It’s been more than 125 years since Aotearoa became the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote. And yet, gender bias remains a serious issue across all facets of society – including in the tech sector.
That’s one of the key takeaways of the 2019 edition of MYOB’s Women in Tech report. The annual report helps serve as a barometer for where things are at in terms of diversity, inclusion and equality in New Zealand’s tech sector. AUT lecturer and She# founder Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh says the report isn’t all negative, however.
“There are some really interesting stats in the report – some are encouraging, others show that we still need to do a lot more,” she explains. She elaborates on areas in need of improvement. “The fact that almost half of women in the tech sector have experienced gender bias of some kind is not surprising. It just shows that we really need to work to overcome this.
“The stats about women in leadership are also concerning, with only 25 percent of local tech business having equal representation in this space. This is another situation that really needs to change to help improve the stats across the board.”
Listen: OMGTech! co-founder and general manager Zoe Timbrell, AUT lecturer and She# founder Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh and MYOB general manager Carolyn Luey discuss what can be done to increase gender diversity and inclusivity in New Zealand’s tech sector, what individuals and organisations can do, where things can go from here, and more in this Idealog podcast from 2018:
Mikayla Stokes, a first-year engineering student at the University of Auckland – who was on a panel (titled “Inspiring Women in Tech”) during the most recent Techweek in late May (along with Dr Mohaghegh) addressing women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) fields – says the old stereotype of a STEAM student being someone who identifies as male is slowly changing, at least at her school.
She says about 26 percent of engineering students at the University of Auckland identify as female. Yet she says there’s still a ways to go for equality.
“I was that one girl in my year who was super in science and maths,” she says. “In my last year of high school I took a university math paper along with a group of boys from my school. It was a very difficult course, and all of us were struggling. And I guess I was the easiest target to make them feel a bit better. They decided that it would be amusing to give me the nickname ‘dumb bitch.’ We needed each other’s support to get through the course, so I didn’t have a choice and had to study with them for a whole semester.”
She says more. “I know so many other girls who have experienced that same thing, more often even worse. The jokes, backhand comments, constantly being put down. They may be little things, but they add up to a lot more than they seem. I’m so glad that I’ve found support at uni, but surely no-one should have to endure five years of negative behaviour just to pursue their passions.”
The issue of bias also goes beyond schools. As stated by Dr Mohaghegh, according to report, nearly half of female leaders in Aotearoa’s tech industry have personally experienced gender bias in the workplace. The report also says fewer than half of technology businesses pay their female employees the same as men in the same role.
MYOB country manager Ingrid Cronin-Knight said the research was concerning for the local tech sector given it’s one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing industries.
“The local tech sector employs six percent of the Kiwi workforce, contributes more than $16 billion to GDP, and produces nine percent of exports,” she explains.
“Where we go from here – and how we choose to educate young girls – will have a significant impact on the future workforce, and the future of communities and people across the country.”
The 2019 edition of the Women in Tech report surveyed more than 1000 small business owners across New Zealand, including responses from more than 380 female business leaders and 220 technology businesses. Cronin-Knight says the report is further evidence New Zealand must re-think how it educates young people, and work to expose more women and young girls to the industry early on in the education cycle.
“It’s also important for every industry to promote and champion the female business leaders – both old and young – who are already striving for change and tackling the big issues within their own organisations,” she adds.
Check out this podcast with Runaway's Zoe Hobson and Emma Johansson on VR, feminism and gaming in New Zealand:
The University of Auckland’s Stokes agrees. “Over time as the new female role models in the tech industry break out, the societal attitudes towards STEAM careers in school will gradually change,” she explains. “But I feel existing female role models in the tech space need to be highlighted more in the media, so young girls can also see themselves going down these paths. I never really had any tech role models growing up, and it would have been really great to have someone to look up to and encourage me to strive forward.”
Adds Dr Mohaghegh: “We do need to persevere – for our future generation’s sake. “Quite recently I experienced an instance of open, conscious gender discrimination. This just showed me the need to continue advocating for equality, diversity and inclusion, and while in this particular instance it was definite conscious discrimination, the reality is that most of the time, our main enemy is unconscious bias – because this reinforces the conscious instances. “I think our greatest opportunity to work against bias is in raising awareness. We need to educate and reshape the culture in this sector – make employees aware of unconscious bias – how to recognise it in themselves and others. Identify environments that create imposter syndrome, and educate teams about the importance of inclusion.”
She stresses that while it may be slow, progress is being made.
“There might not be any statistics about this, but generally from speaking to various leaders in this sector, I feel that there is a positive shift in the air. Our main progress at the moment has been in raising awareness and getting people to acknowledge there is an issue, and that we need to do something about it.”
Adds Stokes: “diversity isn’t a goal, it’s an attitude. It shouldn’t be a specific goal that you set out to achieve, but something to constantly keep in mind. I do not at all agree with tokenism. People always doubt your achievements due to gender tokenism. It makes it difficult to feel like your achievements are your own. Tokenism takes away your ability to feel like you deserve what you achieved. It makes Imposter Syndrome worse. There is a big difference between equality and equity.”
Cronin-Knight highlights the importance of talk leading to tangible action. “To ensure a sustainable, profitable and more inclusive tech workplace for all New Zealanders – now and in the future – we need to take action. We need to look deeply into the data, understand the reasons why women are being underpaid, under-represented and discriminated against. And, as an industry, it is not enough just to ask the question, we must work to find the answers.
“It’s a massive undertaking – one that will require the cooperation and support of industry, education, government and community. However, if we can work together to promote the importance of diversity in the workplace and set achievable goals, we can build a technology sector worth celebrating on the world stage and set a precedent for communities everywhere.”
Stokes also has advice for young women thinking of a career in a STEAM field.
“I push myself forward. If someone tells me that I am unable to do something, I often make it my goal to accomplish it, whether it be learning a new skill, running an event, or building something. It is A-OK to be a little different than everyone else. Make programmable light-up shoes, random inventions, make robots. Do things you are interested in, even if your friends aren’t.”
- View the full report here.
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