying for jobs and within the workplace goes some way towards explaining these findings: if women are seen as less compatible with technology roles, are held to more stringent behavioural standards, and are given less tangible feedback on how to improve, then it makes them much easier targets when redundancy decisions are being made.
History of representation in Tech Sector
Women and minorities were not always underrepresented within the tech industry. At various times in history, they played a pivotal role in driving initiatives. However, there has always been one common denominator:
When men could not or did not want to work in tech roles, it was left to women. When American men were fighting overseas at World War II, Women were given job opportunities in the nascent days of NASA; one of the great bastions of tech. Moreover, these were not just white women, with African American women providing essential roles as “Human computers”, whilst paradoxically working from segregated offices at Langley due to the Jim Crow laws of Virginia state. The intersecting dual-stigma of gender and ethnicity meant that although they played a huge role in the birth of NASA (as depicted in 2016’s Hidden Figures), the prejudice of the time meant that they were not rewarded on equal terms. Pay data at the time shows that newly hired men received $2,600 ($41,000 in today’s money) compared to $1,400 for newly hired women ($23,000); justified because although women were as skilled as their male counterparts, they were officially hired as sub-professionals while men held professional status (NASA, 2016).
In the long term, these pioneers widened the gate for more opportunities for African American Women in the 1950s and 60s to gain further opportunities at NASA and progression in roles such as Engineers and Technicians, undoubtedly helped by the desegregation of NASA in 1958. In a UK context, teams of Women put together, operated and troubleshot the ground-breaking Codebreaking Computer, ‘Colossus’, which helped the Allies to intercept and decipher valuable Nazi High Command Communications (Marsh, 2019). In short, Women powered the Tech Sector during and after World War II (Jeong & Becker, 2019) but without getting the recognition that their work deserved.
So, when did things change? According to Hicks (Hicks, 2019), computing started to appeal more to men once they saw its power in the early 60s. This resulted in Women who had written and tested many of the earliest computer programmes being pushed into Sales, Demonstration or Assistant roles whilst men began taking over the industry and began being hired into Managerial positions. Hicks writes:
“They’re doing the same work as the men who are replacing them with better salaries and better titles — and the men have less experience…. It’s crazy-making to say that women aren’t good at technical pursuits, or that there’s any reason other than structural inequality that’s making women stay away from computing work.” (IBID)
Predictably, as men began replacing women, pay in the tech industry also began to rise. Conversely when women began joining previously male dominated fields like Design or Biology, pay dropped within these industries. The message is not subtle; women’s work was not valued as highly as men’s due to gender bias. The 1970s, influenced by the Women’s Movement and equal opportunity legislation, saw some progress within the sector, as demonstrated by three big computer firms—IBM, Control Data, and the Burroughs Corporation—emphasising gender diversity in the workplace. This saw Barbara Boyle become IBM’s first Manager for women’s programs in 1970 and later create her own consultancy firm advising other companies on gender-diversity best practices, such as documenting skill-specific qualifications for hiring to minimise managerial bias (Kim, 2019)
The progress of the 70s sadly quickly unravelled in the 80s and since then the tech industry has been described in some quarters as ‘bleeding women workers’ (Jeong & Becker, 2019). As always, economics played a role with the financial climate of the 1980s seeing many US companies “effectively gut the gender supporting internal changes prompted by the 1970’s women’s movement” (Kim, 2019).
If that sounds familiar, then fast forward to 2020 where Tech Companies large and small are amongst the vast swathe of organisations that have outlined their commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Yet, a little over three years later, HR departments and DEI teams have seen the highest job cuts (positions dominated by ethnically diverse and female staff), polls suggesting that Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to be laid off than their white counterparts (Forbes, 2023) and predictions that the Black Tech Talent Gap is going to widen over the next decade (McKinsey, 2023).
So, why has this happened and why is this happening again? Biases undoubtedly play a role as explored throughout. Studies have referred to “good old boy culture” (Wentling & Thomas, 2007) which permeates at the higher level of many companies. This means that women and “minoritised” people within organisations are not able to permeate or tap into the social connections that dominant groups can. The outcome of this when the going is good (i.e., the economy is working) may impact on career progression, attrition, and sense of belonging, but when things take a turn, those not able to tap into these cultures are often the first pushed out. Culture beyond tech companies also plays a part, with governments not only downplaying the importance of DEI initiatives but also disbanding them (Hansford, 2022), feeding into an overall narrative of diversity fatigue in which people question the impact of initiatives. In reality, diversity fatigue occurs when organisations talk a lot but do not actually implement meaningful diversity and inclusion initiatives, resulting in symbolic gestures that have little sustainable impact (Employers Council, 2023).
So, what can we do about this? The following section offers some best practice tips that organisations can adopt to proactively protect diversity, equity and inclusion in the event of lay-offs.
