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Women in Tech – A FutureLearn Perspective

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we look at the current landscape for women in tech, how the tech industry can be better for women, and why FutureLearn is different from many tech companies.

Women Tech Futurelearn

March 8th is International Women’s Day; an event celebrated worldwide and a focal point for women’s rights. Here at FutureLearn, we’ve got a week of articles and activity in support of the event. We’re starting things off by looking at women in the tech industry, a topic that’s especially relevant to us. 

As a company that operates in education technology, we wanted to give our perspective on the current landscape for women in tech, looking at some of the barriers women face and what’s being done to overcome them. We’ve also spoken with some of the people who work for FutureLearn, across various roles, to get insights about what makes our company different. 

As we explore this fascinating topic, we’ll highlight the quotes and opinions from some of the people that make us unique. 

The current landscape for women in tech

The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is ‘Choose to Challenge’. The focus is on choosing to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, as well as choosing to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. So how does this apply to the tech industry? 

Representation

Women have been underrepresented in the tech industry for many years. Despite being a critical part of the computing sector between the 1940s and 1960s, just 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women today. 

This lack of representation is seen at all levels of the tech industry. Statistics show that just 19% of the UK’s tech workforce are women, while that figure stood at 26% in 2017 for the US. The data also shows that Asian women represented 5% of the computing workforce, Black women represented 3%, and Hispanic women just 1%. 

Pay

The gender pay gap still exists, and it’s generally worse in the tech industry. In the UK, the overall pay gap is 15.5%. Yet men in high-tech companies earn 25% more than women, and women are paid 20% less in bonuses. 

This pay gap is most evident in smaller companies, where the gap increases to 30%. What’s more, this disparity exists despite equal ratings on performance between men and women at all levels. 

Discrimination

The 2019 Women in Technology Survey found that 52% of those questioned said they had experienced gender discrimination or gender bias in the workplace. Other data backs up this fact, showing that 20% of respondents had resigned in the past because of discrimination

One interesting point from this study is that although the majority (60%) of respondents believed that a lack of diversity is an issue in the tech sector, women were more likely than men to hold this view (66% versus 56%).  

The positives 

So far, much of the women in tech statistics we’ve looked at paint a pretty bleak picture. Yet there are some positives too. The fact that we’re aware of the issues facing women in technology roles means we can work to enact change, and many organisations are working to do precisely this. 

The Tech She Can Charter aims to increase the number of women working in tech roles in the UK, while STEMettes are working to inspire and support young women into STEM careers. What’s more, events such as International Women’s Day help draw attention to the key issues and campaign for change. 

What are the barriers for women entering technology jobs?

As we’ve seen, the current landscape isn’t such a positive one. Issues around representation, salaries, and discrimination make it difficult for women in some tech fields. But what are the barriers that are preventing women from entering the industry in the first place? 

As well as discussing the issue within the FutureLearn team, we’ve also looked at some of the wider trends in the industry. 

A lack of role models 

One of the reasons often cited as a barrier to women entering tech fields is the lack of visible role models. We already know that women hold only a fraction of leadership roles in the industry. As such, young women and girls don’t have many role models that can inspire them to pursue STEM careers. 

A recent report from Kaspersky found that 38% of the women they interviewed said that a lack of women in the tech industry makes them wary of entering the sector. 

Female mentorship is very important, as is just seeing where your job role can progress and that there are role models there who can support you. It’s useful to see that there are people around you who can help and develop you, and in some cases, have been through the same experience and can share their knowledge. Jess Sansom – Course Development Manager

Stereotypes

There are many stereotypes of the types of people who work in tech roles, as well as the kinds of jobs that are available. Because people often see the industry as a male-dominated space, fewer women are tempted by careers in this area. What’s more, stereotypes and sexism can prevent women from reaching their full potential. 

There’s a perception that hard skills are more valuable than soft skills… and that broad stereotype can make you feel that your own skills might not be as valid as the more ‘flashy’ hard tech skills. Flo Parker – Partnership Manager

Perceptions from a young age 

One of the main problems is that, from a young age, girls steer away from STEM subjects at school. Data from 2017/18 shows that in the UK, only 35% of STEM students in higher education are women. In computer sciences, engineering and technology, only 19% are female. 

When we look at the percentage of women going into medicine, those areas are often more gender-balanced than engineering, for example. Sometimes, the different paths and the impact you can make are not always easy to view. I was surprised by how many different paths and opportunities tech opened to me, but it wasn’t very easy to see that before getting into that field. Thao Vo – Software Engineer 

How can we encourage women into tech?

