Guidance, carrots, and whips will get more women into the IT industry
The three statements above comes from a recently completed research project on gender equality within the IT industry. The results show that both stereotypical perceptions of women and lacking encouragement of women to apply for technology subjects are the biggest obstacles to achieving gender equality in the field.
When Hilde G. Corneliussen and her colleagues at Vestlandsforsking in Norway conducted a survey on gender balance and women in the IT industry among companies that hire IT experts, their objective was, among other things, to look at attitudes related to the under-representation of women in the IT industry. They also looked at whether the companies saw it as an objective to increase women’s participation in IT and, if so, what strategies or initiatives they employed to increase gender equality in the field in their own company.
The survey was part of a large Nordic research project, which acted as one of four research areas under the NORDWIT Nordic centre, funded by NordForsk. Corneliussen led this sub-project from 2017 to 2022, which emphasised women in technology careers.
For her, the most worrying thing that emerged from the survey was the fact that organisations and employers use the arguments and understanding designed to establish gender equality as a tool to perpetuate gender inequality, or to do nothing at all.
“This is about the way in which the very ideal of gender equality works in society. It’s perfectly fine for organisations to say ‘Yes, we need gender equality, we support gender equality, and we want more women.’ But then they turn their focus inwards, and they do no more about it,” she says.
Corneliussen explains that she and her colleagues have used a concept they call “discursive resources” to understand this process. Analysing the approach to gender equality as “discursive resources” has, consequently, increased their understanding of how IT organisations deal with gender imbalance and gender equality within their own organisational contexts: why do organisations say what they do, and what’s the reality? In other words: why are they positive about gender equality, while at the same time doing nothing to promote gender equality in practice?
Rhetoric papers over the reality
According to Corneliussen, one explanation may be that the gender equality norm in the Nordic Region, which is politically implemented, puts a lid on the gender inequality in many private organisations.
“Rhetoric papers over the reality. Understood this way, there’s no one who says they’re against gender equality. One accepts the gender equality norm. But the truth is that many do not strive for gender equality in practice,” she explains.
“Although the national gender equality norms and ideals are not disputed, they are confirmed and renegotiated at the same time to suit the organisational context, which is drained of the potential to create change,” she says, and elaborates:
“There is a great distance between the ideal and the implementation of gender equality in the IT organisations we studied. In this no-woman’s land, for example, the organisations say that it isn’t necessary to do anything, that they do not need gender equality in IT positions specifically, or that gender equality comes naturally. This renegotiated reinterpretation of gender equality means that they never successfully implement gender measures.”
Corneliussen also touched upon this during the recent closing conference for NORDWIT. Here she said, among other things, that it is not only “extreme attitudes” that are an obstacle to increased equality:
“One of the most problematic issues is that one recognises the under-representation of women, but also that this under-representation is perceived with indifference and even as natural. The result is that the norm of gender equality coexists with precisely those attitudes that undermine the norm.”
Lack of coherence between ideals and practice
The view that there is no connection between political gender equality ideals and what happens on the floor is shared by Professor Gabriele Griffin from the University of Uppsala, who has been the coordinator of NORDWIT, a collaborative centre of excellence with participants from Sweden, Finland, and Norway, among others.
“The Nordic countries are famous for their levels of gender equality, but at the same time there is persistent gender inequality between the sexes. The key challenge, then, is that we tend to view policy guidelines precisely as guidelines, while overlooking how we implement these guidelines. In NORDWIT, we therefore investigated what happens to women in practice,” says Griffin, who continues:
“The statistics tell us that the position of women in the Nordic countries is really good. And if we just look at the legislation, then yes, it is. We are good at creating and having great policies in areas such as parental leave, sick leave, justice, community, and so on. But when you start looking at what’s really going on in the world, the experience is completely different.”
Griffin also explains that the cultures in the Nordic countries are quite special, as they have large territories but small populations. And in certain areas, everyone “knows” each other. Therefore, it’s very difficult to stop so-called informal practices that are often biased and prejudiced. “This isn’t necessarily because people consciously want to put other people at a disadvantage, but because it’s often much easier to pursue what you already know,” she says, citing recruitment as an example.