Create sustainable structures:
- Embed DEI into your hiring processes: Examine processes and policy and make sure they focus on relevant skills, capability and potential of people as opposed to experience, which is open to bias and can disadvantage women and underrepresented groups. Actively recruit from underrepresented groups through engaging with diversity-focussed agencies and organisations. Ensuring that you have the right people on board will enable you to establish a diverse base that will be easier to maintain as you move forward and will be less likely to be eroded in tough times.
- Align DEI goals to strategy goals: To ensure sustainable DEI initiatives, embed them within strategic goals. Treating DEI goals as Business and Strategy goals will help ensure accountability and prevent DEI from being viewed as a luxury. Engage with relevant stakeholders and communities of people with lived experience such as internal women’s networks and other Employee Resource Group (ERG) members when reviewing Strategic goals.
- Create internal progression pathways for diverse staff and develop diverse talent: Studies show that organisations that have diverse representation at the top are more profitable (McKinsey, 2020) and thus less likely to be impacted by mass lay-offs. Be intentional about DEI and set up Employee Development programmes to promote growth of diverse talent of women and other underrepresented groups (Waters, 2021).
- Measure results: As with all business strategies, taking a data-driven approach to DEI will help you establish an objective baseline from which you can measure impact and prevent biased decision making. Look at demographics at each level of the organisation and seek feedback in how your employees perceive DEI initiatives. This can for example include perceptions of inclusion, how ERGs are being handled and ways of improving culture. Incorporating these though regular feedback surveys will help to cultivate employee-driven change and help your organisation to continue to make improvements.
- Foster an inclusive culture: In organisations where everyone feels that they belong equally, individuals are less likely to be singled out based on characteristics like gender. As a result, less women may be targeted for redundancies based on not fitting in with the organisational culture.
- Call out discrimination: Problematic workplace behaviours, such as microaggressions directed towards women or overtly sexist comments can become normalised if they repeatedly go unchallenged. In the worst cases, they can become ingrained in the culture of companies. This makes it harder for women to advocate for themselves and those that do are seen as troublemakers. Because of this label, it is easier to justify firing them. To counter this, all employees should do their part to prevent such behaviours when they see them, either by actively intervening or by offering support to those who have been targeted.
- Ensure that leadership is invested in DEI: Leadership teams are responsible for setting the tone within organisations when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. When employees see that leadership are actively advocating for minoritized groups, this mentality is likely to trickle down to every level of the organisation. This can have the benefit of making those responsible for making redundancy decisions more conscious of the way that they are making choices, which could lead to fairer decisions being made and subsequently have a positive impact on women’s retention:
- Set up ERGs (for example, a Women’s Network) and ensure that they are headed by SLT members to ensure Executive sponsorship. Active ERGs will help to embed DEI throughout the organisation which can have a positive impact on culture and ensure that diverse voices are heard.
- Train DEI from the top: Utilise leadership training to ensure that SLT understand DEI as being central and not separate to business goals and objectives. This will also prevent it from being seen as a luxury during the lay-off period. Training which has a specific focus on gender bias may be particularly beneficial to help leadership make fairer decisions in relation to women and redundancies.
In the event of lay-offs:
- Know the laws: It is important to be familiar with the laws around redundancy and discrimination. This will help to minimise the chances that gender (or other types) of biases play into firing decisions. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides guidance on this.
- Know your policies: Ensure that anti-discrimination policies are also maintained during lay-offs to protect women from being unfairly targeted. Ensure that DEI HR Specialists are on hand during the lay-off process which can help to build the business case with leadership that their roles are not a luxury but a necessary investment.
- Make redundancy decisions objectively: The choice of who to lay off and who to retain should not be based on personal preferences but on objective criteria. Ideally, have multiple criteria to reduce the chance of unintentional discrimination based on one characteristic such as gender. Reasonable adjustments to the redundancy criteria should be in place for people with disabilities; if these are not in place then this can be considered discriminatory. There are similar considerations that must be made for those who are pregnant or on maternity leave.
This paper has explored some of the problems related to gendered experiences within the Tech workforce; looking at why inequalities have existed historically and how these interact with other intersecting aspects of identity such as ethnicity. These inequalities will continue to exist unless holistic change is made within organisational policy, practice and culture. This includes being better prepared for lay-offs and having tools in place, such as those explored in the Practical Tips section.
We recognise that the ongoing Tech lay-offs are very much a moving piece. To capture a full and accurate picture of what is happening and how it is affecting employees, organisations also need to collect and disaggregate diversity data across all demographics at every stage of an employee’s journey. This will enable them to better understand trends and gaps and ensure that redundancy decisions are made equitably.
Written by Ben Musgrave and Olivia Banton at Diversifying Group