It’s International Women’s Day, and Quantum has a long way to go
It’s getting tiring, being a woman in tech. And today, on international women’s day, I want to explain why.
It’s 2023, and woman have made historic gains in equality in the workplace — but despite this effort, the tech industry still feels ironically behind the times. In fact, the percentage of women in computer-related STEM occupations in the US has decreased since 1990 — that’s right, decreased. As the field of quantum computing matures, I hope to see it actually make the world better for everyone. But that means it can’t fall into the same pitfalls other technologies have.
Things are tiring, but these are issues we can fix. As well as hiring more women, organizations generally need to foster an environment where women feel as empowered to succeed as their male colleagues. These changes can be as simple as thoughtfully restructuring hiring panels and recognizing the value of work that goes above and beyond to advocate for underrepresented minorities in the workplace, rather than treating these activities as extracurriculars. We must build a culture around these changes — one that’s cemented into the foundation of the workplace.
So, how did we get here? Let’s start with the statistics, first. As undergraduates, women make up about half of the STEM bachelor’s degrees — but not in computing and engineering majors, where they make up 20% and 22%, respectively, according to NSF data. And the situation gets worse as women enter the workplace. While the overall percentage of women in STEM occupations has increased to around 27% in 2019*, this is largely due to improvements made in the physical, life, mathematical and social sciences — and it still falls far short of the 50% we’d like to see, given the percentage we make up of the general population. Women represent only about 15% of engineers and 23% of those in computing fields — down from over 30% in 1990. And the numbers are similar for Quantum, with the Unitary Fund Survey 2022 reporting 19% of respondents identified as female.
*As this data comes from the US census it can’t be generalised globally, but I decided to highlight this source in particular because the US tech industry is one of the largest and most influential, and also because it is incredibly hard to find this kind of data on a global scale from a reliable source.
Why should we care about these statistics you ask? Well for one, we’ve seen first hand with emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence what happens when tech products are developed for a diverse group of people but not by a diverse group of people. In order for quantum computing to have the kind of vast global impact that we hope it will, we need diverse developers ensuring that the needs of diverse users are accounted for. On a more personal level, I’m tired of frequently being the only woman in the room — my dev team meetings may reflect diversity in many ways, but not gender diversity, for example. I want to see more people who look like me succeeding. Jobs in science and technology are some of the most exciting out there (and, let’s be honest some of the most lucrative too). I want to live in a world where my gender doesn’t hinder my chances, or the chances of people like me, from thriving in this industry.
Before I continue, I want to be clear, this is not intended to be an attack on my male colleagues, nor are these experiences representative of all women — I’m barely scratching the surface of what some women go through in the workplace (not just in quantum but generally) ranging from inappropriate comments, pay and maternity discrimination, to more serious things like sexual assault. And of course, women are just one of many marginalized groups in tech.
There’s plenty of research exploring the forces that seem to be keeping us out of computing fields today. And as a woman in a technical role myself, I’ve observed some low-hanging fruit I see in the quantum community — things I think that we can potentially start to fix, even just by being more aware of them.
The first and most obvious point for addressing gender diversity in quantum, is well, we need to hire more women. I know hiring more women is a challenge — there are a whole host of well-known issues that start early in the pipeline — beginning as early as when we’re socialized as children. But we still need to change our hiring practices so we’re not actively making the situation worse for the few women that make it this far. To start, hiring panels should include women on them, to mitigate unconscious (or conscious) bias and so the candidate themselves isn’t once again forced to be the only woman in the room. Job descriptions for technical roles should be less restrictive, only listing tasks that are absolutely required for the job — research has shown that generally, women will only apply to jobs they’re 100% qualified for based on the job requirements. Employers need to be willing to hire based on potential, not just existing skills. This one is an important yet somewhat controversial point. In tech hiring a lot of value is placed on how well a candidate performs in high pressure technical interviews, the format of which often favors those who have come through a traditional computer science degree education (i.e. white men). Yet many women move into this space as a career change later in life, without having had access to that same traditional education, instead having more self-taught or project based experience.
Once hired, employers must invest resources into retaining their female employees, for example, by training early professionals into senior roles and providing clear, unbiased, paths for promotion. IBM’s own “Women in Leadership” report shows that technical female talent drops steeply between junior and mid-level positions, and again between mid-level and senior positions — meaning either women are not being promoted or they’re being pushed out.
One potential hurdle for women wishing to climb the career ladder is that you are frequently called upon to do more than just your job — or in other words: I’m a “Woman in Tech,” so I must do “Woman in Tech” things. While others are hitting their objectives because they’re just doing their jobs, women hoping to change the status quo are often being pulled into diversity and inclusion work — writing blog post’s like this, for example. Most of us don’t mind or are even incredibly passionate about supporting these often well-meaning diversity initiatives at work. But more often than not, I (and my colleagues) have seen these efforts go underfunded, get pulled together at the last minute, and end up with the logistical burden of getting the program off the ground being placed on the marginalised group themselves.
On the one hand I agree that if you are planning something to support women, you should absolutely have as many women as possible involved in that process. But without proper support this can actually end up hurting us more than helping us. Many of us are already working a full time job, and putting together an effective D&I event or campaign can be a whole extra job on top of that. This is particularly frustrating for women in STEM roles, because our performance (and chance for promotion) is measured by the amount of technical work we do. The truth of the matter is that the D&I work we do values less than the number of lines of code we write. So we’re forced to make a choice: do I support my fellow women by putting time into this D&I event, or do I do what’s best for my own career? No woman should have to make this choice, instead employers should recognise the value and the challenge of these D&I initiatives, make sure they are properly resourced, and fairly compensate the women behind them.
Lastly, I’m tired of hearing long-disproved biases and stereotypes. Women still hear their coworkers say things like ‘well women’s brains work differently, they just naturally aren’t as good at engineering and coding, that’s why there aren’t many in this industry.’ This long perpetuated statement is completely false and based on outdated junk science. Plenty of research has found that there’s a negligible difference between how men’ and women’s brains work. And there is more and more evidence building that social conditioning based on what we teach our children and each other, rather than biology, could be a major factor as to why women are underrepresented in tech. And yet still the myth persists. I’ve heard this from male coworkers, and perhaps more worryingly from female coworkers too. How can we hope to succeed if we don’t even believe that we can?
We’re tired — but I still think there’s hope. That’s why I’m writing this blog post. The solution is not to give up and do nothing. Keep putting on your IWD and Women in Tech Events, keep celebrating the women in STEM who are out there crushing it. Representation matters. But make sure that the women in your organisation that are behind these initiatives are getting the support they need. Make sure they are getting credit in their performance reviews for this extra work, pay them overtime if they are working longer hours to pull together an event, and make sure men on the team also understand the importance of providing their support. Change hiring practices such that they’re not unfairly biased against women, and hire more women. Publish your diversity data and allow yourselves to be held accountable to your diversity goals. Give your initiatives the funding they need to succeed. Build a culture that accepts women, promotes women and empowers women to succeed without fear of sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation for speaking up, or worse. And once you’ve done all that make sure you keep doing it, so we don’t see more decreases in the diversity data points.
This international women’s day, I hope everyone — women, men, etc. — will take these words to heart, recognize that women and other marginalized identities in your workplace are growing tired. And work to build an equitable future for quantum computing and for technology generally.