We are happy to present an opinion piece by Marion Finnigan, Senior Business Development Manager at our Corporate Ambassador AWS.
As many women in tech, I have experienced first-hand what discrimination feels like – being overlooked for promotions, earning less than male peers or even your direct reports, dealing with discrimination and unconscious bias, even blatant sexism and harassment.
This is not the time for whinging, nor should we ignore the tremendous improvements of past years in this space. But I do believe that now is the time to look at the root causes and think about what society, business and government can do to raise awareness and ‘normalize’ inclusion, diversity and equality (ID&E).
I won’t bore you with the stats (we all know them), but I will say that there are reasons for celebrating how far we’ve come, as well as reasons for concern about how far away we still are from true ID&E. Despite many businesses leading the way with ID&E efforts – changes to company policies around parental leave, HR programs and policies, job descriptions written to appeal to women and men equally, and many more – it still seems to be a struggle to achieve this goal.
What are we doing wrong? Why are these efforts not having a big enough impact? In conversations with experts, coaches, and mentors some aspects seem to come up repeatedly.
– Women are not ‘programmed’ to brag, insinuating that there is programming happening at some point in our lives that men are involved in, but we are not. It is said to be one of the reasons for the lack of diversity in the tech industry – or any other male dominated industry.
– Along the same lines, women aren’t pointing out their strengths and accomplishments, therefore are not selling themselves well enough or demanding what they deserve – the salary, the promotion, the position.
– Women only apply to jobs if they feel they fit the description 100%, whereas men choose a more pragmatic approach – 10% will do! (slightly exaggerated, but necessary to bring across my point.)
What is it that must change? Is it businesses and their approach to support ID&E, women in their approach to get what they want, society in how it prepares the next generation for the workplace, or government that supports these efforts?
Currently it seems the onus is on businesses to find diverse talent, to make women feel more comfortable to choose STEM degrees or apply for jobs in the tech industry, to push them to demand what they deserve – in short: to be diverse! We should expect no less… other than that this responsibility should be a shared one.
As a society we fail in raising and teaching the next generation in a diverse way, but once they hit the workplace, we expect businesses to cover up and undo what we have missed – or even caused. The responsibility is on every one of us to make long-term changes that allow for more ingrained and sustainable diversity in future generations.
So, what can we do for girls and women to empower and prepare them for the workplace? What needs to change in our upbringing and society now, to sow the seeds for the next generation without having to rely on short-term patches? How can we make diversity a ‘non-issue’, something that comes so naturally that we don’t have to talk about it any longer?
I think we need to be prepared to start early and address the different life stages of a ‘career in the making’:
– At home – where it all begins: A baby’s brain doubles in size in the first year, building about a million neural connections each second up to the age of three and grows by nearly 90% in the first five years. This is when the ‘wiring’ happens and parents and experts engage in discussions around nurture vs nature.
– Nursery and primary school: At this stage a lot of social interactions shape the future confidence of a child. Kids develop an understanding of outside events and start to be less egocentric. Easily shaped and influenced, a healthy balance between gender neutrality and identity is important to prepare kids for the next steps.
– Secondary school and college – when we decide what to study. Teenage years are the transition between childhood and adulthood, and they come with changes in personality, but also with physical, social and intellectual development. It is described as the stage that shows the greatest difference between male and female development and where self-esteem is built, which will lead to the basics of a teen’s adult life.
– University, higher education and the workplace – this is where most of our efforts go currently when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
To achieve sustainable diversity, it requires changes in those life stages that we don’t focus on.
At home – Nurture vs nature
A while ago the BBC did an experiment on ‘girls’ vs. ‘boys’ toys. They swapped clothes on toddlers and asked adults from the street to play with them in a room full of different toys. The outcome was quite staggering, even the most open-minded adults were stereotyping when playing with toddlers. As a result, girls dressed as boys were given toys that teach spatial awareness and physical confidence, whereas boys dressed as girls were given dolls and cuddly toys to play with. It immediately raises the question of whether men’s domination in STEM careers is by nature – or whether our environment just shapes us into what we are.
