Technology has no gender, and it is fundamental to every aspect of our lives, today and tomorrow. Yet too often, women are under-represented in tech – and let down by it.
The Status Quo
In the United States, just half of all tech start-ups surveyed by Silicon Valley Bank have at least one woman in a Chief Executive or Officer role. In China, the picture is somewhat better – over 70 percent of start-ups surveyed said they had “one or more” women in such roles. However, far more are needed to achieve equality. Women make up less than 30% of China’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students. Further, only 6% of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) members are women, while women account for less than 20% of China’s most popular tech positions.
Part of this stems from gender inequality more broadly across society – which widens in times of crises. During COVID-19, women felt the economic impact more immediately, as they generally earn and save less. They also do more unpaid care work – which increased with children out-of-school. According to Women in the Workplace, this could force millions of women to leave work completely. Additionally, the risk of gender-based violence has risen exponentially. As a result, gains towards equality in recent decades are in jeopardy.
At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated scientific and technological progress. As new innovations reshape the world, it is vital for people to stay updated on emerging digital knowledge and skills, to stay relevant in the post-pandemic market. However, with far fewer women already in science and tech – from universities, to workplaces – this also becomes harder for them.
This is concerning because when women are a minority in tech, decisions shaping everyone’s future are based solely on men's experiences, opinions, and judgments, resulting in products that do not always support women.
With women’s careers more affected by the pandemic, and under-represented in the fast-growing tech sector, we brought together policy-makers, business leaders, academics and international organisations to discuss how to change this in our recent #HerStory Campaign. Our aim: to raise awareness of gender stereotypes in science and technology, and encourage more girls and women to unleash their full potential in these fields.
Conversations with female tech leaders helped us crystalize why women struggle in tech. While science has long proven no difference between women and men in general intelligence, we believe two key barriers prevent women from realizing their full potential in the STEM field, which are really two sides of the same coin.
The first is the self-imposed constraint women have. There seems to be an astonishingly large confidence gap between men and women. For example, an internal Hewlett Packard report found women will only apply for a job when they meet 100% of the criteria, while men apply when they meet just 60%. Moreover, women tend to feel more ashamed if they prioritize career over family, and tech positions often require long working hours and sacrifice of family time. As Chang Meng, Director of Career Science Lab, BOSS Zhipin put it: “there’s not only a “glass ceiling” but also a “sticky floor”, where women tend to stay in a position for which they are overqualified”.
The other side of the coin is the societal gender stereotype. The global CTO of FreeWheel, Ma Yuling was once questioned about her technical qualifications because she is a woman. Merritt Moore, the “Quantum Ballerina”, shared that some professors may not want women in the lab, worrying that men will be distracted from making scientific breakthroughs. Jian Lili, Founder & CEO of MyTherapist (Jian Dan Xin Li) said sometimes female entrepreneurs have to behave in a more masculine way to be successful. Many added that women are normally assumed to take responsibility for housework and childcare, making family life harder to balance with a demanding STEM career. These gender stereotypes are so deeply ingrained, even the women supporting gender equality have unconscious gender biases.
Gender stereotypes not only limit women but also men, as men are often looked down upon if they choose to prioritize family over career, making it harder for them to share domestic responsibilities and support women in their careers, even if they want to.
UNDP China's #HerStory campaign
To avoid the 4th Industrial Revolution from perpetuating these traditional gender biases, women must be part of the digital economy. But at present, their underrepresentation in research and development means female needs and perspectives are overlooked in the design of products that shape our daily lives. According to the American Public Health Association, female drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a crash than male drivers. Why? Because car safety products – including seat belts and air bags – are modelled to fit the typical male. Unless women are as present in tech as men, our future will not be designed for them, and life-altering products will continue to leave them vulnerable.
Tech companies who fail to hire and promote women are also losing out. The Peterson Institute for International Economics found firms without any female leaders are less profitable. Society at large also suffers when women play a smaller part in companies, including in tech. According to the Harvard Law School Forum, businesses without women on their boards have lower Environmental Social Governance scores, making them less likely to address risks like climate change. Inequality also hurts global growth and social cohesion. This is not something anyone can afford, as we attempt to build back better from the worst economic crisis in over a century.
The Path for Change
Since women’s self-imposed constraints and societal gender stereotypes reinforce each other, breaking the cycle will not be easy. However, there is some encouraging news. The status quo is slowly changing, with more young girls choosing to study STEM majors. In fact, women are playing an increasingly important role in AI, and even earning more in positions such as data analysts, according to data from Boss Zhipin.
Despite the progress, tremendous challenges remain. To create the fairer future we envision, where everyone can choose their paths freely and explore their full potential, regardless of their gender, greater action is needed across all of society to make a difference, one girl at a time.
From policy-makers, we need laws that end discrimination and inequality at work. For example, increasing the 14-days paternity leave could help to avoid the potential stigma of taking it, as well as expanding work from home options. Gender equality quotas should also be institutionalized and monitored, because when equality is enforced, a faster shift occurs than when we wait for habits to change.
From companies, we need equality policies to be respected – something even China’s biggest tech companies have struggled with – for example, gender-specific job advertisements. Flexible working arrangements are also crucial to retaining women. This includes structuring the working day around the family, not the other way around.
Governments, the private sector and universities can also cooperate to boost Women in STEM. For example, by setting up Women In STEM scholarships, so girls and women who excel in STEM and who are from low income families are given opportunities to advance in science and tech. High schools and Universities should tackle the STEM gender imbalance at the top level, ensuring STEM related faculties create a supportive environment for female students and researchers. Schools can also apply special tools and programs to inspire girls to learn areas like coding and programming (e.g. UB Tech’s purple unicorn as the ‘girl friendly’ learning robot for coding and robotics), so curriculums are as inclusive to girls as possible.
Within families, men should be encouraged to take more responsibility in housework and childcare, freeing women to pursue more demanding STEM careers if they choose. Finally, at the individual level, women in STEM should also share their experiences and offer mentoring to younger women entering their field, because the world also needs more STEM female role models to tell their stories and inspire others.
Even before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take 257 years to achieve gender equality in the workplace worldwide. In the post-Covid world, equality could take even longer, especially in the high-growth tech sector – which is evolving so rapidly, it could side-line vulnerable people, including women, even faster.
It’s up to all of us to challenge this trajectory. Because the world urgently needs more women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math. We need their perspectives, skills, curiosity and ideas to design a more equal future. Unless women are involved in creating new technologies, they may ultimately be left behind. By taking the road less travelled in STEM, women and girls can make a difference not just for themselves, but for every woman and girl whose life can be changed by their contributions – and for all of society, too.
Authored by Beate Trankmann, Zhang Wei, Zhao Yue, Dai Yuwei, Wan Yu, Grace Brown, and Paul Young
 Petersen Institute for International Economics, Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Survey, 2016
 Cristina Banahan and Gabriel Hasson, “Across the Board Improvements: Gender Diversity and ESG Performance,” Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, 2018.