Women in Tech: Addressing the Pay Gap and the Leaky Pipeline

women in tech

Emma Jones launched Project F because she had a hunch that the problems women in tech faced weren’t the same as the issues women in other industries faced. To understand Emma’s journey to founding Project F, we chatted with her about the Twitter survey that helped launch her business, pay inequality in the tech industry, and the role of businesses, recruiters and educational institutions in addressing this imbalance.

You’ve been in the recruitment industry for a long time!

Yes, I have been in talent acquisition, talent strategy, and people and culture roles for around 25 years. I’ve worked in the digital tech space in Australia for the last eight years, and prior to that I was based in the UK.

What inspired you to create Project F?

As the head of global talent for a software company (up until a few years ago), I was tasked with scaling the engineering department (as well as other departments) for the business globally. I saw first-hand the issues around hiring women into tech teams. Cultural diversity was relatively easy to achieve, but gender balance was really challenging.

About six months ago I created a survey and sent it out on Twitter, asking people to share it. My goal was to get 500 women in tech to write about what they felt was most important to them at work. My hunch was that given the cultural difference in environments, what women working in tech careers considered important to them in the workplace would be different than women in other teams.

I remember reading the results of another survey about women in the workplace more generally and it was all about being a parent, parental leave, flexibility, and childcare and breastfeeding rooms. So I specifically targeted tech women and I actually said; ‘don’t fill this in if you’re not in tech’. Within three days I had over 1000 responses and I was blown away. In the comments section, there were so many women saying ‘thank you’, ‘thank you for asking’. And that was what started it all.

What surprised you about the results?

My hunch was right. Their needs were different. Parental needs didn’t even make the top five priorities! When I read through all of the results, I thought—this is gold. This is what companies just don’t get. It’s what they’re missing. It’s taken me about six months to distill all of the data and put it into something meaningful, which is the recent infographic we created.

The number one issue by a long way was pay equity. It makes sense because the pay gap for women in tech is 7% higher than the average pay gap.

women in tech infographic


Can you explain how that pay gap is measured?
The pay gap is measured in two ways. One is like-for-like, so two people doing the same job with the same experience. The other way it’s measured is across a company, looking at the average pay of all men and all women in an organisation. So if your leadership team and management layers are largely male, there will be a bigger overall pay gap.

The reason there’s often a gap in the like-for-like situation (and there’s a lot of psychology behind this) is that women tend to hold themselves to higher standards. They’re less likely to say, ‘I’m great at that’. Over time, that translates to their expectations being lower than men’s.

A lot of companies still don’t have defined matrixes for the levels within certain roles. So what constitutes a senior in one company (and even in the same company), can be different. You end up with lots of anomalies. You’ll get women coming into tech roles having been paid lower than they should have previously and so they have lower expectations. Companies should be saying, ‘this is the skillset we require to perform these tasks so you’ll be paid this amount’ but they’re often just paying on the candidate’s expectations. There are lots of things that go into the equity issue.

What was the second biggest issue concerning women in tech?

Career progression. There’s a big gap in women in leadership roles in tech. You look up beyond a certain level and they’re just not there. Women just aren’t making it to that level and there are lots of systemic reasons why that happens. Women get stuck at a certain point. Sometimes it comes down to the biases that happen during the promotion process.

Tech is a very tricky sub-culture, and consequently you’ve got women experiencing the world of work so differently from one team to the next—even within the same company (for example women working in the marketing team vs women working in the tech team).

What role do recruiters play in championing pay parity for women in tech (and women in general)?

Their job is to recognise it in the first place. If they’re working in a technology business and recruiting for tech roles, they have a responsibility to ensure that the team is helping the business to be more innovative. When you have a homogenous team, they can’t innovate and you get lots of group-think coming into play.

If you consider that you’re solving a much bigger problem than simply finding people for open requisitions, you can start to think about helping to solve that problem. When your company is building a product that the rest of the world is going to use, you need to ensure that when building it, you’ve got the most diverse perspectives possible.

In Australia, we’ve got lots of diversity of culture. You look at most engineering teams and you’ll see loads of different cultural backgrounds, but there will be hardly any women. Or they’ll be limited to QA and design roles. So unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go.

Are there any typical responses you’ve heard for why there aren’t enough women in tech roles?

You’ll often get the response, “there simply aren’t enough women applying. If there were, I’d hire them.” If this is the case, then you then need to ask yourself, why? Why aren’t there more women in the pipeline? Perhaps it’s because they can’t see a future career for themselves. If you’re a woman and you’re looking at what the career path looks like as you go up the ranks in tech, what can you see? You see a bunch of guys—you can’t see yourself.

There’s a saying, you can’t be what you can’t see. We’re not really inspiring the next wave of women leaders to apply for tech roles. There are lots of women with the experience out there, but nothing like the number there should be. So it’s not just a pipeline problem, it’s that the pipeline is leaky.

