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Breaking through a silicon ceiling: the tech bubble needs diversity

Breaking through a silicon ceiling: the tech bubble needs diversity

Allegations about sexism at Uber have highlighted a culture that appears to pervade many American technology businesses. The claims made by Susan Fowler, a former engineer for the taxi service app, about the sexual harassment and discrimination that she encountered at the company have been followed by similar complaints.

Uber is by no means the only US technology group in which there is said to be a culture of tolerating sexism or that has given rise to alleged sexual discrimination or harassment.

Tina Huang, a former engineer at Twitter, made a legal complaint in February last year in which she accused the social network company of denying her promotions because she is a woman. Last September Mic, a millennial-focused news website, published allegations made by a former employee of Apple who claimed that discrimination and harassment at the company was common. And in January, Google was sued by the US government for refusing to tell anti-discrimination auditors how much it pays its workers.

Is it possible that the British technology sector could have a similar problem with sexism? In the Tech Nation 2017 report, an analysis of more than 2,700 British companies published two weeks ago by Tech City UK, lurk statistics revealing much about the make-up of the sector’s workforce. The report shows that only one in nine digital tech companies have a majority of women on their staff. Men outnumbered women by at least three to one in 53 per cent of the companies, while in a further 33 per cent of cases women accounted for fewer than half the workforce.

The report concluded: “UK digital tech is today comprised of an overwhelmingly male workforce.”

This is not to suggest, despite anecdotal evidence of a so-called brogrammer culture, that UK tech necessarily has a sexism problem. However, women are under-represented in the workforce, potentially creating an environment in which sexist behaviour might flourish.

There are several reasons for this, of which the most obvious is that female participation in science, technology, engineering and maths —the Stem subjects — at school and university historically has been low. The notion that boys are good at maths while girls are good at humanities is not confined to the UK, but according to those working in the sector the gender divide is more pronounced in Britain.

Cultural issues also contribute: Roma Agrawal, the award-winning structural engineer whose accomplishments include working on the construction of the Shard, argues that the toy industry perpetuates such stereotypes. Dawn Bonfield, a materials engineer working with the Royal Academy of Engineering on diversity issues, argues that when girls show an interest in Stem subjects, a lack of knowledge among parents and teachers means that often they are encouraged to become doctors or vets rather than engineers or scientists.

The situation is improving. A survey last year by Computer Weekly found that just over a third of women respondents had been in a technology job for five years or less, compared with 19 per cent for male respondents, suggesting that more women are entering the profession than in the past. The number of women studying science and engineering is up by 5 per cent since 2011, compoared with only 1 per cent for men.

There is also a Brexit dimension to this. Along with financial services, the technology sector was the most stridently pro-Remain of all industry groups during last year’s referendum and continues to emphasise the need to hire foreign workers, blaming skill shortages. Perhaps if it didn’t appear to overlook half the working population, it wouldn’t need to depend so much on migrant labour.

 

● Ian King is business presenter for Sky News. Ian King Live is broadcast at 6.30pm from Monday to Thursday. Alexandra Frean is away.

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