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IWD 2022: ‘Discussion is good. Action is better’

Two women walking up a long uphill road.

Image by Rod Long via Unsplash.

International Women’s Day attracts a certain amount of criticism for being a tokenistic day on which big companies “celebrate” women, then promptly return to business as usual (which usually means under-paying and under-representing women). But IWD can be useful as a day to take stock, and look at how gender diversity is changing.

The IT world often looks particularly poor when it comes to gender balance. While 40% of FTSE 100 board members are now women, up from 12.5% a decade ago, The Stack’s own research suggests just eight FTSE 100 companies have female CISOs.

From another angle, while figures aren’t available just for tech start-ups, the amount of VC funding which went to firms with only women founders dropped to 2% in 2021. Its all-time high, reached in 2019, was just 2.8%.

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“IWD is important, but it would be great if gender diversity wasn’t something we needed just a day for. Cybersecurity is hamstrung by a shortage of skilled workers. Even the slightest barriers to women thinking about a job in this space are nonsensical,” Anna Chung, principal analyst at Palo Alto Networks’ Unit 42, tells The Stack.

“Many people might think of technology as being a cookie-cutter setting – they believe there is a mould you have to fit with a specific set of experience, behaviours, skills, and maybe even genders. However, every individual brings unique qualities to a role. Technology is a field that benefits from innovative ideas and out-of-the-box thinking,” she adds.

Chloe Stockwell-Clark, CTO of health tech firm NuroKor, says: “Personally, I’m sick of the assumptions and stereotypes of women which still appear on a regular basis. It’s noticeable from conversations with individuals that it still comes as a considerable surprise to be a woman in tech, and even more so at a senior level. It appears that for many women, and in my case, being a woman and a mother would still lead people to assume that this would preclude me from excelling in a career in tech.”

This is borne out by the figures across all workers: according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, employment of women drops from 90% to 75% after childbirth, and those women who remain in employment see their hours fall from 40 to 30 per week. This holds true even for women who earn more than their male partners: “their employment falls by at least 13% during the first years of parenthood and remains at this lower level for the next decade.”

Meanwhile the employment, hours and earnings of fathers barely change. In fact, research in the US suggests new fathers may actually see their pay rise – in stark contrast to new mothers.

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Stockwell-Clark is “delighted” by the positive shift towards gender balance, but she remains sceptical as to whether the actions of people in power actually reflect the sentiments expressed on IWD: “We are far from disrupting some of the outdated views sitting within some of the older organisations.”

Lee Unroe, vice president of marketing at Ori Biotech, is tired of hearing the “we will do better” narrative: “We don’t need apologies, we need urgent action.

“It’s important that we all support the changes that are needed: create an open and curious environment that does not provide anywhere for bias to hide, and actively create career opportunities with a diverse team in mind,” she adds.

The theme of fostering diversity comes up several times among our interviewees. Moeko Saito, a programme lead at Ori, notes the “generalisation” in approaches to staff, “without appreciating the specific needs of each individual female employee”.

Along with providing accommodations for employees’ particular circumstances – for example more flexible working hours – this should also include other more general provisions. “People within organisations need to do more to normalise the health needs of women that can quickly become barriers to employment, such as menopause, period pain, and maternity,” says Stockwell-Clark.

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Jessica Smith, co-founder and CXO at SomX, a PR agency specialising in healthcare technology, is frustrated the shortage of women in senior tech positions is not being acknowledged: “I work with a lot of tech companies and many of those positions are still held by men… I’d also like to see more discussion (read action…) on how to build roles and careers around people, rather than building lives around careers.”

“Discussion is good. Action is better. We can talk about a problem forever, but without action nothing changes. I know there will always be more to do, but I still see women feeling as if they have to choose between career and family, and burning themselves out as they try to juggle the expectations of both,” she adds.  

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