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Opinion: Tech in Heels - Why We Can't Be Happy With Where We're At.

On October 1st, 2020, the first Inspiring Fifty Belgium was published. It is an international initiative that nationally translates into a list of fifty women in STEM who inspire. The inspiration can be on all levels, businesswomen in tech, successful entrepreneurs, research professionals or professors. The list is diverse but female.

Why do we still need a list like that today? In a country like Belgium, women have all the rights men do. While it seems as if – on paper – women get the same opportunities as men, the reality tells us otherwise. The gender imbalance at the executive level is still skewed. Companies – especially in science, tech, and engineering – have a hard time finding women to join them, and an equally hard time keeping them. If you want to increase the number of women in tech, you must start with a good number, and then find a way not to lose too many along the way. It seems to be a relatively simple math exercise at first sight but turns out to be a bit more complicated.

To get more women in tech, a popular strategy is to just get more girls or women to study STEM. Putting forward more women as role models, including with the Inspiring Fifty list, has proven to be effective in the fight against stereotypes. Both girls and boys grow up with (fictive) heroes who usually confirm the stereotypes. The famous “Draw-A-Scientist” experiment that was started in the 60s has shown that already by age 10-11 kids predominantly draw a male figure when thinking of a scientist, and it gets only worse as they get older. To increase the number of women in the outflow of STEM departments in college or university, a higher influx is essential. And female STEM role models in news, media, textbooks, and the classroom, could very well give girls that extra push they need to picture themselves as mathematicians, scientists, or engineers growing up. Thus, the hope is that the women on the Inspiring Fifty list can be role models for the next generation and inspire them to choose a career in tech.

One could be content at that point, and just sit back and wait until the next generation goes to college to see whether the percentage of women has increased. And if that number goes up, it is only a matter of time until more women take more highly ranked positions in tech firms. So, why don’t we just wait for two generations? The result of that strategy will probably be disappointing.

Let’s bring up some facts and numbers. Not only does the percentage of women choosing STEM hardly go up, the number of women leaving a career in STEM after several years keeps increasing. A study that was published in early 2020, reported that 56% of women leave the tech industry mid-career. That is more than half of the women you start with… We need a lot more influx of women if we want to keep some sort of balance down the road. Even more discouraging is that about 20% of women in tech leave the workforce altogether at that point. Very often, the explanation for why women throw in the towel and leave tech reverts to women themselves and the choices they make: marriage, having kids, putting family first, work-life balance… Is that really what is going on? And what can we do about it?

Let’s look at it from another angle. How many women go all the way through to the top and what does their situation look like? The Harvard Business Review reported that in the US in 2014, 88% of male business leaders were married versus 70% of female leaders. Male executives had 2.22 children, female execs 1.67. That doesn’t sound so bad. However, 60% of male execs have a wife who stays at home, while only 10% of female executives have a stay-at-home husband. To make it a little worse, the American Economic Journal did a study in Sweden that showed that married women are twice as likely to get a divorce three years after a promotion to CEO. Even if the cliché is true that women are just better at handling a million things at the same time, it seems disproportionate that a vast majority of men in top-positions need a wife who gave up her job to keep the household running, while only a small fraction of women leaders can use the support of a stay-at-home husband to do the same job and hours. Skeptics might jump to the conclusion that wives of male executives may not be as highly educated as the husbands of female C-level, thus making it more natural that the wives stay at home altogether but not the husbands. Studies show however that in 2007, 28% of women married a man who has a lower education than she has, versus only 19% of men. That is not surprising with women on average getting a higher degree than men. No wonder, author Caitlin Moran summarized the situation as “Women are marrying their glass ceilings.”

As endearing as it is when men in high positions at official events thank their wives for keeping the household afloat, we are living in a business culture – and really world – where it is considered unusual if a man makes less than his wife or a man stays at home to take care of the family. Many were touched by the Vogue article May Every Woman Find Her Marty Ginsburg, about the husband of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Baden Ginsburg and how supportive Marty was of his wife. How he did all the cooking at home, baked cake for her colleagues’ birthdays, and so on (if you haven’t seen the documentary RGB or the movie On the Basis of Sex, I highly recommend it). How often do you see an article praising a wife of a Fortune 500 company CEO for how exceptional she is for hosting dinner parties and taking care of the kids? You don’t, because we think at the very least that it is not unusual, and consider a husband who doesn’t interfere with his wife’s career and allows her to become more (or as) successful than him the exception to the rule.

