The number of women studying technology has fallen this century from one in four women to one in 10.
The importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, collectively known as STEM subjects, has been emphasised repeatedly in a range of recent research and policy reports, both in Australia and abroad.
The Australian Government and our Chief Scientist have made this focus clear stating: “At the core of almost every agenda is a focus on STEM. It is the almost universal preoccupation now shaping economic plans... science and innovation are recognised internationally as key for boosting productivity, creating more and better jobs, enhancing competitiveness and growing an economy.”
Here in Australia, it is projected that just a one per cent increase in people choosing a STEM-related career would result in more than 50 billion dollars in revenue for the country’s economy.
The benefits of women in technological fields is real.
So why does the proportion of women entering technology careers that provide the skills required for our knowledge-based society and economic growth keep falling?
Challenges for women in technology
In the field of technology, there is a growing awareness that more women are needed to grow businesses and meet the demands of a global marketplace. But the challenges are ongoing and there are current examples that highlight the problems many women face within the industry.
Two female academics were recently advised that adding a man’s name on their paper would improve it. This is an overt example but there are many others faced by women already working in technology fields that are numerous, subtle and often unintentional.
The most common and obvious of these is what’s become known as mansplaining – a term that refers to men over-explaining things to women that they already know.
As a woman working in technology this is a phenomenon that I have experienced often. If I ask for technical support, I will be given a simplified explanation and told that the ‘tech guy’ will do it for me. Despite the fact that I can easily connect a laptop to the Wi-Fi, there is an assumption that I wouldn’t understand their explanation of IP addresses or machine-based certificates. I wish this was a single example.
In contrast, some of my male colleagues have reported the opposite – that technical staff speak to them at a level that is technologically beyond them, based on the assumption that as men they would understand what is being explained.
While it makes me smile ruefully and roll my eyes, mansplaining actually poses a more significant and serious challenge than just being an annoyance. Mansplaining can make it almost impossible for women to aim high in technology careers when they are denied access to complex language or problem-solving opportunities.
There is a real danger that women exposed to mansplaining could end up restricting their career choices as it risks “crushing young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.”
Technology learning in schools cannot be the only solution
While there are several government, not-for-profit and international organisations that seek to encourage and bring women into technology industries by targeting learning in schools and at tertiary institutions, we need to think bigger.
We need more women in these industries now - as role-models, mentors and path-finders for the young women who have yet to enter the world of work, and, importantly, for those women who have yet to decide whether or not to pursue technology in their studies.
Young women leaving school or university cannot be expected to bring both technical skills and the ability to make change in systems that are perceived to be dominated by men. Young women need experienced female leaders in technology fields now, so that the path widens to accept the flood of women we need to enter technology careers in the future for the good of the industry and the economy.
How do we get more women in to technology professions?
Men need to continue to support women in the workplace. This means seeking personal awareness of innate biases that are, by definition, not easy to address. Asking other people whether there is a need to moderate behaviours; for example, asking self-aware questions like “Was I over-simplifying/explaining that?”, is a good place to start.
Sometimes, supporting women simply means holding women forward, when they are qualified and capable of a job, but are perhaps not the first name that comes to mind.
Equally and importantly, women need to avoid assumptions about other women’s abilities. As women, there is a need to reflect on our perceptions of expertise. We, men and women, need to avoid assumptions about the capabilities, interests, and knowledge of others based on gender.
In the end, this challenge asks us to speak up for ourselves and for others – regardless of our gender. With a better balance of men and women in all STEM industries, we can look forward to a world of innovation and learning that benefits from the qualities and perspectives of all the world’s population.
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