It’s almost International Women’s Day – and the tech industry hasn’t got the memo

The recent wave of tech layoffs has disproportionately affected women. Big mistake. With the digital knowledge gap, UK tech needs us onside more than ever.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Like many, I have complicated feelings towards International Women’s Day. Taking one day out of 365 to marvel at the successes of women is an even more dismal ratio than our track record on female prime ministers.

I suppose I’d like to imagine that we don’t need this global celebration anymore. The 2023 Alison Rose Review found that 150,000 startups were founded by women last year – more than twice the number in 2018. Might we finally be drawing close to a utopic future where men and women can rule together in harmony?

Not if the tech industry has anything to say about it.

For decades, sector leaders – 78% of whom are men – have claimed to stand for techno-progressivism (the idea that technological advancements bring social change). All the while, like the failed pipedream of the Tesla autopilot, they have stayed in reverse on the issue of gender equality.

Tech remains a hostile environment for female employees

Male oligopolies have coded the industry into a space that is less accessible, less accommodating, and ultimately less attractive to women workers. Shockingly, the Web Summit’s 2022 State of Gender Equity in Tech report found that half of all women surveyed said they had experienced sexism in the last year.

On top of this, 66.9% felt they were being paid unfairly compared to their male counterparts, while 62.9% felt pressure to choose between career and family due to the ongoing childcare crisis.

Largely, the problem is a cultural one. I’ve written previously on the importance of having an inclusive, positive organisational culture to ensure staff feel valued. Tech giant WeWork is just one of many outfits previously accused of nurturing a ‘frat-house’ working style that deprioritised the wellbeing and safety of female staff.

Far from slowing down, this sexism seems to have accelerated into 2023. Since January we’ve seen a tsunami of tech layoffs, as large-scale enterprises like Meta respond to collapsing stock valuations by streamlining their operations.

Predictably, the girls have taken the fall for male CEO mistakes. Analysis of 233 laid-off employees by Layoffs.fyi found that, whilst women make up just over a third of the European tech workforce, they amount to 41.6% of the layoffs since October 2022.

Why bias is bad for business

It’s tempting to dismiss the issue as an epidemic contained to London’s famed technology cluster at Old Street. But we are so globally reliant on digital solutions that any trouble has consequences for all workplaces – big and small.

Recruitment is the area most directly affected. Strangely enough, ostracising 50% of the population has drained the tech talent pool of much of its resources – at the worst possible time.

Rapid adoption of new technology, like Artificial Intelligence, has seemingly outpaced the number of people trained to build and manage it, leaving business owners to scramble for in-demand roles like software engineers and data analysts.

Contributing to the chaos has been the closure of Tech Nation, whose Global Talent visa scheme was a finger in the dam for the digital skills gap. Startups’ research also shows that UK employers are increasingly hiring from overseas to stopper the shortfall.

Generation Z, as the future labourforce, represents another potential solution. Younger workers are much more tech-savvy than their older colleagues, having grown up alongside the internet.

Unluckily for recruiters, however, the reports of sexist behaviour, pay discrepancy, minimal childcare help – and now, mass firings – seem to have reached schools.

PwC’s recent Women in Tech survey found that only 27% of female students would consider a technology career, compared to 61% of males. Worryingly, only 3% say it is their first choice, demonstrating that the male-focused company values embodied by some tech businesses are chasing away potential talent for all.

In a rich man’s world

For those who do find themselves blocked by the LCD-glass ceiling, what other options are there? Female entrepreneurs who attempt to go it alone have discovered the startup landscape to be a barren wasteland when it comes to funding.

In 2019, Melissa Snover (founder of tech startup, Nourished) achieved the highest ever Seed Funding for a woman with £2m. In comparison, the highest Seed Funding ever is £17.6m. An impressive achievement for Snover – and a damning indictment of the UK investor network.

Laudable attempts have been made by organisations like Two Chicks to address the gender funding gap by establishing specialist funding grants for women. Tellingly, many focus on supporting tech-based startups.

Statistics on angel funding for women-led businesses remain an embarrassment, nonetheless. The Rose Review also found that only 14% of angel investors in the UK are female. It’s no wonder that 50% of the women entrepreneurs who applied to this year’s Startups 100 Index 2023 chose to self-fund their company, versus only 32% of men.

Positive steps must be acknowledged. Despite some scepticism from startup owners, the government’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) does show promising signs of a commitment to fostering innovation in the UK.

But this is not a deus ex machina. Such measures will only go a short way to address the digital talent shortage for economic growth and recovery.

Gender equality is not a ‘women's issue'

Having ignored the need to create an equitable playing field for women employees – to their detriment – techies now need to take charge of the issue. Especially if they’re to survive the impending recession.

Yes, it will not be a quick repair job. As demonstrated by the lived experiences of female staff members, the gender issue is hardwired into the industry and can’t be ‘switched off and on again’ with mass firings and re-hirings. Female senior leaders and entrepreneurs also should not be expected to shoulder the burden.

Instead, the unthinkable. Proper respect and investment must be paid to the ideas and careers of women in technology from the top-down. Only then can companies begin the behavioural shift towards a welcoming, gender-inclusive environment for all employees.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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