International Women's Day 2017 - a round-up of tech's progress

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett March 7, 2017
To mark IWD 2017, diginomica rounds up the more forward-thinking women-centric tech initiatives in the hope that others will follow the lead.


'We Can Do It!' poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee
Today, 8 March, marks International Women's Day, and so it seems a good moment to remind ourselves of the latest statistics around the technology sector and gender.

There remains a worrying shortfall of skilled experts versus a growing number of women uninterested in or unwelcomed by the sector. The latest estimates put the number of women in tech anywhere between 11 % and 20% of the total workforce, depending on how you define their role and what country you're in.

However you crunch the data though, the experts all agree that the ratio of women to men in the tech sector is declining, while the number of new jobs created continues its rapid growth.

For example, in the UK, the stats show that from an early age, we are letting down young women by failing to prove why they should be ardently pursuing tech-related subjects. Many professional STEM occupations require a Level 4 or above qualification, whether that’s a degree, higher apprenticeship or further vocational qualification. Yet only seven percent of girls who take STEM GCSEs go on to qualify at Level 4 in a core STEM area, compared to 21 percent of boys, meaning they have already invalidated themselves for a career in this thriving area.

Accenture launched its Getting to Equal 2017 report this week to mark IWD, which identifies several critical factors that affect a woman’s ability to achieve equal pay as early as university. It reveals that female UK undergraduates are less likely than their male counterparts to choose an area of study that they believe offers high earning potential (27% versus 41%); lag in adopting new technologies quickly (47% versus 69%); and fall behind in taking coding and computing courses (54% versus 81%).

Against this rather gloomy backdrop and in the face of these worrying stats, many organisations and individuals are taking practical measures to promote the tech sector to women and actively try to redress the gender balance. Here we highlight our pick of the most recent and promising initiatives.

Returners Hub

techUK and IT services provider FDM Group are launching the Returners Hub today to coincide with IWD 2017. The idea behind the site is to try to fill the thousands of STEM vacancies with women looking to return to work in the tech sector after a career break, most often related to bringing up children. The hub will provide resources for returners, including free courses, training materials and mentorship programmes, and for technology companies wanting to run their own returner programmes.


Women in tech charity #techmums, set up by Dr Sue Black OBE, has teamed up with Capgemini UK and WPP agencies Cognifide and Addison Group with the aim of turning one million mothers around the globe into tech experts by 2020.

#techmums offers a free five-week course to mothers with no prior IT experience, covering subjects from online safety to basic coding. The course will become available online very soon, thanks to support from Capgemini and WPP, which are helping to produce the web course. Interested mums can pre-register now.


The Danish toy maker is doing its bit to promote female STEM excellence. Its most recently approved Lego Ideas set is Women of NASA, a kit designed by science editor and writer Maia Weinstock.

The Lego Ideas programme is notoriously hard to get through, with a project requiring 10,000 votes before the company will consider it – Weinstock’s was the only project that got approved for production in its four-month batch. So it’s a positive step that Lego has chosen to champion STEM women with this rare honour. As Weinstock explains:

Women have played critical roles throughout the history of the US space program. Yet in many cases, their contributions are unknown or under-appreciated — especially as women have historically struggled to gain acceptance in the fields of STEM. This proposed set celebrates five notable NASA pioneers and provides an educational building experience to help young ones and adults alike learn about the history of women in STEM.

The five women are Apollo on-board flight software developer Margaret Hamilton; Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo programmes; Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Nancy Grace Roman, one of the first female NASA executives; and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.

Lego is working on the final product design, pricing and availably for the Women of NASA set.


Salesforce is one of the most pioneering technology companies regarding diversity, and has several established initiatives in place to try and tackle bias, including a pay equity scheme and appointing its own Chief Equality Officer in the shape of Tony Prophet. To mark IWD 2017, the UK arm of the company is inviting a group of students from East London-based School 21 to visit its London headquarters for an art workshop with Salesforce staff.

Salesforce employees will work with the school children to develop understanding of what it takes to be an inspirational woman and challenge bias. There will be a mix of male and female students and volunteers, to ensure both gender perspectives are represented, and the work created will be displayed in Salesforce Tower.

Salesforce has also teamed up with Stemettes to produce a 30-minute documentary highlighting examples of young female tech entrepreneurs and their path into the industry. Eat.Sleep.STEM.Repeat is being previewed in various locations across the UK throughout March.

Network Rail

The UK’s railway infrastructure manager employs 37,000 people, making it one of the largest employers. However, currently only 16 percent of its staff are female. To mark IWD, the organisation has set itself a new target to improve its gender diversity and achieve an 80/20 male to female ratio by 2020.

Yes, this is still a depressingly low number for a public company in the 21st century. But at least National Rail has identified its diversity shortcomings and announced a specific target – something many organisations and diversity supporters have spoken out against. But when you’re facing such a large disproportion, a set goal seems sensible and necessary.

Loraine Martins, director of Diversity and Inclusion at Network Rail, says:

There is still a wide perception that engineering jobs are for ‘boys only’. Our own research has shown that girls as young as seven believe that engineering is not an option for them, which is why we need to do everything we can to educate children, parents and teachers about the vast array of jobs within the sector.

Network Rail also wants to dispel the myth that engineering is a ‘dirty’ business, and that it’s all about maths. Helen Samuels, Network Rail’s engineering director, who leads a 2,000-strong team of engineers and a £25 billion infrastructure project, explains:

Engineering is basically problem-solving. Sometimes it’s maths, but sometimes it’s helping people to understand what you are doing and why, or figuring out how to build something for less money. Diverse teams are important for this, and having a mixture of skill sets in these problem-solving situations is key.

One of the most common myths is that engineering is a ‘dirty’ profession. Many engineering roles are based either part-time or full-time in an office environment, although I really enjoy the cut and thrust of site work.

Network Rail launched a new engagement programme on 3 March, working directly with schools to encourage more young people - especially women - to consider STEM subjects. It is also looking to recruit 150 apprentices across the country, who will be guaranteed a job on successful completion of the three-year course.


Microsoft hasn’t had the easiest ride when it comes to women, with CEO Satya Nadella hitting the wrong note early in his tenure after telling women not to ask for a pay rise.

The firm is still struggling to attract and retain women, and its most recent diversity stats revealed that the percentage of females on its workforce dropped year on year from 27 to 26 percent. Back in 2014, when Nadella made his gaffe, the firm’s workforce was 29 percent female. Draw your own conclusions here.

However, out of this worrying trend comes some good news. Microsoft has announced it will link executive bonuses to workforce diversity goals, an excellent idea for ensuring managers actually focus on diversity in their hiring patterns – or lose out on cold hard cash.

My take

The very fact that in 2017, we still have to have a day “celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” – who account for around 50 percent of the global population – is inherently depressing.

However, rather than dwell on the negatives – there are so many after all – I take heart from the fact that such a diverse range of organisations as highlighted above are taking steps to try and do their own small bit for gender and diversity in STEM.

Hopefully these small, siloed projects will continue across the IT industry and beyond its borders, as even if the gender balance shifts upwards by a percent or so, this will mean many more women employed in the sector and thousands fewer jobs left unfilled.

Image credit - 'We Can Do It!' poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee

Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.

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