Why are women still the subservient voice in tech?

To mark International Women's Day, Zone partner Amanda McKenna looks at the enduring lack of diversity in tech and finds grounds for optimism…

Granary Square
Cortana

Why are all virtual assistants given a female name and voice? Why do they have names such as Siri (which translates as ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’) and Cortana (also the name of a highly sexualised character in the video game Halo)? Why is X.ai’s meeting scheduler bot named Amy Ingram? You may recall that X.ai added Amy’s brother Andrew as an afterthought, but good luck trying to find a mention of Andrew on the website (I found him hiding in the FAQs).
 
It’s a shame that such progressive products are reinforcing gender stereotypes. While it’s true that studies show that both men and women find a female voice more appealing, shouldn’t such outdated ideas (woman = secretary) be actively challenged? And when 60 per cent of women in Silicon Valley report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, is it healthy that these subservient virtual assistants carry sexual connotations that would be totally inappropriate in the real world?     
 
The lack of women in tech isn’t a new problem, but on International Women’s Day, now seems a good time to take stock of the situation. Is it improving? Recent figures released collectively by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon state that women make up 30 per cent of the technology workforce, which doesn’t seem so low, but it’s a bit misleading as that stat includes non-tech jobs. Women actually hold 17 per cent of the tech jobs at Google and 15 per cent at Facebook.
 
And in some respects, the situation appears to be getting worse. According to UCAS figures, the number of women studying computer science at UK universities actually fell between 2010 and 2015. And the Tech London Advocates (TLA) Women in Tech working group report that just 9 per cent of venture capital goes to women-led companies.
 It is in the industry’s best interests to encourage more women into tech. It’s good for business: TLA reports that women-led tech companies enjoy 34 per cent higher ROI. It’s an obvious point that companies should mirror the diversity of the end-users whom they serve. But consider this: there’s also an imminent tech skills shortage looming – estimates put it around three-quarters of a million workers. Men alone won’t fill those gaps.

Thanks to movements such as TLA and young women-oriented social enterprise Stemettes, there are grounds for optimism. The volume of girls taking a computing GCSE in 2016 increased by 76 per cent. And the government’s UK digital strategy, unveiled on 1 March, announced its support for a number of diversity programmes including the SheMeansBusiness Partnership, run by Facebook and Enterprise Nation, which will deliver training to 10,000 women across the UK.
 
Melinda Gates has recently launched an initiative to get more women into computer science – the field in which she started back in the 80s. Gates has said that she almost left Microsoft early on due to the male-dominated culture at the company, and has urged tech bosses to consider the diversity of their teams, for example making sure that women are in teams that include other women and encouraging women to put themselves forward for promotion.
 
I feel strongly that networking is vital for women to gain a foothold in an industry where just 5 per cent of those in leadership roles are female. Personally, I shudder at traditional networking events, which can be inauthentic and intimidating, even for natural extroverts.
 
That’s why I – and others – are creating more intimate networks of women in tech, based on friendship and long-term support, rather than short-term gain. That’s ultimately how women like to network. We meet regularly just to have dinner, swap stories (lots of us are working mums) and try to give each other (and other women in the industry) a helping hand where possible. That’s not to say men aren’t welcome – if the rest of the industry doesn’t hear what we are saying, then nothing will change. But it’s through these small networks of support and collaboration – so in keeping with today’s sharing economy where traditional top-down hierarchies are breaking down – that I think we can bring tech kicking and screaming into the 21st century.