So, am I going to blame men for the lack of women in higher positions? No. Nobody is to blame. Men can’t fix the imbalance, neither can women. Or even companies, governments, institutions, and lists for that matter. On their own, none of them will solve the problem. The only way to make headway is by connecting all the dots and make everyone part of the solution.

Most employees deal with the same colleagues every day. Male coworkers get used to a woman in their midst and to some extent, as a woman, you can become “one of the guys” over time. However, every time you move departments, get a promotion or change jobs, you have to start over and prove yourself again (more than men have to). Is that really a problem? Doesn't it just make you better at what you do? Don’t forget that the average woman in the tech industry has a science or engineering degree. Five years of university not only prepared her for the job but also got her familiar with the feeling of being one of a few women. She's learned to stand her ground.

As a (relatively) young female entrepreneur, I meet with new business clients or partners on a weekly basis. I am so used to the gender discriminating remarks that they barely still register and I learned to look at it from the bright side. I no longer take offense at the comments about my age, looks, or simply that I am a woman, but rather approach it with humor and if the opportunity presents itself, make them at least think about how inappropriate or irrelevant the remark is. Truth be told, I probably should make a point of it every time, for the women that come behind me. Just like hearing the same ad or joke over and over again, you get insensitive to it and just ignore it. However, because I am on that side on such a regular basis, I do understand why so many women leave the tech-world halfway.

It is not a surprise that it happens. Anyone who’s ever traveled with an international group of people has experienced it. In a group of mixed nationalities, everyone starts to speak English. However, as soon as a majority in the group shares the same native language which isn’t English, that group either separates itself from the bigger group or part of the conversation, and small jokes or comments naturally come out in the other language. Studying abroad, I’ve seen it happen with people from China, Spain, France, Germany, etc. It is not inherent to a certain country or culture. It is not inconsiderate; it just happens naturally. It feels awkward speaking to someone in English when you both speak Dutch or French or any other language.

Male-female work environments are similar. Imagine a group of ten people who speak French and one person who speaks English. Occasionally, in a formal discussion, the ten French-speakers might speak English to accommodate the one person who doesn’t. However, most of the time, they will speak French, making it very hard for the English-speaker to take part in the conversation. The only way the English-speaker can really integrate is to learn French. Now replace the “French” with men, and the “English” with women. If you have ten men, and you add one woman to the mix, occasionally those men will adjust their behavior to that one woman and put themselves in her place, imagining what it’s like. But most of the time, each of them will just be a guy among other guys. And if you want to be part of that – as a woman – you need to follow the guy-rules (and probably also master the complexity of ditching inappropriate comments and unsolicited advances in a professional environment). The tech-world is a men's world, and it shouldn't be.

The best way to fix that is by just making sure that the professional environment becomes more diverse. The low influx taught us that getting more women seems to be a long-term strategy, so we need to do something in the meantime. Awareness is definitely a good way to start. Every business should assess employee behavior during office hours, but also after work – where the real networking often happens. Are working hours generally very long followed by after-work drinks which are only really an option for men who don’t have responsibilities at home? Are (bi-)annual company parties mostly parties, or are they tailored to families with (young) kids? Are working hours (and locations) flexible?

A study published by the Harvard Business Review showed that the exact measures that companies put in place to help women combine motherhood with a career, kill their career. Offering extended maternity leave, part-time positions, or interior-facing roles is not the problem in itself. However, the fact that they are offered to (almost pushed on) young women in a disproportionate amount compared to men, and even worse that they inevitably seem to lead to a side-tracked career with almost no options to get to the same level afterward as male co-workers, makes it a gift from the devil. If companies want to keep their women in tech, they need to offer enticing career paths to those women. Wild idea... Those three months that women are "out" on maternity leave to bring a wonderful new human being into the world, seems like the perfect time for a promotion, instead of a demotion to me. Studies show that an exciting job to return to after maternity leave is an excellent way to improve balance in the tasks at home between parents. Not to mention that kids of working moms get further in life. Men who are afraid women would be having babies to get ahead and get a promotion, should go talk to a woman who recently had a baby and hasn't slept much in the past weeks… Let’s end with the motto of my Alma Mater KU Leuven: If you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. Awareness from peers – both male and female – as well as management level is crucial and the first step to getting actual implementation of a more female-friendly tech work-environment. So next time you notice one (or another) French speaker outnumbered by a bunch of English speakers, go the extra mile.

Katrien Herdewyn

Founder Elegnano


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