It may come as a surprise to hear that in the early days of electronic computing the industry was strongly associated with women. The reasons for this were in themselves gender biased – it was seen as being related to the role of the secretary. However, by the 1970s, with the advent of a gaming industry aimed at boys and the realisation that computing technology would be worth billions and have a huge impact on industry and society, women were gradually pushed out to the margins.
Today, in the age of the Silicon Valley tech giants, there has been some progress but there’s still a long way to go. Despite the assumption that technological innovation is linked to social progress, the industry itself remains male-dominated and regressive social tendencies linger on. This is doubly concerning when we think about the way in which these companies now dominate our lives, since such biases permeate the technologies they produce – Facebook, for example, allows the targeting of job ads by gender, a practice that is illegal in print media, and which reinforces stereotypes.
A traditionally male-dominated industry
As many industries get closer to achieving parity among men and women in the workplace, in technology there’s still some way to go: for every woman in the industry there are five men. One of the reasons for this is education – far fewer women take up STEM subjects at university, despite girls performing as well, if not better, than boys in these subjects. Another reason is bias in the job recruitment process, with tech companies advertising roles in a way that appeals to men and alienates many women – symptomatic of the whole ‘tech bro’ atmosphere. A lot of this has been due to unconscious bias, but the fact that most tech companies have now become aware of this is in itself a positive, opening the way to potential solutions that change the status quo.
One technology company very active in its efforts to achieve greater gender parity is Booking.com. A majority female organisation, under former CEO and now the company’s first Chairwoman Gillian Tans, it has instituted a wide range of initiatives to encourage women into the tech industry. These include: a Women in Tech mentoring programme called ‘B.Champion’ which supports women as they progress in their careers – whether that’s developing their craft or growing into positions of leadership – funding for university scholarships in the US, UK, Netherlands and India; the creation of internal and external Technology Playmaker Awards that champion female pioneers and role models in tech; and the promotion of corporate events that provide networking opportunities for women and foster a sense of community.
Says Lotus Smits, Booking.com’s Global Programme Manager for Inclusion, Diversity and Belonging (IDB), “A lot of research shows that diversity in recruitment creates more innovation because you’re hearing more of those voices while designing your products, and those products are more likely to be useful for larger segments of society than more homogenous teams.”
Gender bias in AI
The rise of AI and Machine Learning (ML) has revealed some deeply ingrained issues of gender bias. Because algorithms look for repetitive processes and trends, they both highlight and have the potential to exaggerate existing biases, reinforcing societal norms – norms which are often perpetuated by both men and women. As Gillian Tans observed, “While immensely transformational in many ways, the development of automation and machine learning still risks gender inequality. Through hidden biases and a lack of female representation, we risk impeding positive progress in gender equality across tech and AI-dependent industries.”
Chuck Stephens, Global Head of IDB, illustrates how some of these biases play out in travel in particular. “When you think about adventure travel, one of our fastest growing demographics, most people think the typical consumer is a twenty-something male. Yet according to research, it’s far more likely to be a 55-year-old woman. If we go and design products on the basis of such false assumptions, we’re going to commit lots of errors.”
Solutions to gender inequality
Booking.com see a potential win-win with their initiatives to tackle gender bias: on the one hand, it’s the right thing to do ethically, and on the other it’s good for business, innovation and future-proofing a company in an industry characterised by rapid change.
As a company, it is one of the more gender balanced in the industry. Yet, despite a promising upward trend in its numbers – like a 3% increase in representation and above average for overall gender equality in tech at over 20% – it still has some way to go to bridge the gap fully. Clearly this is a long game and could take a generation to help solve, one of the reasons the company is providing scholarships to women who want to take up STEM subjects at university.
Establishing events like the Technology Playmaker Awards is another way Booking.com is trying to increase the profile of women. Not only does it celebrate role models in the company and the industry, it provides women with a means to connect and support each other, putting them in the unusual situation of being at a tech event surrounded completely by female peers, where usually, being the only woman in a meeting is the norm. “Even though it was an awards ceremony,” says Lotus Smits, “I didn’t feel any competition in the room. Women were applauding and cheering one another, laughing, talking and taking pictures together.” The company also hosts a ‘women in tech lounge’ at various conferences to bring women together to talk about their ideas and ambitions.
These are the kind of environments where unexpected and surprising things can happen. Put a lot of talented women in tech together and there’s every chance they’ll create sparks that turn into new ideas and innovations in the industry, ones that have the potential to be transformative for society as a whole.
If companies like Booking.com are successful in drawing lots more women into the tech industry, who knows what might be possible in the future?
If you like the idea of challenging yourself to shape the way people travel, explore a career at Booking.com.
Featured image: Unsplash