In an era benchmarked by race and gender equality movements, over 90% of software developers are still men. As an equal-opportunity organization with a cast of female characters who are foundational to our success, this statistic struck a chord with us. Women represent almost half of the US workforce, but only about one-third of workers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). 

What gives?

To find out, we went straight to the source—our very own mentor, instructor, and software developer extraordinaire—Sarah Dutkiewicz. With over 20 years of experience braving the tech frontier as a woman and a mother, her story proved to be an invaluable perspective for business leaders, instructors, and fellow “techies” alike. 

In part one of this two-part series, we delve into the human and social sciences responsible for perpetuating the gender gap in STEM-related fields. While this article references men and women specifically, we think it’s important to note that the gender gap affects all binary and non-binary gender identities. How will you use these insights to encourage more gender diversity in IT skills training?

Factors Prolonging The IT Skills Gender Gap

1. Gender Stereotypes

Females are just as equipped as men for careers in STEM — that is a fact. However, research suggests that women lose confidence as they advance through schooling due to gender stereotyping. Gender-based stereotypes result in two unfavorable outcomes (among others) that can affect both women and men. First, they create self-limiting beliefs about one’s ability to compete in fields dominated by the opposite sex. Second, they create exclusion that can prevent women (or men) from realizing their options, opportunities, or potential.

“When I was growing up, computers and technology were considered Sci-Fi, and that was a boy thing,” explained Sarah. “I never thought about a career in technology; my family didn’t even own a computer. It wasn’t until a teacher recognized my gnack for computers and recommended that I study programming that I became aware of the opportunity.” 

2. Underrepresentation

Women are grossly underrepresented in the tech industry and this alone might be a factor prolonging the gender gap. More specifically, the underrepresentation of women in technology contributes to the gap in two key ways: 

  1. The Chameleon Effect: a well-documented phenomenon wherein people feel compelled to behave or perform an action simply by witnessing someone else doing it. 
  2. The Illusion of Truth: a human condition in which one defines their version of “reality” based on how they see the world around them.   

By this logic, if more women developed IT skills and filled more roles in STEM, other females would find STEM careers more relatable and might be more likely to follow similar career paths. Likewise, greater female representation in STEM and leadership roles could normalize and alter negative stereotypes about a woman’s qualifications and capabilities in tech-based positions.

Case in point: As Sarah pursued a degree in software programming, she occasionally learned alongside other women. But, more often than not, she was one of the only females in a classroom full of men, led by male instructors. In her career, the gender dichotomy was much the same.

“As one of the only women on many developer and analyst teams, I didn’t always feel like the social “vibe” was there,” Sarah recalled. 

However, over time, her place among male-dominated teams became the respective norm. 

“I was held to the same standards as everyone else, and I developed a strong support network in the field, which included the man I eventually married. There was mutual respect between myself and my teammates, but customer calls were a different story.”

On more than one occasion, she found herself having to “prove” to male customers that she was, in fact, the manager after rightfully earning the title.  

3. “Bro Culture”

The tech industry is a far stretch from Mad Men’s depiction of Ad agency culture in the 1960s, but negative perceptions fueled by the gender gap might still be a factor influencing women to err on the side of caution when considering a career in STEM. Men and women often have different interests and priorities. In a diverse company culture, variety inherently leads to inclusion. In a gender-dominant culture, a lack of variety can unintentionally exclude minority groups. Furthermore, the #metoo movement resurrected an age-old problem regarding sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, which may add to negative perceptions about “bro culture” and might even raise safety concerns for women and other gender identities accustomed to considering the potential “emotional labor” implicated by certain work environments. However, Sarah made an interesting point on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace—it affects men, too. 

“It’s something that I wish I hadn’t seen, but I did,” she recounted. “This is why I stress the importance of developing a strong support network. It was painfully difficult to see other women struggle with how to handle unwanted advances from male counterparts, especially those in a position of leadership. But, I wasn’t the only one who felt the stress and emotional impact. Many of the men on my team were also affected, and eventually, we were able to work together to document the misconduct and take action.”

4. The Nature of The Job 

A career in IT can entail long hours, 24-hour on-call shifts, and working holidays, nights, and weekends, which can clash with other life priorities, such as starting a family and raising children. For many women, a career that doesn’t allow enough time and space for parenting simply isn’t an option. 

According to a recent Pew survey, women are more likely than their spouses or partners to “carry the load” when it comes to parenting and household responsibilities. The survey results also illustrated how women feel more compelled than men to cut back on work hours and turn down promotions due to their priorities as a parent. COVID-19 shed additional light on these findings.

After forcing almost half of the US workforce into remote positions, where women worked and parented alongside their spouses and partners for a year or more — 8 out of 10 moms said they did more than their spouse or partner when it came to managing their children’s schedules and activities. And 62% of fathers agreed.

“Co-parenting is super important for women in technology,” explained Sarah, who raises two kids with help and support from her husband. “There has to be teamwork at home, whether that’s a family support system or a committed partner or spouse. It’s also up to employers to create more flexibility — not just for moms and dads, but for all employees. Life happens whether you have kids or not. It gets in the way of work sometimes, and that needs to be OK.”

Why Women Should Pursue Careers in Tech

With so much potentially working against women in technology, we had to ask — Why should women bother? Sarah’s response…

“Because tech needs many voices.”

Despite the hardships, Sarah loves her career in technology. She also sees the critical importance of gender and race diversity in fields that are defining the future of industry and the world. 

“STEM professionals are driving life-altering advancements in AI, quantum computing, data science, MedTech, and countless other key areas that ultimately shape our existence. If these revolutions are to serve diverse populations equally, the people behind them must represent a full spectrum of experiences, perceptions, and – yes – genders.”

Sarah also highlighted the fact that, in many ways, women are uniquely qualified for IT skills training and positions in STEM. Generally speaking, women tend to be strong communicators, creative problem solvers, and passionate about having a positive impact on the world around them. They’re also master multi-taskers.

“Tech fields can be chaotic, at times,” she said. “Many women that I know thrive in chaos. If you want to create change in the world or make something happen, if that would make your job feel purposeful, a STEM career will enable you to do that with impact.” 

Sarah also stressed the importance of job hunting for a company that fits your lifestyle, values, and ambitions. 

“Not all company cultures are toxic. There are a ton of employers out there creating healthy work environments for their employees and investing in diversity and inclusion programs. Find a good fit for you. It’s out there,” she said. 

As an instructor, she sends a strong message to her students: 

“I’ll gladly hold the door, but I won’t hold your hand.” 

In other words, while she never anticipated becoming a “role model”, per se, for women in technology, she hopes that her presence in the tech space broadens the pathway for others and creates greater access and opportunity for all gender types. Once in the classroom, her focus as an instructor is on preparing learners to think and solve problems for themselves. After all, innovation is not the product of one idea shaped by structured logic. It’s the product of free-thinking and many ideas that collectively offer a fresh perspective on old challenges.

In part two of our “Women in Tech” series, we look to women as a potential solution for the IT skills gap. Find out how your organization can encourage more gender diversity in IT skills training to fill crucial positions in data science, analytics, software programming, and more.

In the meantime, learn more about The Future of Corporate IT Training Programs