To some, the lack of women in today’s tech industry is the result of inherent differences between the aptitudes and interests of men and women. But historically, this has not been the case. In fact, despite the hostile environment towards women in many walks of life in the past, women have been responsible for a great number of important advances and innovations in the spheres of technology and science. Some examples come more readily to mind than others: Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, or Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA.
But when it comes specifically to technology, women are still more overlooked in terms of their historical contribution. When we look back through the ages of technological innovation, the past recalls men: men like Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, and before that, Edison, Tesla and Bell. Nevertheless, women have played an important role in the advancement of technology, and have been at the epicenter of many moments in its history.
For instance, when Britain was threatened with invasion during the war, a team of codebreakers was assembled at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire. The most notable cryptologist who worked at Bletchley Park was Alan Turing: the man responsible (in large part) for breaking the German’s ‘Enigma Code’. Working alongside Turing was a woman named Joan Clarke, who was a mathematician and cryptanalyst, who played a vital role in the breaking of German military codes. At Bletchley, Clarke was in charge of a team of codebreakers that was responsible for intercepting and deciphering naval transmissions, and their work saved innumerable British vessels from being sunk by the German navy. Clarke faced sexism throughout her career: she was prevented from taking a full degree at Cambridge, despite passing with a first, and she was paid less than her male counterparts at Bletchley, all because she was a woman. There are two statues to Alan Turing: one in Manchester and one in Bletchley Park. There is no statue of Joan Clarke.
We might also think of Hedy Lamarr, a woman most commonly remembered for her acting career, but who also contributed to military technology. Lamarr was an amateur inventor in her spare time, and she was fond of making her ideas into functioning objects. She reportedly told Howard Hughes, the aviation tycoon, that he should make his planes less box-shaped and more streamlined in order to make them faster, in anticipation of modern aerodynamics. By far her most ingenious invention, however, was a radio-guided torpedo that was immune to frequency-jamming. This idea utilized a type of radio signal known as ‘frequency hopping’, which could be used to synchronize random frequencies between the transmitter and receiver, in order to evade jamming countermeasures. Her idea was later incorporated into naval technology, and today exists in bluetooth communications, as well as in WiFi technology. More to the point, Lamarr knew the significance of technology, and seemed to be more proud of her inventions than her acting career: she said ‘Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever.’ There is no statue to Hedy Lamarr either.
Of course, one might ask ‘what’s the use of a statue anyway?’ This is a fair question, but it misses the point. The fact remains that despite there being a wealth of female achievement in the history of technology, there is very little provision for commemorating their contribution to it.
Today, women are severely underrepresented in technology, and one can’t help but speculate that the historical absence of female role models in technology might be part of the reason why. In the tech sector, men outnumber women approximately five to one. Although admittedly numbers of women in tech are on the rise, the gender gap in tech is closing very, very slowly indeed. In 2019, there was a 1% increase in the number of women enrolling in STEM subjects at university, however in technology and computer science, the proportion of women stayed firmly at 15%, and showed very little sign of increasing. How did we get into a situation in which men have come to dominate the tech industry? People often assume that it’s always been like this, that men are more interested in technology and that the tech industry is therefore merely reflecting the interests of men and women.
For those who say that the gender disparity in tech is simply down to what men and women are inherently good at, it is interesting to note that the proportion of women studying computer science actually peaked in the 1980s, at a staggering 37%. Today it’s around 18%. It would seem that something else is going on. What might have caused so many women to be driven away from careers in tech?
One possible answer is that the tech working environment is so hostile to women that they are put off going into the tech industry, and those who do work in tech are less likely to stay. A report by the Center for Talent Innovation found that women drop out of tech roles not because they dislike the nature of the work, but because they find the working conditions to be incompatible with workplace fulfillment: slow career progression, undermining managers and misogynistic behaviour from colleagues are all identified as reasons. Many women in tech report being treated not as colleagues by their male counterparts, but as objects for inappropriate advances. The stories of this are all too numerous.
Multiple tactics are being employed by large companies to eliminate bias at the level of hiring and in the workplace. We’ve all heard of ‘unconscious bias training’, which has become something of a faddish fix-all for management to deploy as a way of making it look as if they’re doing something about the inequality. While unconscious bias training may work for some people, there is a growing body of evidence that shows it may not have as potent an effect as first thought. Some researchers even speculate that it may have the opposite effect, that is, that such training initiatives may exacerbate existing bias. Other authors point out, staggeringly, that there is actually very little evidence to show that unconscious bias training works at all. Of course, this is not the same as saying that it doesn’t work, or can’t work - but it hardly inspires confidence in its utility as a method of eliminating inequality.
It would seem that putting up more statues might not be enough to solve the problems women face when embarking on a career in the tech sector, and there are no easy answers. But perhaps instead of focusing on ways of passively eliminating bias, corporations and employers might consider making bias an impossibility, by integrating anti-bias software into their hiring, promotion and compensation processes. Of course, in order for such systems to work, objective, quantifiable data would need to exist, which would act as a basis on which to make fairer decisions. This is partly what TiiQu wishes to accomplish: fairness through objectivity.