So where are the women? Growing the 9%

There’s a question that’s often been asked but, in my view, not fully answered. Having recently joined MBS to head up our Technology and Digital Practice, I want to take it on.

In an era in which Generations X, Y and now Z have grown up as digital natives, at a time of the highest levels of gender equality, access to education, knowledge and opportunity in human history, how can it be that only 9% of senior roles in the UK tech and digital sector are held by women?

To put this into context, the figure on female FTSE 350 C-level execs – regularly called out as unacceptably unrepresentative – is 16%.

Tech and digital now permeate every sector. Every single business – from centuries-old bricks and mortar retailers to mobile-first social apps – requires significant web-based investment. We’re witnessing the greatest spike in new job creation since the Industrial Revolution.

In the US alone, close to seven million people are employed in the tech industry today. The top ten of the BrandZ/WPP Most Valuable Global Companies 2016 are all tech companies. Just ten years ago, that number was four.

So where are the women? On a business level, having so few senior females doesn’t make sense. In an age where we shop, learn and communicate online, 50% of the user base is female. Yet the products, apps and platforms they shop, learn and communicate on are, for the most part, built by men.

Karen Kaitlin, a computer scientist and consultant, explains the practical issues all-male product development teams can create. In a fascinating TED Talk: Women in Tech – The Missing Force, she tells the story of early voice recognition technology. Developed by a team made up uniquely of men, their product was modelled and tested on their own voices, pitches, inflections and tonalities. When deployed to its target market, the almost-100% female office administrator cohort, it simply didn’t work.

In ten years, the tech industry has nearly doubled its employee numbers to seven million

The lesson? A product developed wholly for women shouldn’t be developed wholly by men.

In a more poignant example, the first in-car airbags, modelled on the average body shape and weight of their male engineers, often failed to deploy for women and children, leading to severe injury and even death.

And beyond product development, more broadly, it’s universally accepted that having women at the top of businesses drives success.

And, as it turns out, you can put a number to it. The Anita Borg Institute calculated that Fortune 500 companies who have at least three women directors have a higher return on sales of at least 42%.

Yet, gender imbalance is seen across the tech spectrum, from the male-dominated computer science and technical degree programmes to the Silicon Valley tech giants. I experienced this first-hand during my six years at Google (31% female workforce), but others like Apple (37%), Microsoft (25.8%), Facebook (33%) and Twitter (37%) are no different.

It’s worth noting that numbers have been moving more rapidly in the right direction in recent years, with companies now engaging more fervently in driving internal gender balance to match that of their user base, and they should be applauded for taking positive action. But considering the hundreds of millions of female consumers using their products every day, one has to wonder how such disparity was allowed to occur in these modern-age companies in the first place.

The MBS Group plans to explore the issue of women in technology throughout 2017 – we’d love to get your input

We at The MBS Group intend to explore this in 2017, and we’d love your input, participation and feedback. We’re going to dig into the roadblocks, opportunities, limitations, rising stars and established leaders of the tech and broader sectors, to better understand how this imbalance has occurred and how it is being tackled.

Our early conversations with leading women within the sector point to a number of common themes, ranging from the differing motivations of men and women and the Silicon Valley “dude” culture, to the lack of relatable female role models in tech, the way we educate our sons versus our daughters and even the toys we buy them. (Parents of daughters, do what I did and buy your kids Goldiblox. You can see inventor Debbie Sterling’s amazing TED Talk, “Inspiring the Next Generation of Female Engineers” here).

There are grounds for optimism. The rise of the Technology Revolution has well and truly lowered the barrier to entry to entrepreneurship, with dynamic, young, gender-balanced creative hubs shooting up all over the globe, from Silicon Valley (London) to Silicon Alley (New York), Silicon Glen (Scotland) to Silicon Fen (Cambridge).

Exceptional female founders like Alice Bentinck, Kate Jackson, Gemma Godfrey, Sarah Wood and many many more are going to be fundamental in changing perceptions and inspiring young women to consider careers in the ever-evolving tech and digital world.

And in the short, medium and long term, that can only be a good thing for everyone.

Before you go, we’d love to hear your views. If you’d be happy to share them with us, please fill out this brief two minute survey.