So, by knowing some of the challenges and barriers women face in technology roles, what can we do to remedy the issues? As we’ve mentioned already, there are numerous events and organisations that are campaigning for greater equality. These generally tend to cover a few areas to encourage women into the tech industry. 

Raise awareness 

One of the crucial first steps is to understand and highlight some of the issues faced. Acknowledging that there is a gender disparity can help to dispel some of the myths surrounding tech and allow businesses to take action during the recruitment process. 

Whether it’s through using the appropriate language in job advertisements, removing unconscious bias during screening processes, or providing greater visibility for women in tech roles, it can make the industry more approachable. 

There’s this view or perception that in the tech industry, particularly among startups, that it’s a very ‘boys club’ culture, and it’s all about who you know. You don’t necessarily go through the traditional recruitment process. Sasha Amfo – Head of People Operations

Improve education 

Clearly, there is an issue with younger generations wanting or feeling able to enter STEM fields. More needs to be done to help encourage younger women to envisage themselves in tech roles. Similarly, it’s essential to show that there are many different routes into tech and a variety of jobs once you get there. 

Feel that you can succeed. The women I’ve known who have succeeded are the women who haven’t seen barriers. Women often fail to see themselves in those roles, and they don’t go forward with them, whereas I hope younger generations will see themselves differently. Harriet Latham – Tax Manager

Provide equal benefits and mentorships

The gender pay gap is just one area where there needs to be more equality. Across the tech industry, women are under-represented in senior roles, despite performing just as well as their male counterparts. Many of the staff members at FutureLearn we spoke to also highlight the importance of mentorships and sponsors, and there needs to be more of that across the industry. 

It’s very important to get mentors and sponsors early on. Make sure you reach out and build that network, and don’t be shy to ask for help. That’s what our male colleagues often do brilliantly, and I think we should learn from that. Catalina Schveninger – Chief People Officer

Cultural changes 

Ultimately, to improve the future of women in tech, we need to continue shifting the expectations of what the industry is. Whether it’s normalising tech as an option for younger generations or creating workspaces that are more inclusive for women, there are changes that we can make to redress the balance. 

Having women in senior roles and representing their area of expertise also helps attract more women in the field. Things like code academies and boot camps across the UK can help women start realising that tech isn’t just for boys. Natacha Cullinan – Head of Commercial Partnerships 

How FutureLearn stands out 

At FutureLearn, we’re proud to stand out from the crowd when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We’re a female-friendly tech company with a high representation of women across our business, especially across the c-suite and at director levels. 

We decided to look at some of the statistics for women in tech and compare them to our own organisation. Here are just some of the stats that we picked out: 

  • Percentage of tech roles at FutureLearn currently filled by women: 43%
  • Percentage of tech management roles filled by women: 80%
  • Percentage of management roles filled by women: 51%
  • Percentage of executive positions filled by women: 40%
  • Number and percentage of women hired in the last 12 months.: 47 women hired / 49% of all new starters are women. 

FutureLearn is far above the industry averages on many of these metrics. As previously mentioned, just 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women, and only 19% of the UK’s tech workforce are women. Across all levels of FutureLearn, women are strongly represented.  

We have a very mixed team in partnership, and I’ve never felt like I’ve had to act any other way, particularly with partner-facing roles. FutureLearn emboldens you as a woman to perceive yourself as very much an equal in external conversations. Kate Hall – Partnership Manager (Industry)

What makes FutureLearn different? 

So what is it that makes FutureLearn unique in the tech industry? Well, there are a few elements highlighted by our staff members and backed by stats, which could play a part. 

Our inclusivity policy 

One of the core tenets of FutureLearn’s approach is that we’re an accepting and diverse team, celebrating individuals for their talents and skills. We value all the great benefits that diversity brings and encourage everyone to bring their whole self at work, regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability. At FutureLearn, we take care of each other, and we have zero tolerance for any kind of exclusion.

FutureLearn is designed for inclusivity. For example, we don’t put names on CV’s when reviewing them, so there’s no unconscious bias. The tech department is also very open, and they actively try to create a diverse tech team. Octavia Hirst – Senior Product Manager 

Strong representation

Compared to many other companies in the sector, we have a very high representation of women throughout the business. This is one of the factors that we found makes FutureLearn an appealing place to work, as demonstrated in our interviews. 

