Why are there so few women in tech? 8 reasons backed by scientific studies

01. July, 2020


Līga StafeckaSintija Tarasova

Foto: ThisIsEngineering

In year 2020 PROVIDUS conducted a study to identify and analyse the main reasons why women in Latvia choose to pursue a career in the ICT sector significantly less often than men, and to offer solutions for the gradual improvement of the situation. In order to understand underlying causes identified in other countries, studies conducted in other countries were analysed. Main conclusions identified in other research papers can be found in this article.

Many studies have been devoted to the typical problem of gender inequality in the field of information technologies, trying to understand the causal relations both at the stage of obtaining education and in the development of a professional career.

Studies demonstrate that there are different levels of obstacles to the more extensive representation of women in the ICT sector. The most complex of these are public stereotypes about gender-appropriate roles, which significantly influence future career choices. The situation is also affected by various internal barriers, such as the psychological differences of genders regarding self-esteem and internal competition, the approaches to work, as well as factors such as gender discrimination, difficulties of combining work and private life, family roles or a lack of apparent success stories, etc.

Next a summary of the most frequently mentioned findings from various studies is provided.


1. Stereotypes about gender roles begin to form in early childhood and continue to develop throughout life

Stereotypes about gender roles (gender stereotypical belief that women and men have certain character traits) are one of the influencing factors that determine the goals and ambitions that women set for themselves. While not all researchers agree on how significantly the stereotypes impact gender specific behaviour, in most cases it is acknowledged that we as individuals gain an understanding and idea of gender roles early in life through observational learning, which influences stereotypical beliefs and may consequently encourage stereotypical behaviour. I. e., by observing the environment around themselves, individuals learn at an early age to associate certain characteristics with specific genders (for example, when a boy plays with cars, the following pattern of thought develops: “Cars are for boys. I’m a boy. So cars are appropriate for me.” [1] 

This early experience also influences how people rationalise existing gender inequalities by justifying them with gender specific characteristics. For example, by observing the fact that women are more likely to take care of other people (in positions such as nurses, social workers, educators, etc.), women are generally perceived as caring and affectionate (when compared to men); and by observing that men are more likely to hold positions related to development and management positions; they are generally perceived as more convincing, logical, dominant (when compared to women). As a result women and men themselves may consciously and/or unconsciously accept and take over such stereotypical thinking about their own gender and the opposite gender, which further influences the actions of these individuals. [2] 


2. Different encouragement to take an interest in technical sciences and STEM subjects in childhood

According to studies analysing the offer of toys, as well as the labelling of toys on the market (distribution into toys intended for girls and boys) it has been concluded that girls and boys have a different interest in the STEM industry from an early age — boys are more interested in technical sciences and through toys they are constantly encouraged to develop this interest. [3] Toys for boys are usually related to technical solutions, construction, contain changeable parts, mechanisms, will be controllable, hence focused on technical skills, regularities and spatial thinking. Girls will usually be stimulated to develop social skills, communication, emotions, empathy (such as caring for children, animals) and beauty care, but the incentive to take an interest in STEM subjects will be significantly lower. [4] The advertising market and the media reinforce these stereotypes. [5] Social perceptions affect not only the people around children, but also how children perceive themselves.


3. Different encouragement to take an interest in technical sciences and STEM subjects in childhood

In recent years, reviews of the topic are often based on the 2017 Microsoft survey of the interest of school-age girls in STEM subjects in Europe. The study was conducted in 12 European countries, but Latvia was not among them. In a study based on focus groups and the survey of 11.5 thousand girls it was concluded that the interest of girls in STEM subjects occurs at the age of about 11–12, but rapidly decreases at the age of 15–16. The interest in humanitarian subjects also decreases. Later, the interest in STEM subjects returns, but in comparison to humanitarian subjects it renews to a lesser extent. 3–4 years between these ages is crucial for promoting the interest of girls in technologies. In the study it was concluded that 5 main driving forces, that increase the interest of girls in STEM subjects, are: 1) visible, inspiring examples of women; 2) practical experience in the school and outside it and the creative learning process; 3) encouragement to girls provided by teachers (also family members, friends); 4) greater understanding of the practical applicability and usefulness of this knowledge in the future; 5) the belief that girls will be treated equally in this sector (the impression that inequalities exist in STEM discourages girls from choosing future studies in this field). [6]