The experiment – you can watch it here – opened my eyes to the unconscious bias we all carry and the impact it has on our future. The way we are treated and the conventions that are ‘forced’ upon us from a young age can either provide us with opportunities or limit us in what we think we are capable of. I then took a journey back into my own childhood – I played with dolls as a child, but I also played with matchbox cars, puzzles, and Lego. I climbed trees, built tree houses, and played cops and robbers. I was encouraged to do sports that taught me physical confidence and spatial awareness. In short, I was exposed to a mixed bag of things.
I believe that every child should be given the choice and encouragement of a mixed bag of things – girls toys, teaching us the soft skills in life, revolving around building relationships and nurturing, and boys toys, encouraging confidence and spatial awareness. It requires a healthy balance of both to encourage and teach hard and soft skills in an equal measure – for both, women and men!
Sometimes, a little encouragement in something that doesn’t seem like a natural fit might turn out to be just the game changer that was needed. Sometimes, that little nudge reminds us of the unconscious bias that might have an unforeseeable impact on our kids. Educating ourselves on the impact toys and everyday interactions with kids can have will help us to consciously induce change.
Nursery & Primary School
At this stage the future confidence of children is shaped through social interactions and outside events, which requires a healthy balance between gender neutrality and identity. Traditions and conventions, however, lead to unconscious bias in how we perceive equality, even in young kids. As an example, my step kids’ school doesn’t allow shorts or trousers for girls. Imagine how difficult it must be to climb a tree or hang from the monkey bars in a dress or skirt.
When my youngest step son was still in primary school, I was cheering the fact that there was one girl playing in his football squad, bearing in mind that most teams haven’t even advanced that far to include girls. Chicken-and-egg conversation all over again – talking to the coach I hear that there are not enough girls interested or good enough to play in the squad.
It just proves once more the lack of encouragement, given that up to the age of eleven there are not enough physical differences between boys and girls to justify the different treatment – same height, same weight, same strengths. It demonstrates that our society has not ingrained the idea of equality yet, however desirable it may seem. Aren’t we all guilty of saying things like ‘that’s not very ladylike’ or ‘man up’, ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘you look so much prettier when you smile’?
I believe we have to be more conscious about these stereotypes and allow girls and boys alike to enjoy the sports and activities they enjoy. It is our duty to encourage girls to participate in competition and team sport. At the same time, boys should be allowed to cry when they feel hurt and play with cuddly toys. It creates a more balanced approach and will allow girls and boys to interact with each other on the same level – an upward spiral.
Secondary School & College
Hormones flying around, bodies changing, puberty kicks in massively. It’s the time where girls and boys physically learn what it means to belong to a gender. In this stage, as in any other, it is important to appreciate the differences but at the same time encourage them to go down the path that is right for them and choose subjects at school based on what they are good at and where their interests are, instead of pushing them into gender specific roles. When we struggle finding enough female talent in the tech industry, we should ask ourselves if we create the environment in those important years to encourage girls to choose STEM subjects and prepare them for competition in life.
By the age of 14 my dad sent me to a girl’s internet summer camp – for one week I spent my mornings learning about the basics of the internet, which was a novelty back then. It was a safe environment where I could ask questions, no matter how stupid I thought they were and got a great deal of confidence in dealing with tech. By the age of 16 I started assembling and upgrading my PC at home. Looking at the UK now, girls still only account for 13% in A-level Computing. Only 2% of girls chose A-level physics as opposed to 6.5% boys, according to the report ‘Why Not Physics? – A snapshot of Girls’ Uptake at A-level’. The stats are staggering and it comes down to us, as parents and teachers, to empower girls and give them confidence to choose STEM subjects for GCSCs and A-Levels.
The great news is, that every effort we make at these stages will have a ripple effect on the next stage, to the point where one day, ID&E becomes second nature, as opposed to a topic that requires effort.
In the end, sustainable diversity is a matter of collaboration and shared responsibility – between businesses, society and government. We’re only scratching the surface with the above examples and it will take more efforts to create change. Businesses will have to continue and even increase their efforts with diversity in the workplace. Governments will have to support businesses in their efforts for equality. And it requires us – society – to understand the importance of a diverse and inclusive upbringing and act accordingly, spot unconscious bias, be allies, and encourage and promote ID&E on all levels.