5 reasons why tech needs more women

Risto Sarvas
Mar 8 · 6 min read

When it comes to technology, we don’t live in a gender balanced world. There is work to be done.

Below are five clear, utilitarian, and “engineer compatible” arguments why technology sector/education/business/culture needs more women.

Mixing gender stereotypes is also a great source for creativity. Here’s my humble homage to Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout (1991) but swapping him for a strong female lead (and a humble homage to Kill Bill’s katana wielding women).

Diversity and equality are valuable as such, and we shouldn’t need utilitarian arguments to promote them. However, in this text I intentionally underline the instrumental and utilitarian values of having more women in tech. As an engineer, I know that to get things done you need to show the “technical benefits”.

Background

The future of this planet relies on new technologies and businesses. Innovation and commercial initiatives are required to tackle the big challenges ahead: global warming, sustainability, equality, poverty etc. Therefore, the people and organisations that are experts on technology and business are enormously important in building our future.

So who are these experts?

When it comes to the world of technology and business, the people sitting on the driver’s seat are predominantly men. Engineering, science, mathematics, and technology are professions, areas, and cultures that have clearly more men than women. Leaders, experts, students, inventors, investors, and politicians involved in technology are predominantly men.

This is a problem.

It is a problem for the development of technology itself and for societies in general. Why? Here are five reasons.

1. We are missing (the better) half of the brain pool.

If we need the smartest and brightest people to create innovations, it is inefficient that we are not fully utilising the brain power of the population. As long as there are less than 50% women in technology, it is a clear sign that smart people are finding jobs outside the tech sector. In other words, we are missing out on some of the talent.

Especially in a small country like Finland, our global competitiveness relies on having highly trained people. Therefore, not fully utilising the whole population is plain stupid. Also, in countries like Finland, women actually are more educated and on average get better school grades than men. So are we overlooking the smarter half of the population?

2. Fifty percent of users and customers are women.

Another utilitarian point is that half of the world population is women. In other words, there is a vast market and potential in building and targeting high tech products and services to women. In a competitive market, who can afford to overlook women as clients, customers, decision makers and end users?

To design and develop a competitive offering for women you need to have women designing and developing them. Would any sensible venture capitalist fund an all-male-team to design for women customers?

3. Technology field must re-new itself.

Technology is so important for our societies that as a discipline it must evolve. The institutions, organisations, and communities that create technology must renew themselves to better understand their role and responsibilities in society.

For example, in many places software engineers are learning about their responsibilities in building ethical data gathering systems, and energy engineers have found themselves designing political systems as much as neutral infrastructures. The so-called “soft side” of things is becoming the core of engineering work.

Technology experts and leaders must continue talking and working with social scientists, politicians, doctors, teachers, philosophers, artists, and so on. Technology can not remain inside its own silo. It has to reach out to other fields and disciplines.

This pressure for change has brought forward the need for meta-skills, i.e., skills to facilitate cross-disciplinary work and thinking. For example, The Economist, Special Issue on Lifelong Education in January 2017 wrote:

“Social skills are important for a wide range of jobs, not just for health-care workers, therapists and others who are close to their customers. Even geeks have to learn these skills. Ryan Roslansky, who oversees LinkedIn’s push into online education, notes that many software engineers are taking management and communications courses on the site in order to round themselves out.”

These meta skills value the same social skill that are in the core of discussion on “new type of leadership”. And these skills are traditionally more appreciated by women than men.

Because technology needs to re-new itself by reaching out, meta-skills and new type of leadership is in demand. Having more women is one way to create engineers, scientists and leaders that are fluent in these meta-skills in contrast to traditional “hard skills” and deep technical expertise. We need a balance of both: deep expertise and outreaching broad meta-skills.

4. Diversity feeds creativity and innovation

In addition to meta-skills, there is a general demand for creativity and innovativeness. Majority of technology businesses are under pressure to remain competitive by re-thinking their fundamentals: products, processes, marketing, leadership, customer relationships, market positions, and even whole company cultures.

In other words, there is a huge demand for creativity.

It is difficult to be creative in a homogeneous environment. If creativity is “thinking outside the box” and seeing things from a different perspective, then one needs people who are different from the status quo. And the status quo in technology is predominantly men.

In other words, technology innovation needs more creativity thinking and fresh pairs of eyes to remain competitive. Creativity comes from diversity, and gender diversity is a convenient place to begin the diversification.

Having more women is the first step towards diversity. And there are already lot of women in technology, even top level leaders, and we have companies with a balanced gender diversity. These examples already show the business and cultural benefits of diversity.

However, a major shift from a homogenous organisation into a diverse one doesn’t simply happen overnight. Nevertheless, once diversity becomes reality in one place then it will attract more diversity, and hence the benefits of diversity will grow as well. In other words, gender diversity is the door towards diversity in other aspects as well: ethnicity, religion, culture, sexual orientation, world-views, thinking, and creativity.

Lastly, creating gender or other type of diversity in a work place (or a whole industry) is about questioning the old structures and thinking. The benefits of gender diversity, for example in career paths, is not limited to women’s careers. The benefits of diversity create more options and broader thinking for men as well.

5. Technology is societal power. This power should be distributed equally.

The fifth point is that mastering technology and business in our world is indirect social power. The people who understand the inner workings of complex technologies and the ability to create new business shape our societies.

Think about Facebook, Uber, Amazon, Apple and Google. Or think about Bellingcat, Wikileaks or Wikipedia. All of these organisations have a huge impact on societal issues, and all of them are solidly founded on mastering technology in our world. And all of them have a man or men leading them.

In western democracies we believe that citizens should have the power to decide on major societal topics concerning their lives. That is why we have the classical three powers of state and democratic elections. In addition, traditionally we have the so-called “fourth estate”, which refers to news media and their power to act as a watch dog for the three formal forms of government.

Now we can see the rise of a 5th estate: the “geeks and nerds” who wield significant indirect influence thanks to their technological skills, knowledge, experience, and abilities. However, this power is predominantly male, and balancing this inequality is also an issue of social power and democracy.

Call for action

Fortunately, in many tech organisations things are progressing towards a more gender balanced culture. For example, the Computer Science department at Aalto University is working hard on balancing its culture.

If the moral rationale for a gender balanced world does not convince you, then I hope that these five practical points about competitiveness, creativity, power and efficiency work as triggers for action. Or if you are already convinced yourself, then perhaps you can use these arguments to convince others.

The author is the head of Information Networks’ B.Sc. and M.Sc. programmes at Aalto University, Finland. The programme’s are over 20 years old and have always had a healthy gender balance around 50/50. This has been critical in creating open-minded, creative, social, and socially conscious students and alumni alike. Read more about the programmes at informaatioverkostot.fi (in Finnish).

Creating “Info” Agents

This is a free range, organic stream of posts about my…

Risto Sarvas

Written by

Professor, Designer, Engineer

Creating “Info” Agents

This is a free range, organic stream of posts about my journey to create the ultimate university program that creates change agents for our networked society, i.e., the Information Networks program at Aalto University, Finland.

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