4. Women are highly self-critical, which hinders their readiness to pursue a career in the IT field

A number of studies on the subject focus on the differences between the self-esteem of women and men regarding the implementation of work, their readiness to take risks and to engage in discussions that are closely related to stereotypes that exist in the society — what is expected of women and what is expected of men. [7] Women are more likely to be influenced by the fear of making mistakes, therefore women will be much more cautious in their job responsibilities, when facing problems, and will more likely look for their own mistakes, while men will more likely explain them through external circumstances. [8] The main reasons for such differences are related to the perceptions in society that girls behave significantly better, observe the rules and are accurate. There are no such expectations regarding boys. When analysing this issue, many authors rely on a study conducted internally by US information technology company Hewlett-Packard, which states that women apply for vacancies, if they meet 100% of the qualification requirements, while men apply, if they meet about 60% of the qualification requirements. [9] This observation is also reflected in the study conducted in the US on recruitment or promotion; hence, that women are more likely to be judged by their work experience, past performance, while men — by their potential. [9] Women are more likely to emphasise where they lack experience, while men will emphasise what they can do. [10]


5. Difficulty in combining a professional career with caring for the family

In a study concluded in the UK, the goal of which was to understand the reasons why women leave the ICT sector, it was concluded that one of the main reasons was the excessive stress of combining professional development created in the dynamic IT environment with a well-executed social role in the family — caring for children and the household, which society and also women themselves consider to be mainly the responsibility of women. [11] It is estimated that women in Europe spend an average of 30 hours a week caring for children and the household; hence, for so-called unpaid work, while men spend half the time on it — 16 hours. At the same time men perform more paid work than women — on average 39 hours a week, but women — 30 hours. [12] In the mentioned study women point out [13], that working in this sector is associated with overtime, a high readiness to respond to problem situations outside working hours, business trips — other circumstances that significantly hinder their ability to combine it with family life. Thus in companies, where the internal culture is not supportive regarding families with children, women are more likely to decide on leaving the company.


6. Difficulty in combining a professional career with caring for the family

In a study conducted in the UK, women who have left the IT sector share their reasons for leaving, among which they mention the experience that the significant predominance of men in the team leads to various unpleasant situations, such as a difficulty fitting into the male collective, the inability of women to accept the men’s humour, different approaches to solving conflict situations (women are less likely to be aggressive), more often the achievements of women (such as career advancements) will be associated with attractive looks rather than professional abilities, offensive jokes and remarks being made about appearance or clothing, the rejection of which tends to translate into the inability to fit into the team. Women have also experienced sexual harassment at work.[14]


7. Unconscious prejudices against women

In most developed countries discrimination is prohibited, but the experience of women shows that in sectors where there is significant gender disproportion, socalled unconscious bias or discrimination is experienced based on society stereotypes regarding particular groups of people. Such prejudices affect the assessment of the suitability of one or the other gender for certain professions. For example, unintentional prejudices can negatively affect the chances of a woman being recruited for a higher and better paid position or a profession dominated by men.[15] In the ICT sector women are questioned regarding their skills and abilities in the technical sciences, which in general has a significant impact on the willingness of girls to study STEM sciences.[16] It also affects employers, who have different views on the importance of the studies of women and men in these sciences.


8. Lower salaries for women

In general women in the ICT sector earn more than for responsibilities of a similar level in other sectors. However, measurements of inequality in salaries demonstrate that the professional abilities of women are significantly underestimated in the information technology sector. The indicators demonstrate that the pay gap between women and men — ICT entrepreneurs — in European countries has increased from 20% (2010) to 30% (2015), but the pay gap at the level of ICT professionals has decreased to around 12%.[17] In this case ICT entrepreneurs mean either persons, who have founded a company or are self-employed persons.


To learn more about what can be done in order to increase women participation in the IT sector, read the complete study “Representation of women in the ICT sector in Latvia: public perception and workplace adaptation to gender equality“. The study was conducted by the order of the foundation “IT Education Fund” and Accenture Latvia.



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