Women are 'belittled, underappreciated and underpaid' in the tech industry
Tired businesswoman leaning on desk (Shutterstock)

A survey of Guardian readers working in the technology sector has revealed that almost three quarters of women respondents say the industry is sexist, with many more reporting they had been denied promotions and equal pay.

Responses from people around the world found a significant disparity in the number of men and women working across the industry, with acute problems at higher career levels suggesting deep cultural and structural change is needed to modernise the industry.

The survey was carried out online among a non-representative self-selected sample of 601 Guardian readers. Responses were received from multiple countries, 65% of respondents were women 33% were male, and 2% defined their gender as “other” and responses were collected between 13 October 2014 and 10 November 2014.

A significant number of respondents reported zero women on executive boards, or just one or two on management boards. Many put their overall working environment at around 80-90% male.

Women complained of being routinely overlooked for promotion as male colleagues “would not respect a female boss”, with some reporting that they felt patronised, undervalued and seen as less competent than male counterparts.

They also reported that they were told to be careful about their ambition, or reprimanded for aggressiveness in instances of assertiveness.

The average age of all respondents was 35 and they had spent 10 years working in the industry. The Guardian’s definition of the sector includes both companies that produce technology or those that provide technology services.

Same job, lower pay

More than half of all respondents (52%) said they are aware of women being paid less than a man for doing the same job, with two thirds of women (63%) and a third of men (32%) reporting this.

Women reported being paid less than male colleagues despite being in senior positions and in some cases managing higher-paid male colleagues.

One 27-year-old online community manager said: “I was given no further opportunity to move up in the company I worked at – I moved up from assistant to manager in a couple of years. [I was] constantly belittled and under appreciated by management. When I handed in my notice, I was told there was no budget to give me a pay rise, yet the guy who replaced me (and had less experience) was offered £10k more.”

Lipstick and lap-dancing

Beyond structural gender disparities, many respondents complained of a “macho, misogynist culture”, with bosses organising events at strip clubs, and frequent commentary on women’s bodies the norm. That culture was reinforced elsewhere, with female staff told to smarten up, wear lipstick, and some required to attend trade shows where “booth babes” – scantily-clad models promoting products - were commonplace.

Beyond explicit sexism, the survey showed that women in the sector are outnumbered. One 24-year-old coder said she was so outnumbered at a recent conference, and attracted so much unwanted attention, that she felt forced to hide away at lunchtime. “The gender split was 90% male, 10% female. I was hit on by almost every man I met, and felt like a novelty to the point where I ate lunch in a room on my own to avoid repeated awkward conversations.”

A 27-year-old web developer said: “At one tech conference I was held up as a freak by the organiser for being a female developer. He [pointed out] that I was one of only 3% of female developers, then followed that with: ‘I’m not saying women should be 50% or anything’.”

Common complaints are of female staff being routinely overlooked for promotion; talked down to; being undervalued; and generally thought of as less competent than male counterparts.

Education and gender gaps

More than half of respondents said the limited number of women studying science, technology, economics and maths (Stem) contributes to the male dominance of the sector – an opinion held by both men and women.

Initiatives such as Girls Who Code Rails Girls and Stem ambassador schemes are helping young women become interested in technology, and though respondents reported just 10-20% women in their classes at university or college, there is hope that this will change.

“These Silicon Valley guys are making the world that we live in – and they are making it in a particular kind of image,” said LSE sociology professor Judy Wajcman, who has written extensively on feminism and gender parity in the tech industry.

Wajcman argues that it is only particular areas of Stem subjects that have low numbers of women.

“There is something about computing culture and engineering culture which seems to be a much harder thing to crack, “ she said. “We’ve been very unsuccessful in the last few years trying to get more women to do computing and maths and physics.

“The figures in computing and engineering are woeful and I think that is to do with perceptions. The problem starts at school, and girls very quickly get sidetracked out of maths and physics.”

Childcare provisions – and some solutions

Adequate provision for childcare did, however, seem to be an area for optimism, with 78% of women with children saying their employer had been supportive, 36% very supportive and 42% partially so. Just 3% of women felt their workplace had been “not at all” supportive, and 17% said “not very”.

While some did mention childcare and flexitime as an area to be improved – especially in countries such as the US where maternity leave is not mandatory – it is seen as less of a problem than the dominant male culture, which is viewed as the biggest deterrent to recruiting and maintaining women in the sector.

Wajcman says that the positive figures on childcare are surprising, but warns that measures designed to help can often have the opposite effect.

“Flexibility can be a real double-edged sword ... it can mean that you end up doing more hours and that you’re constantly available and always on call. Parents will absolutely say that flexibility is a fantastic thing for them – and it is, compared to no flexibility, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not still putting in horrendous hours.”

Wajcman said that these are just some of the pressures that do force women out of the industry, which needs fundamental restructuring of the workplace and expectation of roles.

“You don’t have to have continuously long hours; essentially male careers with the assumption that someone else is looking after the kids,” she said. “I think a lot of guys also feel critical of the dominant work culture, but it is taking a real long time to shift it.”

A minority of women and men report that while they are aware of sexism in the industry, they have not experienced or witnessed it themselves. Seven people emailed directly to share positive experiences. But more men who responded than women who responded – 61% compared to 12% – identified sexism as a problem and expressed a desire to see things change.

One 39-year-old male worker at an information security firm said: “I find women in my industry to be leaders of new ideas and equals in every way to men. I’m ashamed of being male sometimes for the way women are treated.”

Some respondents say the solution is simple: “Men have to start listening to women,” said Natalie, a web developer. “I’ve supervised and worked closely with men who don’t seem to hear a word I say, until a man repeats the exact same thing and takes credit for it.”

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