“Within the research project, men told us that it was easy for them to get into new jobs. Often, they had been contacted directly and offered a job without going through an actual hiring process. Whereas women, especially in times of economic crisis, found themselves on the sidelines. In other words, we have seen a kind of resurrection of certain mechanisms, which used to be called old boys’ networks. However, they’re not necessarily old. Rather they are mechanisms by which one reproduces oneself in the choices one makes.”
According to Griffin, there is no point in having political guidelines for gender equality that cannot be implemented in practice. These guidelines need to be followed up to ensure that they’re implemented. Only then do they take effect. In addition, there should be incentives to promote gender equality, and at the same time there should be consequences if gender equality guidelines are not followed up, she believes.
Here Griffin is backed by Corneliussen.
“We want politicians to wake up. We know that politics is a good tool for strengthening gender equality. So we have to look at how to regulate it. Gender equality rules and norms are very general and overarching. If you really want a change within, for example, the IT industry, you must regulate things more clearly.”
The holistic way of thinking does not change by itself
The challenge of regulation is one thing. Another equally important aspect of this is education, says Corneliussen, who believes that the whole system from childhood to adulthood must be changed. We need to be implementing initiatives that encourage women and girls to study technology subjects while they’re still at school.
“One of the main issues is that adults think that girls aren’t interested in technology. Consequently, teachers do not include girls actively enough in tech areas. This means that they don’t gain insight into technology, and if they don’t gain insight, they won’t have the opportunity to express interest in it either. We’ve seen a tendency for higher education institutions not to get involved in recruiting girls, as it has become a truth that education is something that is chosen early, often as early as in the teenage years.”
The result is that many women in the IT industry have been subjected to what Corneliussen and her research colleagues call “a round of punishment”: women embark on so-called unconventional paths into the industry.
“Women often start in completely different subjects, and only then do they find out that IT is exciting and that it’s something they want to work with. But neither schools, teachers, nor careers advisors pick up on this. It’s the girls themselves who discover they have an interest in IT. So, this ‘round of punishment’ we’re talking about shows that women can definitely be recruited into IT. But this recruitment happens much later than necessary,” she explains and continues:
“Attitudes such as ‘very few women apply for IT, but there’s nothing we can do about it’ are attitudes that I completely disagree with. We can definitely do something about it. We must influence teachers and we must change the thinking of those who make the education system. Girls live in a world that we’ve created. And girls are interested in what we offer them to be interested in. It’s not the girls who need to change. It’s the system that we need to change so that girls can choose a different path than they do today.” In conclusion, she says:
“The stereotypical notions of women’s lack of interest in IT undermine any attempt to create change and gender equality. So, what we need is a mix of guidance, sticks and carrots, and whips at all levels when it comes to the ideal of gender equality and how to manage this ideal in the school system and later in life.”
The benefits of working the Nordic way
Hilde G. Corneliussen believes that there are great advantages to be leveraged from a Nordic project.
“When the mirror you look in shows you not only your own reflection but also the experiences of others, the research becomes much better. The Nordic countries are very similar, and we have a common understanding of the issues we face. Of course, there are differences between Sweden, Norway, and Finland. But as three separate Nordic countries, as we have been in our project, you can also highlight the uniqueness of each country. So, by working the Nordic way, and by virtue of our common understanding of specific issues, we’re able to handle these differences really effectively,” says Corneliussen.
Professor Gabriele Griffin, who has been coordinator of NORDWIT, is of the same opinion.
“A recurring focal point has always been that the Nordic countries are very similar. But when you start looking at policy development linked to gender equality, especially over the last ten years, the Nordic countries have moved away from each other in different ways. In Sweden, for example, the parental leave system is very different than in Finland. In Sweden, men are encouraged to take parental leave, especially the younger generation,” she says.
“In Finland, the assumption of parental leave is that it is essentially the mothers who take leave. And men don’t really take leave. So, in a way, we have different gender scenarios. It can be said that the way politics is formulated in Finland means that the idea of parental leave being down to women is reproduced,” she says.