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The problem with the label 'Women in tech'

Should women be the ones to raise their voices?

By Dr Mariann Hardey - January 2020

Recent attention to the status of women’s work and career progression has raised questions about how women working in male-dominated industries can raise awareness about misogyny and sexism. My question is to ask why these women should be the ones to raise their voices when entire sectors and the whole ethos of the tech industry in particular (and others) needs to change.

It is with uncomfortable disquiet I have observed the global popularity and celebration of the ‘women in tech’ (WiT) label. Uncomfortable, as while the label signals ways to conveniently bring some of the problems into the public domain, it also continues to confirm the collective identity of women in the sector as being somehow ‘other’, which is (surely) wrong?

In over a decade of researching the effect of the label in tech communities, this had the effect of reinforcing the pigeonholing of women into areas seen as requiring what are deemed ‘soft skills’ (e.g. communication, administration and marketing), which are seen as distinct from the ‘hard’ technical skills expected of men (e.g. programming, director, managers, CEOs).

The danger of labels is that it creates ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups and the WiT classification intensifies the division between women and men in tech, when fundamentally what is needed and desired, is equitable status and greater diversity through the tech career pathway.

Social identity theory suggests that a basic need for positive self-esteem will encourage favouritism of in-groups in most comparisons with out-groups: in this case the favouritism of men in tech over women in tech. This dichotomy is a useful way to begin to unpack where the WiT label can go wrong, but the reality of the situation is far more complex. For example, self-categories and advocates from within WiT communities report a very favourable set of affiliations with the WiT label. However, this is limited to the valuation of the immediate in-group endorsed by other women, and to outsiders, the perception is to continue to find out-group degradation. This explains why many of the women tech CEOs I interviewed shared their preference for hiring other women. Because they were in a position of power to imply in-group status on other women, they felt a responsibility to favour women over men. And, yet, this continues to widen the gulf between women and men tech workers.

In my study, now a book titled: The Culture of Women in Tech, the WiT label had been popularised in three main ways:

  1. By women’s tech groups, to advocate for and advance the status of women in the industry. These groups became more visible around the mid-2000s.
  2. By the popular media, using it in news and press articles to describe the state of the tech industry and critique the lack of diversity. Following speculation about the influence of computers and other home technology, access to education to overcome the digital divide, and the first generation ‘born digital’, popular press articles using the label ‘women in tech’ were common from late 2000s.
  3. In government and industry reports pointing out ‘the problem’. In the UK, The equality strategy – building a fairer Britain report detailed the gender pay gap between ‘women and men in science, engineering and technology’ from 2010 (Revenue & Customs); and the United Nations Gender, Science and Technology report was launched in September 2010, setting out the role of the (then new) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for 2010-2014 and commitments on women’s and girl’s access to, and participation in, science and technology.

It is well documented that labels quickly acquire the ability to evoke positive or negative affective responses (i.e. associations that are conveyed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’), moreover, they can then act as hierarchal order conditioning status themselves.

Integrating labels into existing tech communities will eventually condition a positive or negative response. Increasingly within tech, there is growing conscious awareness, and a conditioned positive response for the WiT label when it is frequently accompanied by in-group designators (e.g. endorsed by Google or Microsoft and other well-known tech commercial operators), equally there is the risk of conditioned negative responses when paired with out-group designators (e.g. associated with women’s rights, feminism or the #MeToo movement). Evidenced by my study, the WiT label invites a ‘them’ that gets the tech sector further away from an inclusive ‘us’, and thereby harnesses influences such as label priming and classical in and out-group conditioning.

Indeed, what is evident from the popularity of the WiT label is that the problem of the lack of diversity and equality in tech has a name, and her name is ‘woman’.

The Culture of Women in Tech: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by Dr Mariann Hardey, published by Emerald Publishing Limited, is out now

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