Research Findings

Women in tech work: Navigating the ‘gender structure’

April 23, 2020

In the UK, only one in six tech professionals are women. In the US, women’s representation is higher at one in four. How do technically-skilled women working in tech think women in their industry are regarded, and how does it affect how they as women behave at work? Qualitative interviews with 57 UK-based female tech professionals from range of organizations suggest that the “gender structure” in tech influences how female tech professionals experience their careers.

A gender structure is an enduring pattern of how men and women relate to each other within a social system. As with any social structure, a gender structure consists of norms that guide behaviour. These norms can be detrimental to how women experience their jobs, and so some push back against them. The gender structure in tech includes a pervasive belief that women are less suited to tech work. Male colleagues communicate this belief in subtle ways, which influence how women behave and think of themselves as women within the industry.

The women we interviewed spoke of experiencing this gender structure in a number of ways. They described working under the assumption that they did not possess adequate technical skills and had to prove the contrary to colleagues and clients. As one woman put it: “I have to sell myself more…and make it known that I do have the skill set, I do have a technical understanding…”

They spoke of having to be uncharacteristically assertive at times just to get their voices heard at work. They had to counter assumptions that they were a secretary or administrator or that they worked in marketing or HR rather than being a tech professional.

They responded by demonstrating that they possessed a great deal of technical competence. They felt enormous pressure not to make mistakes in their work so as not to affirm the initial assumptions made about their technical abilities or their general suitability for technical work. Some dealt with this pressure by trying to physically downplay ways in which they were conspicuously viewed as female. For example, by withholding their emotions or by dressing in a less feminine manner. As one woman put it: “You realize after a few years of only working with men that you don’t dress up…If I had been someone who turned up in a dress and make up and everything for work, I probably wouldn’t have fitted in quite as well.”

Some of the women reacted against the gender structure and the perceived pressure to be less “female” at work by deliberately finding ways to bring their femininity to work with them. For some, this was expressed as something they felt they had to do after realizing that they were supressing their femininity just to fit in. They were keen to show that as women they were different and that this did not detract from their technical abilities in any way.  As one woman put it: “I used to wear trousers all the time until one day I stopped. And thought ‘Hang on what are you doing? Don’t try to be one of the boys….there is nothing wrong with showing that you are female.”

Within this gender structure, the corollary to the assumption that the women lacked technical skills was the assumption that their inherent strengths were in communication and task or people co-ordination. The women often found themselves being asked to take on work which relied more heavily on these skills and less on technical capabilities.

This presented dilemmas for the women. Advancement opportunities could come through team-leader roles but the women resented the underlying assumption that they were less technically able. Some of the women reported difficulties when they tried to turn down such roles and stay in technical roles, rather than conforming to norms dictated by the gender structure in place.

Some women who remained in technical roles spoke of being seen as different to other women and almost as “honorary men.” The gender structure seemed to deal with these women by making them figuratively disappear.

Some of the women remained technical but also took on management responsibilities. They drew strength from their own ability to do both technical work and manage people. Within a gender structure that positioned women as less technical, they saw themselves as “superwomen” able to handle both technical and people-management work better than their peers.

Hence, we found that the gender structure made it more difficult for women to be well-represented in technical roles in tech. They were either pushed/tempted out of these roles because they were seen as having a different skill set to their male counterparts or regarded as anomalies. In which case some either embraced the mantle of being an honorary man or took a special pride in demonstrating strengths often viewed as antithetical to each other.

To conclude, despite enjoying working in tech, many of the participants struggled to retain their visible place as a woman working in tech. They encountered pressures to downplay their femininity, pressure to move out of technical work, and to stand out as an anomaly.

Moving women out of technical work was sometimes presented as a way for women to progress in the industry, and indeed it could be. However, this is likely to exacerbate the under representation of women in technical roles and reinforced the gender structure. Potentially making it more challenging for women who wished to remain in technical roles.

Female tech professionals face a gender structure that positions them as less suited to technical work. They respond in some instances by trying to blend in, while in others maximizing their visibility to signal their presence and their contributions. Some felt pushed out of technical work, while others chose to leave. As discussions about the lack of women in tech continue, the industry needs to reflect on how it can better support women to enter, remain and grow in tech roles.

Read more

Etlyn Kenny and Rory Donnelly. “Navigating the gender structure in information technology: How does this affect the experiences and behaviours of women?” in Human Relations 2020.

Image: pxfuel (CC0)

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