Women in the IT industry: myths and facts

What positions do women hold in IT? How much do they earn? Is there still discrimination?

Kate Pretkel, Global Head of Leadership Excellence, ESG, and DE&I Programs in EPAM


Kate Pretkel, Global Head of Leadership Excellence, ESG, and DE&I Programs in EPAM, shares her thoughts about gender equity and how an inclusive company culture is the key to helping unlock equal opportunities for all.

— Diversity, equity, and inclusion are already well-known concepts. Each component is very different, but they are all necessary to create a thriving workplace.

Diversity refers to all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the characteristics that vary from one individual or group to another.

Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as in their distribution of resources.

Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and that their full participation is valued.

In simple words, DE&I refer to: how open we are and how much we support employees of any culture, age, skin color, and beliefs; how intentionally we build programs to attract these employees; and how we help them feel comfortable, reveal their potential, and avoid discrimination and infringement of their rights and opportunities.

Why do women come into IT?

— There have always been women in IT. In the US, 50–60 years ago, many IT specialists were women. They were the ones who programmed the first machines. At that time, this work was not considered to be very intellectual and was not highly paid. There is even a well-known film about how African American women in the United States worked for NASA on the launches of the first manned spacecraft. They were programming part of these flights. Clearly, the presence of women in IT is not something new.

When the industry began to develop very actively in the 1980s, marketing around the profession greatly influenced the perception of who was doing what. There was a bias toward highlighting the roles of men, and not only in IT. In some countries, only men were shown as playing a role in the history of large companies — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others. There were very few women acknowledged. The images, materials, films, and articles related to IT specialties focused only on certain kinds of men: IT specialists in stretched sweaters and “geek” programmers. Thus, it seemed that this was a man's job; and that impression took hold. Statistics concerning the number of university graduates since the 1980s show a drop in the number of women entering educational institutions for IT specialties.

Now, the situation is changing. At EPAM, more than 40% of novice specialists are women. We don't see a big difference between men and women in terms of how they come into an IT career. This trend is found in the UK, the US, Belarus, Ukraine, and many countries that I follow. The percentage of women in the field continues to grow. Of course, not as fast as we would like. In some countries, bias remains strong and there is less social support. But the trend continues to be positive, and that is a welcome development.

What positions do women hold in IT?

— There are no specialties in which there are no women. There are no specialties in which women do not have the ability to become great leaders. I am sure that there are no particular areas in which women inherently do better work than men, and vice versa. Rather, there are socially expected roles that influence the specialties that men and women choose. And there remains an opinion that less technical specialties will be easier and more appropriate for women.

At the same time, studies have shown that girls in school studying exact sciences are often ahead of boys in grades, and that they achieve the same grades as boys in math. My daughter is currently at school in the US, and I specifically asked her if there are any subjects that are more suitable for boys or in which girls are more successful. She didn't understand what I meant at all. She is 12 years old, she is in the 7th grade, and mathematics is her favorite subject. In her environment, there is no idea that any subject is more suitable for girls or for boys.

But the reality is that many girls still grow up in an environment where they are not socialized to take risks. They are taught to mitigate risks, and they continue to do so when career building.

I would single out three main areas in IT in which you commonly find women:

  1. Business analysis. From a young age, many girls learn that it is appropriate to be empathic, to listen carefully, and to delve deeply into information.
  2. Consulting. We recently discussed with colleagues that women in business consulting show good results precisely because they have more well-developed soft skills. This is not because they have a predisposition to them by nature, but because they are socialized to develop them during their upbringing.
  3. Testing. It is believed that a lot of women are attracted to this specialty since it is less technical and is an easier way to enter IT. Once they are in the field, many of them develop to the level of project or delivery managers.

Also, within IT, as in any field of business, there are non-IT specialties. Women overwhelmingly occupy roles in training, people programs, marketing and communications, and design (this area is closest to IT). It is not unusual for women who were drawn to some of these other departments to eventually begin to develop hard skills and transition to IT specialties. One of my good friends became an account manager. She had no technical education, but she had the desire to develop. With a strong desire, there are practically no restrictions on what someone can achieve.

How much do women earn in IT?

— The salary depends very much on the market and the country in which the specialist is working. Therefore, it is not possible to talk about a specific amount.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion programs, there is a metric that all large and responsible companies pay attention to. It's called the Gender Pay Gap — the difference between how much men and women are paid for the same job. Most public companies openly add this metric to their reports. IT is one of the areas where this gap is minimal.