I find the environment really respectful here. Reflecting on places I’ve worked in the past; in hindsight there has always been a degree of gender bias at play. Here I don’t feel that at all in day-to-day conversation or behaviours. It’s a really liberal place to work, you get a feeling of meritocracy, and that all opinions are valued; you don’t feel like the men are forging ahead or dictating everything. Liz Le Breton – Brand Marketing Director 

In the diverse range of tech jobs and other roles, we have an equal representation of women. Not only does this help with things like mentorships, but it also means that there are visible role models across the business. 

A lot of the engineering managers are women, which creates inspiring role models for everyone else. Qian Yang – Agile Delivery Manager

A flexible way of working

The last year or so has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone. Since the start of the pandemic, FutureLearn has adopted a remote and flexible working policy, meaning we can continue to collaborate and work effectively. 

Yet we also recognise that it’s not easy for everyone, so we’ve taken steps to respect things like positive mental health and the need for family time. We encourage discussion and make sure we listen to the feedback from our staff. 

Our new director added a slot for family time in the calendar, so people don’t have to hide that they have family duties or just want to spend time with their families. So here, we don’t have to put on a mask of professionalism and can be ourselves more. Marina Bombana – Business Development Associate

The people we work with 

As a business, our purpose is to transform access to education for everyone, no matter what their personal and professional goals are. As such, we work with a range of educators and industry experts to deliver a diverse portfolio of courses. For example, partners such as Hustle Crew and AllBright have developed courses that inspire women to advance their careers

Something that’s exciting is that tech is the future; it will be a core part of education in the years to come and I wanted to be a part of that – pushing the boundaries of what is possible and improving education around the world. Katelyn Bauer – Partnership Development Manager

The education sector 

Of course, as we’re in the education technology sector, we also have to consider the other side of the coin. In general, education is a very female-dominated industry. The data suggests that, throughout the industry, 72% of those employed are women. This could well be one reason why FutureLearn has a relatively high proportion of women compared to other tech areas. 

If you look at education overall, it’s a very women-first industry…and that’s helping to attract women. Women who are part of this company wrote a lot of the job adverts and conducted many of the interviews. It’s easier to join a company where you have such a strong representation of women. Hanna Celina – Director of Insights 

We also have a wide variety of roles throughout our business, meaning that there are opportunities for people with all kinds of different skills. As well as welcoming new talent to the organisation, we also work to develop the skills and knowledge of those who work here. 

Before working at FutureLearn, I never thought I’d have the skills to work in a tech company or in the sector. I didn’t realise there were so many varied roles in companies. Historically I’d closed off the option, but I realised a lot of the skills are transferrable, and you can bring them into a tech company. Becky Plunkett – Senior Brand and Comms Executive

What we learned from our Q&A sessions

Throughout our exploration of women in tech, we’ve added in the thoughts and opinions of some of the people who work here at FutureLearn. During our interviews, we covered a range of topics related to personal experience in the tech industry, as well as wider trends. 

We spoke with a wide range of professional women within the organisation and despite the varying roles and levels, there were some consistent topics that emerged. Below, we’ve outlined some of the questions, responses, and themes we saw. 

Routes into tech 

One of the interesting aspects that came from our sessions was just how diverse the routes into the industry were. Many of the women we interviewed didn’t originally have aspirations or even encouragement to enter jobs in the tech industry. What’s more, one of the key themes was not realising the number and variety of different roles within the field. 

However, many eventually came to see it as an avenue to enact change in the world and do something positive, particularly when it comes to education. 

Working in the industry 

We asked our participants about their experiences working in the tech industry. We had a lot of responses that celebrated the ever-changing nature of tech, and the fact that it constantly challenges and develops your skills. 

However, there were also answers that highlighted the lack of diversity and representation in previous roles, as well as the need for more female mentors and coaching.

The benefits of diversity

Many of the people we spoke to had a lot of positive things to say about the diverse teams they’ve worked in. A common theme was that, the more balanced a team and the more different perspectives within it, the better the overall performance. 

When you have representation from a wide range of different backgrounds, you can approach the same problem from different angles. 

Overcoming imposter syndrome

One issue that was raised a few times in the discussions was that of imposter syndrome, the feeling that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. Several people acknowledged that they’d experienced it in their career in tech, but had overcome it with experience. 

Many cited owning your own story and experiences to gain confidence as a way of overcoming such feelings. 

Final thoughts 

Clearly, there is much work to be done in addressing the gender imbalance in the tech industry. In leadership roles especially, women are vastly underrepresented. Change needs to happen throughout, from approaches to STEM education right up to the way organisations approach diversity. 

At FutureLearn, we’re doing our best to lead by example. By creating a work culture that is inclusive, diverse, and welcoming, we encourage everyone to be their best selves. We strive to learn from each other and raise up those around us.

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