This International Women’s Day, Amplify the Voices, Perspectives and Experiences of Women in Tech

March 8, 2021

For over one hundred years, International Women’s Day has been commemorated as a day to celebrate and uplift people identifying as women around the world. In 2021, across the fields of technology competitiveness, innovation readiness and global talent (the Portulans Institute’s three focus areas) it is more urgent and important than ever to center, include and integrate women’s voices, perspectives and experiences.

There is no question that the fields of technology and innovation are predominantly dominated by – and oriented towards – men. In 2018, surveys suggested that fewer than 30 percent of employees in the world’s main technology companies identified as women, with only 20 percent of faculty in computer science departments. The visibility of innovative, successful women entrepreneurs is severely lacking, too: between 2016 and 2018, women represented just a quarter of keynote or standalone speakers at technology conferences. The barriers to meaningful inclusion in the STEM sectors are felt most prominently by women living the Global South, women of color – particularly Black women – and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, one poll suggested that over 52 percent of women believe that technology is a ‘male industry’, with 32 percent noting gender bias as a major hurdle to recruitment. As for entrepreneurship, the OECD estimates that less than 10 percent of ICT patents are obtained by women in G20 countries, with equally low levels of technology startups seeking venture capital funding founded by women.

There is also no question that the exclusion of women – including their diversity of ‘intersectional identities’ (a term coined by feminist activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw) – is a serious obstacle to the wellbeing, development and competitiveness of future-ready societies. A deficiency in gender inclusivity in STEM “impoverishes the talent pool for innovation”.  Mona Abou Hana, member of Portulans’ Board of Advisors and PwC Middle East’s Chief People Officer says that the number of women graduating with STEM degrees “would lead you to believe there is no shortage of female representation… But the reality is starkly different. A gender imbalance in the workforce doesn’t just represent a missed opportunity for companies…. It also creates an unstable foundation for our future.” Particularly in the field of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence – where women only represent 22 percent of the workforce – the gender gaps reproduce gender bias in algorithms, putting the livelihoods and lives of women at risk, particularly women in marginalized or vulnerable communities.

Governments, economies and societies worldwide can only make the most of technology competitiveness, innovation readiness and global talent if narratives, norms and policy are re-centered to amplify women’s contributions. Lynn St. Amour, Portulans Advisor and former President and CEO of Internet Society, tells us: “It is inarguable that women’s contributions are central to economic progress; societies that avail themselves fully of this talent and perspectives will be most successful.” As demonstrated by our research for the Network Readiness Index, high performers are societies with strong, inclusive governance, a people-first innovation strategy and global impact on key indicators – including UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, Gender Equality. Our recent country-level data-driven analysis suggests that economies undermined by stark gender inequalities are prevented from making the most of the digital future. Throughout our Dialogue on Digital Transformation interview series, our guests underlined the importance of gender inclusion in post-Covid societies undergoing rapid digital digital transformations. In conversation with Portulans CEO Carolina Rossini, Frances West (former IBM Chief Accessibility Officer) explained the notion of “authentic inclusion” applauded the wave of young women fighting for digital accessibility, “with a passion to make technology purposeful and meaningful – and to see [this technology] in a context that helps underserved populations… This is a time when we can level the playing field… and learn from each other.”

As Portulans’ Senior Fellow Shefali Rai comments, the realities and challenges of the Covid-19 crisis may represent an opportunity for redressing the gender imbalance in STEM. “I believe the post-Covid world offers an enormous opportunity to address gender equality more holistically, rather than in a ‘piecemeal’ way. The new business-as-usual approach will encourage more women to join the workforce – especially in STEM… Organizations need to consider this changed reality, where work-from-home modes offer more stability…” However, recent research from UN Women, Brookings and Devex highlight the flip-side of digital transformation: the pandemic crisis also presents new, dangerous avenues for the oppression of women, from expanding digital gender divides to digitally-enabled gender-based violence.

In 2021, the fight for gender diversity, inclusion and equity is more than just finding ways to ‘give women a seat at the table’ in the fields of technology and innovation. It should be about fundamentally and structurally rethinking what ‘a seat at the table’ actually means. The World Economic Forum estimates that the economic and political gender gap will take 108 years to close. Facing the harsh realities of a post-Covid world – from rising inequalities to declining levels of competitiveness – there’s no time to waste, and no better time to ask, and keep asking: where are the women?

This International Women’s Day, get involved in the global movement for gender diversity, inclusion and equity in STEM.

  • Join: Out In Tech is the world’s largest non-profit for LGBTQ+ tech leaders. The organization “creates opportunities for over 40,000 members to advance their carers, grow their networks and leverage tech for social change.”
  • Watch: Girl Trouble: Breaking Through the Bias in AI, a panel (and recorded webinar) hosted by UNESCO and the World Economic Forum, centers the voices of female change-makers in AI, “from C-suite professionals taking decisions which affect us all, to women innovating new AI tools and policies to help vulnerable groups.”
  • Support: Black Girl Ventures is a US-based social enterprise company, “creating access to community, capital and capacity” for women entrepreneurs and founders of color.
  • Read: The Deck Is Stacked Against Black Women in Tech, an article featuring interviews with and statistics about overcoming the barriers faced by Black women in the technology industry.

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