Visible women in technology will improve all our lives

Let’s use our skills and knowledge to help half the world’s population rather than work against it.

The number of women working in STEM sectors is growing and has been rising steadily throughout the 21st century1. While this progress is good, the overall percentage of women in these roles is still low. At the time of writing, just 24% of the STEM workforce are women.

We are all too aware of the negative impacts that a lack of diversity in any industry can have on things like innovation and revenue2. Because of this, many organisations are actively trying to recruit and retain women in the tech sector by working with organisations like WISE to better understand the issues faced by women in STEM, including unconscious bias from recruiters, lack of flexible working opportunities, or poor maternity support.

The lack of women in tech in particular presents another (and my opinion, much more concerning) problem not just for the tech sector, but for any woman living in our 21st century world.

Technology is now an embedded part of all our lives: from smart phones with AI assistants like Siri, to smart watches that track your health. There are very few places left on Earth where the impact of modern technology is not felt. In many ways these cutting-edge technologies have made our lives better, easier and faster, leading to more demand for these solutions3. As a result, technology is evolving at a rapid pace.

We can invent new digital tools or pieces of software with relative ease, and tech start-ups are being created faster than ever5 to help fill the gaps in this age of invention. While this is all very exciting, the fast-paced nature of all this change and development has led some to start asking two questions about new and existing technologies:

  • Is our technology doing the right thing?
  • Are we developing the right technology?

For many women across the world, the answer to both of those questions is no. The reasons for this may not be obvious at first. Let’s start with the first question.

Is technology doing the right thing?

In her book Invisible Women6, Caroline Criado-Perez presents some real-world examples where the technological needs of women have been forgotten or ignored, leading to frustration, injury or even death7. These consequences are serious, so why are they still being seen in 2021?

Simply, the tech sector forgets about women because there are too few women working within it. It’s a vicious cycle. For example, AI smart assistants tend to be trained to recognise human male voices8. As such, when women (whose voices tend to be higher pitched, with a different inflection and tone) try to speak to the assistant, they are less easily understood. This is part of a larger problem, known as AI bias, discussed in a 2020 YPB blog9.

Now this example isn’t necessarily a life-or-death situation (although there are plenty of examples of poorly tested products that have been), but why develop and produce technology that doesn’t work well for half the world’s population? Technology companies aren’t purposefully trying to exclude women from using their products, but due to the lack of gender diversity in their workforce (particularly at senior levels), female perspectives may not be provided during the development and testing processes. As such, the product or technology is released into the world even though it is not a good match for all its customers. It’s not until women use the product that the issues emerge, but by then it’s often too late.

Not ensuring that technology works for everyone before releasing it into the world is a very risky strategy for companies. Sadly, this pattern is likely to continue until such a time as women are actively included in the development and testing of new products. This is unfortunate both for tech organisations (who would make more money if their products worked well for everyone) and their female customers (who must sometimes wait for changes to be made to a product post-release).

Are we developing the right technology?

This is the subject of much wide-ranging debate. The debate around the ethics of certain technologies, not least the controversial use of CRISPR or data collection on the internet, is an important one, however in this blog I want to focus on the development of technology for people of all genders.

There are many new products emerging – from self-driving cars, to foldable phones – but is this the technology we should be developing? And alongside this are areas that might require development but have fallen by the wayside, such as innovation in parachutes to breast pumps9, 10, 11. The saying goes ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – but who says these technologies aren’t ‘broke’, or at the very least aren’t outdated?

It’s certainly not women. Take breast pumps for example, a technology exclusively used by people who can breastfeed (of which the majority are women). Many commercially available models are noisy, inefficient and sometimes painful for mothers to use12. Technically yes, they work – they can pump breast milk. But when you consider that we now have toasters smart enough to know how you like your crumpets, shouldn’t a tool as vital as a breast pump do more than just the bare minimum?

Judging by the rise of FemTech in the 21st century, it would seem that a considerable number of people think they should. Companies like Elvie are investing and innovating heavily in this space, creating products designed for women that women like to use13. So why is Elvie different to most tech companies? Well for one thing, it’s led by and was founded by women, so women’s needs and experiences are always included during product development. While companies like Elvie are still few and far between, their existence shows that the tech tide is slowly changing, and women’s voices and needs are making themselves heard. 

The Future

Rather than looking to develop the next big thing or the smartest toaster, we should be using our new skills and knowledge to improve outdated technology that doesn’t work for half the world’s population as well as developing new technologies that fill critical gaps. This will only happen if we have more women working in tech, particularly in positions of leadership and influence. So how can we make this a reality? My thoughts are:

  • Develop the confidence of women already working in the tech sector, so that they are more likely to put themselves forward for promotion to senior roles.
  • Inspire and engage with the next generation, showing them the value they could bring to tech and that they can make a real difference to women across the world.
  • Make the tech sector a better place for women to work. This can be done by improving maternity benefits, allowing flexible working, and implementing mentorship programmes among many other practices.

What are your thoughts? How can we make tech work better for women, and encourage more women to work in tech?

By Beth Probert, Vice Chair of the WISE Young Professionals’ Board.

Sources:

[1] https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/statistics/updated-workforce-statistics-to-september-2020/

[2] https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-diversity-can-drive-innovation

[3] https://techjury.net/blog/how-fast-is-technology-growing/

[4] https://www.itpro.co.uk/business-strategy/startups/358860/a-new-uk-tech-startup-created-every-30-minutes-in-2020

[5] https://carolinecriadoperez.com/book/invisible-women/

[6] http://www.ethicsinnlp.org/workshop/pdf/EthNLP06.pdf

[7] https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/diversity-and-inclusion-through-the-lenses-of-artificial-intelligence/

[8] https://blog.entelo.com/entelo-women-in-tech-report

[9] https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-12-19/boeing-spacex-spacecraft-parachutes

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmUpvl0Ajxw

[12] https://www.elvie.com/blog/the-evolution-of-the-breast-pump

[12] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-12-09/how-medela-known-for-its-breast-pumps-lost-its-monopoly-on-moms

[13] https://www.elvie.com/about/company

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