But there is social pressure supporting the gap in some countries, so the ongoing work to reduce it requires more effort. In most IT companies that conduct programs efficiently and monitor their data, there will be no gap, or it will not be large.

If you look at this metric around the world, it will be different for different groups. But, on average, for every dollar that a man earns, a woman earns 0.82 of that dollar. This is not in IT, but in general. In the US, the percentage is even lower for women of color, who are paid less for doing the same work as their white counterparts. IT is ahead of other industries in the speed at which it is closing this gap. If I am asked if women should go to IT to earn money, I can say with a very high probability that they will receive comparable earnings to those of men in the same specialty.

Gender equity — myth or facts

— Is gender equity a myth or a reality? The answer depends on what we mean by equality and what is considered a myth. The fact that in most countries women earn less than men for the same work is not a myth, it is a fact. Therefore, we are not yet in a position to claim equality. When you consider the opportunities available to women and men, local and social norms and expectations play a very important role. It is very difficult to talk about the whole world as a single entity in this context.

What surprises me when I start looking at statistics and data from different countries on the number of women and men holding managerial positions is that the most developed countries do not show the highest results. In the US and the UK, the number of women in IT positions is much lower than in countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, or Poland. The largest number of women in EPAM as a percentage of total employees from the country is now in Poland.

Each country has its own specific context. Some countries are working more aggressively to address employment disparities than others. Switzerland, for example, has introduced a certain kind of reporting from all companies that shows their gender composition. Companies that do so are going to close the gaps.

How stereotypes prevent women from studying and working in IT

— Unfortunately, at one time or another, we've all heard someone makes a gender biased statement. Statements such as those mentioned below serve as important reminders of just how inaccurate and harmful they can be:

  1. “Girls are less capable of exact sciences and mathematics.” This, of course, is not true. It is true that society is less supportive of girls' aspirations to express themselves in the exact sciences. And this is the main stereotype that prevents women from considering themselves in such specialties.
  2. “Women are less ambitious, and they are not as interested in a career.” Also a myth. This is purely anecdotal, but I know a many women who are much more ambitious than many men. Some of them choose to self-actualize not only in their career, but in their personal lives as well, as wives and mothers, which is also a difficult full-time job, for which you need to have certain knowledge and management skills.
  3. “Women are not as committed to work and are not as involved in it as men.” Men and women have the same families and children. If a man works intensely and for long hours, he is spoken of positively, using terms such as dedicated and professional. If a woman does the same thing, it is not unusual to hear her described as a bad mother or wife for failing to fulfill her expected social roles. If a woman in the family could earn more than her male partner, then why can't the work around the house be done by her partner, who earns less or has fewer prospects? A partner's pinched ego can be one of the main factors hindering a woman’s development. Societies around the world do not support women to give their best at work and achieve results. Is it a stereotype that women are less passionate about their work? Yes. Do societies uniformly or effectively help to fight this? Definitely not.

In almost all developed countries, it is prohibited as discriminatory to ask a woman at an interview whether she is married, whether she has children, and to assess her ability to do work by the roles she plays in addition to work. If you look at the Scandinavian countries and how their system for raising children is built, you will see that both dads and moms spend an equal amount of time on maternity leave. Each parent equally participates in the upbringing and care of the child. In these countries, no one considers whether a woman will go on maternity leave or not, or is going to get married or not. In IT companies with advanced personnel policies, particularly international companies, discrimination during interviews and promotion decisions may exist in some markets, but it is much less than in many other fields.

Conclusions

— Regardless of which path we see as possible in our own geographic location, I suggest considering the context more broadly. There are no specialties in which women cannot be successful. There are no specialties in which women are less capable than men. Social norms, and the communities in which we live, will help us, or not. Ultimately, the choice that we make is to go against the “system” to some extent, and do what we are interested in, or to go along with the system, and choose roles and specialties deemed acceptable for us, in which we are less likely to face obstacles.

Having met a huge number of women in different roles and positions, I have seen that the happiest women do what ignites them, what they have a soul for, and what they have talents and interests in. Therefore, listen to yourself and develop your self-awareness. Without doing so, it is very difficult to discard the voices of our parents, teachers, and the society in which we live, to hear the voice within us that says: I want to become a programmer, a solution architect, I want to create complex systems that improve the world, I want to launch rockets into space. There is no objective reason why women can't do these things as well as men. Whether to go against the current, be a pioneer, and set an example to girls and women of what is possible — this is the choice that each of us will make.

As a bonus you can watch several videos dedicated to the topic — Women in IT:

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