What is the state of female representation in emerging tech? And how far away are we from achieving a diverse and inclusive environment for women in the field?
On 14 September 2022, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change convened a roundtable in Singapore on Closing the Inclusion Gap for Women in Emerging Technology in partnership with SGInnovate, Singapore’s Deep Tech investor and ecosystem builder.
The roundtable brought together leading women and advocates in tech to give their perspectives on the current barriers to women pursuing and remaining in emerging tech careers. We have identified several themes from the discussion, which we share to inform further thinking and solutions to this challenge.
Female representation has some way to go
Participants unanimously agreed that the level of female representation in technology remains inadequate. While Southeast Asia does better than the global average for proportion of women in the tech workforce, the figure of 32% leaves much room for improvement to reach proportionate representation. In more specialised emerging tech areas including AI, women in Singapore make up about 28% of professionals with AI skills.
This poses immediate challenges for businesses with participants noting a dearth of CVs from female candidates to meet growing demand to fill tech roles. Some affirmed past research that women apply to jobs only when they meet all of the criteria for a role, exacerbating the challenge of having a small pool of candidates to choose from.
The early and evolving nature of emerging tech could also be a deterrent. In certain fields where the technology has yet to find mainstream commercial application, this can be seen as a less certain and risky career pathway, a particular challenge for women given that risk-taking at work yields much less payoff and less rewarding consequences than for men.
Raise exposure to tech early
A 2020 report by UNESCO found that low levels of female participation in STEM fields can be traced back to school years - While many girls might aspire to pursue careers in STEM from a young age, interest wanes with sociocultural pressures and a lack of support to cultivate and sustain this curiosity.
To address this, and the aforementioned barriers, participants suggested the need to raise exposure to tech early and to create opportunities upstream for girls to help them experience and cultivate a passion and affinity for tech.
This should also include exposure to the wide range of career opportunities within emerging tech – from space to transport, fashion, and various other problem-solving scenarios in which emerging technology can be applied. This is necessary to expand their horizons to alternative jobs beyond traditional career pathways. Mentorship and internship placements are one way to achieve this.
When discussing exposure at later stages of work, effective interventions within organisations include having internal mechanisms for employees to spend a fraction of their time working in a different tech team as a means to remove misconceptions and dispel fear about the capabilities needed for a role.
Others noted the importance of senior female mentorship, for example, through direct attachments so that mentees can see the full range of skills and strengths utilised in a day in the life of a woman in tech.
Review language and practices used in the process of hiring, interviewing, and retaining female talent
Gender-coded language used in job descriptions and the process of interviewing candidates can have a significant impact in the proportion of women candidates applying for roles, not just in tech jobs but across the board.
Employers should look out for potential gatekeepers at every stage of the interview and onboarding process, as well as thereafter, for reinforcing and entrenching internal cultures that are not inclusive. Studies have found that among women with a STEM degree who left the career pathway, 36% left due to a lack of diversity and inclusion, confirming the importance of addressing this barrier to successfully retain female talent.
Research has also shown that women at tech companies who reported higher loyalty to their employers and anticipated staying longer than in other industries did so due to compensation, attractive career opportunities, and a reasonable work-life balance.
Busting myths and building better narratives about women in tech
Participants emphasised the importance of more women seeing themselves reflected in leadership and teams. This can only be achieved with greater profiling of women forging a path in tech.
They also talked about the need for more narratives that highlight the transformative nature of emerging tech and its salience in solving everyday problems to problems of global magnitude. Shifting external perceptions and understanding about the multitude of ways that Web3, AI, and other emerging technologies will improve lives will support openness and favourability to pursuing an emerging tech career.
Overall, participants noted that greater education of women and girls at all stages of life and career development is needed to bust some of the myths and misperceptions about emerging tech. The takeaway being predominantly that problem solving and other soft skills typically associated with the humanities as opposed to traditional STEM subjects are just as valuable in being effective in the industry as technical capabilities. This was echoed by several female participants at the roundtable who majored in non-technology degrees, but subsequently succeeded in the field, attributing their success to those soft and transferable skills picked up throughout the course of their careers.
This is particularly important to those for whom technical capabilities like coding and software engineering are less accessible or not attractive as a career pathway. Roles including in marketing, sales, product development, ethics, and HR performed with the unique needs of the emerging tech sector in mind also deserve greater attention as they are indispensable to the growth of tech-enabled ecosystems.
As new, emerging technology redesigns virtual worlds, the third iteration of the internet, and all the ways we live, work, and play, efforts towards inclusion and representation must be elevated to ensure that decisions shaping the future reflect the experiences and needs of the global population.
This roundtable represents our ongoing contribution to this effort.
About the Women in Tech Policy network
TBI’s global Women in Tech Policy network was established in 2021 with the goal of convening and growing a network of women and allies in tech to champion greater diversity and inclusion in the design and conception of tech policy.
From convening African women in AI on how African nations can harness AI for social good and economic benefit to practical guidance on how women can leverage their current skill sets to make the leap into blockchain and digital assets, stay up to date and get involved by joining our Women in Tech Policy group here.
Singapore also hosts the SG Women in Tech group, looking to attract, retain and develop more women in technology through mentorship programmes, events, and features of Singapore-based women in tech. Join the community here.