There is a shortage of women in the tech industry: Globally, only 20 percent of all tech jobs are taken up by women. Safia Agueni of «Women in Tech Switzerland» explains in this interview why this gap exists, what consequences it brings, and how more women can be enthusiastic about technology.

Not much is currently hyped more than the AI chatbot ChatGPT. It is written about on social media, discussed in talk rounds and in many (home) offices it is already used frequently. What is also increasingly a matter of conversation: Chief Technology Officer of OpenAI – the company that developed ChatGPT – is the engineer Mira Murati. A woman is behind the new AI technologies. Why is this such a topic of discussion? Because women in the tech industry are still a rarity. In European companies, only 22 per cent of all tech jobs are occupied by women. Only 17 per cent of women are involved in programming or software development.

While politics and economics are still concerned about the shortage of skilled people in the tech sector – the OECD says 1.4 million jobs are missing in the technology sector – experts see a possibility in closing the gender tech gap. The promotion of women in MINT subjects and the encouragement of choosing tech professions are of paramount importance here. In addition, conditions must be created so that women also want to remain in the tech industry.

There are more and more organizations around the world that are committed to encouraging girls and young women to technology and to making those women who are already active in the technology sector more visible and connected. One of these organisations is Women in Tech. In the interview, Safia Agueni, head of «Women in Tech Switzerland», explains how the gender technology gap is generated, the everyday consequences of the gap, and how more women can be excited for the technology industry in the future.

Safia Agueni, why are so few women choosing a career in the tech industry?

To answer this question, first of all, it is important to understand the causes of the gender technology gap. Research shows that boys and girls are equally enthusiastic about MINT subjects until puberty. In puberty, however, many girls choose to study non-MINT subjects. One reason for this is that girls at this age are heavily influenced by stereotypes and social expectations. When a teacher or close relative is surprised to ask, “Why do you want to study computer science?” this can have a very demotivating effect on a young woman.

So there would be interest, but society won't allow it?

Not just. Another reason is that MINT subjects are often introduced very mathematically and theoretically. This traditional approach may be fascinating, but it is not suitable for those students who are more enthusiastic about life-friendly and creative MINT solutions to everyday problems. Finally, the prospect of working in a male sector can be discouraging for women and girls.

Safia Agueni
only 37 percent of the students who received a bachelor’s degree in a MINT subject were women. Unfortunately, this percentage has hardly changed in the last ten years.

And does this affect further education, such as vocational education or the choice of the direction of study?

Yes, at this point in education, the Gender Tech Gap is clearly visible. According to the Federal Bureau of Statistics, about 52 per cent of students who completed a university degree with a bachelor's degree in 2021 were women. However, only 37 percent of the students who received a bachelor’s degree in a MINT subject were women. Unfortunately, this percentage has hardly changed in the last ten years.

Is the gender gap evenly distributed across the MINT subjects?

No. While women are represented in subjects such as chemistry and science with 54 percent even more than average, there is a significant gender gap in all other MINT subjections – the largest in the fields of engineering and computer science, with a female share of only 22 percent and 13 percent respectively. After all, this proportion of women has increased slowly but steadily in these two sectors in recent years. It is therefore hoped that the many initiatives aimed at a fairer representation of women in the technology sector will slowly take effect!

What do women expect in their professional life after their MINT studies?

Women face very different career prospects depending on the industry in which they want to work. The Gender Intelligence Report, published annually by Advance and the University of St. Gallen, shows the magnitude of the so-called "leaky pipeline", the phenomenon that the proportion of women decreases with increasing academic positions. While 44 per cent of the non-management workforce is female, only 17 percent of the top management positions are held by women. Interestingly, the technology industries MEM (Machines, Electrical and Metal, editorial note) and Pharma/Life Sciences are the best in retaining and promoting their female employees. In other words, the “glass ceiling” is the thinnest in these two sectors. Therefore, change is also possible in the other sectors.

Safia Agueni
Women who want to enter the tech sector are faced with a corporate culture that has evolved without taking into account their needs and expectations.

What role does gender representation play in the tech industry?

The lack of representation of women in the tech industry shapes public opinion at different levels and in different ways: young girls have no role models to look up to. Women who want to enter the tech sector are faced with a corporate culture that has evolved without taking into account their needs and expectations. More or less hidden prejudices, the so-called ‘hidden biases’, such as the increasing association of women with family and men with careers, affect the way society continues to underestimate the potential of women in the tech sector. This leads to a vicious circle that is very difficult to break.

How can we attract more women and girls to the tech industry?

Girls and young women must be encouraged in MINT subjects and gender-sensitive education must be developed. In addition, a diverse and inclusive working environment must be ensured and, most importantly, prejudices and stereotypes must be eliminated.

How does that work?

Women who are already active in the tech sector, or in the MINT industry in general, must become visible and act as role models. «Women in Tech Switzerland» supports this process through a variety of activities, such as «Industry Series», where women experts talk about their work in the MINT industry, «Meet the Tech Leader» events and networking events.We are also currently developing an “Allyship” program because we believe that men as allies play a central role in bringing about change.

Are the activities showing effect?

The Gender Tech Gap in Switzerland is dramatic and is unfortunately changing only slowly. Nevertheless, there is reason for hope, because incredible efforts are being made at the national and regional levels to close the gap. A search with the term «MINT» in the search engine of the Federal Office for Gender Equality results in 108 funded projects throughout Switzerland. Numerous organizations are working to promote women in MINT professions and to make them heard.

Safia Agueni
If a large proportion of women opt against a MINT education or career, the resulting gender technology gap is detrimental to society as a whole.

What are the consequences of the Gender Tech Gap for everyday life of all of us?

Science and technology shape our lives in every way. We benefit from achievements such as improved living standards, but we also have to deal with negative consequences such as global warming. Especially in a direct democracy like Switzerland, it is essential that every person – regardless of gender – has a basic understanding of MINT subjects. If a large proportion of women opt against a MINT education or career, the resulting gender technology gap is detrimental to society as a whole. Also from an economic point of view, there is enormous potential to address the current shortage of skilled workers by encouraging more women to pursue MINT subjects.

Tools like ChatGPT are currently going through the ceiling. What impact does the gender technology gap have on the development of artificial intelligence?

There is no doubt that AI, i.e. artificial intelligence, is a technology that will fundamentally change our society. With only about 10 per cent of women working in computer science, it is worrying that the algorithms that will shape our future are written with such a small proportion of women. In addition, AI tools require large amounts of data to be trained. However, as already highlighted in Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women: How a Data-Dominated World Ignores Half the Population”, many data do not take into account gender. If no more awareness is developed here, there is a very realistic risk that AI tools will be trained with biased datasets, which will have far-reaching consequences.

What opportunities does the reduction of the gender technology gap offer to society as a whole?

The disappearance of the gender technology gap will lead to a fairer society in which women and men have equal opportunities. There is consensus that progress on all the Sustainable Development Goals, the 117 United Nations sustainable development goals, is only realistic if the empowerment of women and gender equality are given holistic priority. Because “when women rise, we all rise”.