Offbeat

Tech bros still cling to sexist stereotypes, forgetting female pioneers who coded their path

Research sheds light on attitudes holding industry back


Almost one in five men in IT explain why fewer females work in the profession by arguing that "women are naturally less well suited to tech roles than men."

Feel free to check the calendar. No, we have not set the DeLorean for 1985. It is still 2023, yet anyone familiar with the industry over the last 30 years may feel a sense of déjà vu when reading the findings of a report by The Fawcett Society charity and telecoms biz Virgin Media O2.

The survey of nearly 1,500 workers in tech, those who have just left the industry, and women qualified in sciences, technology, or math, also found that a "tech bro" work culture of sexism forced more than 40 percent of women in the sector to think about leaving their role at least once a week.

Additionally, the study found 72 percent of women in tech have experienced at least one form of sexism at work. This includes being paid less than male colleagues (22 percent) and having their skills and abilities questioned (20 percent). Almost a third of women in tech highlighted a gender bias in recruitment, and 14 percent said they were made to feel uncomfortable because of their gender during the application process.

A separate Women In Tech survey for 2023, found women are deterred from a career in tech due to early misconceptions about a "lack of education in young girls." It claimed: "By seeing more female role models in tech, young girls will start to see IT as a realistic and attractive career option."

None of this is particularly new. Over the last few decades, reports about sexism and bias in IT have come and gone, as have initiatives and campaigns to counter these trends. Enough time has passed for these lazy stereotypes to be banished to the dustbin of history.

Yet progress is slow and uneven. In 1970, only 14 percent of US computer tech degrees went to women. By 1984, that number leapt to 37 percent, but it later fell and by 2011 it was only 18 percent, hovering around that figure ever since.

Those daring enough to delve deeper into history will find that far from women being "naturally less well suited" to the industry, they actually helped found it and provided the backbone of its early workforce.

Historian Mar Hicks, associate professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, has plotted how women staffed early IT departments during the 1950s because the work was seen as uninspiring and lacking in career cachet. When women – who had themselves been "computers" in the early sense of the word – trained up men, the men would leave for more promising departments.

"In 1959, one woman programmer spent the year training two new hires with no computer experience for a critical long-term set of computer projects in the government's main computer center while simultaneously doing all of the programming, operating and testing work as usual." The problem was "the men who were tapped up for these jobs lacked the technical skills to do them and were often uninterested in computing work, in part because of its feminized past," Hicks said in the industry's historical critique Your Computer is on Fire.

From this trend, an early software development company was born. Having found her promotion blocked in the 1950s, Stephanie "Steve" Shirley went on to found Freelance Programmers, which later became Xansa before it was sold to Steria for £472 million in 2007. Among her employees was Ann Moffatt, who coded the black box recorder for the Anglo-French supersonic passenger jet Concorde. Moffatt went on to become technical director of the company, leading more than 300 programmers.

Yet more than 50 years later, the tech bro culture said to permeate the startup scene and wider industry seems to have forgotten its history. In the UK, they pay women 26 percent less than their male counterparts, which is among the worst industry pay gaps in Europe.

The "move fast and break things" culture embodying post-millennium tech claims to be the great disruptor in everything – except the numbing predictability of sexism.

Yet what could be more disruptive than questioning the status quo in the very workforce that supports the industry while learning history's lessons at the same time? ®

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