56% of women who go into tech leave at the mid-point of their career, around the 7-10 year mark—and it’s not to have children. When women do decide to have children, they don’t usually leave an industry because of it. They might leave a job for a period of time and then come back, but they’re not leaving an industry.

What are the main reasons for women leaving the tech industry?

The three top reasons according to the data are:

  • Lack of support from a manager
  • Lack of career progression
  • Poor culture (including issues of sexual harassment)

If we can solve those problems, women aren’t going to leave. Barista made coffee and rosé on tap don’t make up for an unsupportive manager and being overlooked for promotions time and time again.

How does Project F help?

Traditional diversity and inclusion programs (of which there are many), don’t solve the issues for women in tech. They’re designed to be fair across an entire business. We tried to come up with a solution focusing on only one problem—the underrepresentation of women in tech. That solution is Program 50/50.

When companies sign up to Program 50/50, they are committing to closing their gender gap in tech. It’s effectively a certification program where we surface all the systemic issues that are causing women to seek alternative careers and then we facilitate the changes required to help organisations meet their goals.

It’s very early days though. We have had expressions of interest from a number of large companies and a pilot underway with one. The plan is to start with Australia and then to take the solution global.

Are there any roles within tech that suffer more than others with gender diversity?

Software engineering is a big one. Also, roles in cybersecurity, which is another very prominent and upcoming skillset that’s going to be required in Australia. There also aren’t many female data scientists.

What role do educational institutions have to play in all of this?

A huge role. While there’s a lot in this space that’s encouraging, the difficulty is that they can’t keep up with the pace of change. Only 16% of Computer Science degrees are taken up by women. And that comes from how we nurture girls into STEM in the first place.

100% of the profits from all of the events we run, and a percentage of profits from our client fees go to Robogals. They run amazing, free engineering and technology workshops that are great fun, to encourage and inspire school-aged girls. They’re all led by university students who volunteer their time.

There’s going to be a demand for about 200,000 tech jobs in Australia by 2023. We simply don’t have the people to fill those. Around 40,000 are in higher education in tech subjects right now in Australia. So as you can see, there’s a massive shortfall. We’re also not making it easy for ourselves to hire from overseas. And when we do hire from overseas, quite often that pushes the salaries down. We’re not making use of half of the population. We have a lot more to do.

What’s the biggest barrier facing women entering the tech industry?

Knowing where they can go that’s going to be good for them. Starting out in a career in tech can be a minefield, and women don’t know where to go to work that will be good for them.

You can look at how many women are in the leadership team of a company you’re considering, or who is on the best places to work lists. Unfortunately, you might get in there and find that while it all looks great on the surface, it’s actually toxic in the tech department.

Also, standard engagement surveys often aren’t giving the full story. When you start dicing it up, they’re not a good representation as you can have people in many departments having a great time, and in the tech department it can be a completely different story, but that won’t show up in engagement scores.

Here at Project F, we want to change that. We run our certification program (Program 50/50) so that women can know a company is committed at CEO level to addressing the gender gap.

What’s the biggest barrier facing women already working in the tech industry?

Staying in it. The progression into leadership roles.

Why is it important for women to be involved in the tech industry?

Because they’re building the future and women are half of the population. Technology is shaping our world. Everything is going to be shaped by and run by technology so we need that representation of women. That’s one reason. Another is that it has been been shown time and time again that diverse teams are better at problem solving and innovating. You can’t innovate when everyone in the room is the same. Being better at innovating means companies are often more profitable too.

What are some easy things companies can do to attract more women to tech?

Transparency in pay is a huge one. People still don’t talk about their salaries. It’s frowned upon and in some companies you’re explicitly told not to discuss your salary. Why? If pay is fair, equal and transparent, there is no need for that.

Also, recognising tech as a unique subculture and that it requires a different focus. To expect People and Culture departments (who have to look after a whole organisation), to solve the problem on their own, is ridiculous. That’s why we created Program 50/50 to help organisations with that.

Can you think of any tech companies who are doing a good job at attracting women to work for them?

I often get asked this question and the answer is, no. Women don’t know where to go to work. Organisations might be doing a good job of showcasing their company, having great perks and making it look great for women, but that doesn’t automatically make it great for women in tech.

Men and women are psychologically, emotionally, physiologically different so we can’t do a one size fits all. When writing jobs ads, we have to make sure we think about what’s essential for the role. What are you going to be assessing people on? Define this clearly and remove biased words, like ‘gun’, “guru” and rockstar’….

Research tells us that men are far more likely to apply for a job if they meet just a couple of the criteria that’s specified. Women on the other hand, feel the need to meet at least seven or more. Women hold themselves to higher standards and it comes back to the psychology of being a girl growing up versus being a boy growing up. You need to ensure your wording is gender neutral otherwise you’re going to miss out on a huge portion of talent.

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