In a sector marked by talent shortage, this prospect is strongly untapped and directly impacts the loss of diversity in a still male-dominated environment.
Looking at the numbers, women account for 15.7% of the labour in the IT market and 18.6% of graduates. These figures contrast with a 52.5% majority of women in the Portuguese population (2019 data, Gender Quality Index produced by the European Institute for Gender Equality). According to the same study, Portugal registers lower values than the European average.
Furthermore, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA report, “among the best-performing students in Portugal, one in every two boys thinks of developing a profession in science and engineering, while only one in every seven girls thinks of doing so”.
Several factors contribute to this scenario, such as the deep-rooted myths about the professions suitable for “men and women” – which generate an under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics areas, both in Portugal and globally – as well as the lack of female role models in the IT industry.
A recent study (Kaspersky, Women in Tech Report, 2021) raises a question that, in my view, is critical: how do women anticipate and describe their experience in this industry? Some of the responses are encouraging: the majority (56%) of women surveyed feel that equal opportunities have evolved positively, and two-thirds (69%) of those working in the industry feel more confident that their opinion is heard from day one, regardless of gender.
On the other hand, when questioned about career progress, the narrative is different: 44% still believe that men progress faster – which is not strange if we observe the evident asymmetries in leadership positions and the lack of female role models on company boards.
Accelerating the creation of a labour market capable of attracting diverse talent is, therefore, not enough. We urgently need to get serious about creating ecosystems where progress stems from value creation rather than assumed gender identity. Companies operating in this context have a heightened responsibility for showing awareness and initiative – that is, for sustained initiatives rather than one-shot actions aimed at inflammatory posts that benefit reputation but have no impact the next day.
The regulation of female representation in leadership positions through quotas is a measure capable of producing results in the short term, even though it’s still seen with suspicion in Portugal. However, sustained change requires more than that. So, where do we start?
Assessing people’s experiences from day one and throughout their stay in the organisation to identify moments that are permeable to gender biases is a good starting point. Another important initiative is to develop actions that guarantee the absence of gender stereotypes during hiring processes. Also important is supporting the reintegration of mothers and fathers after parental leave – which still disproportionately distances more women than men from their careers – guaranteeing that this absence does not interfere with promotion decisions.
It is necessary to destroy myths, and to this end, it is important to share real examples of diverse and inclusive environments and careers that do not compete with parenthood in all genders. Collaborating with initiatives that aim to mobilise students towards the areas of Engineering and Technology, such as “Engineers for a day” (promoted by the Commission for Citizenship and Gender Equality), or promote empowerment and career development for women, as is the case of “Portuguese Women in Tech” or the “Professional Women Network”, also generate a positive impact and contribute to facilitating this change.
In the last two years, the IT sector has seen its attractiveness increase, stimulated by the criticality of technological skills during the pandemic and the easiness of adopting hybrid working. However, remote working has added challenges in reconciling work and family life that need to be supported. With this in mind, it is up to companies to know how to seize the momentum to intentionally and continuously accelerate change.
I believe that stimulating dialogue on this issue in spaces like this and many others continues to be crucial for there to be an awareness that produces impactful actions as opposed to the shoulder shrugging, the narrative that “there are differences because that’s just the way it is”, or even the association of this issue with feminist positions seen as “undesirable” – something that we still see in Portugal.
This article is part of the Special Section “Igualdade, diversidade e inclusão” (Equality, diversity and inclusion) published in the July issue (No. 139) of Human Resources.