The topic of women in IT takes us first to the American Silicon Valley. For many, this is a place of longing. A dazzling paradise for entrepreneurs and visionaries, where the world of tomorrow is conceived, developed and turned into reality by financially strong companies like Google, Apple or Tesla.
Product presentations have long been staged as major events and followed online by fans all over the world. Almost all well-known companies are publicly committed to a diverse corporate culture, and on stage they strive for a balanced ratio of all genders. Diversity becomes a brand message. But the reality in the audience still speaks a different language, even in the heart of the technology industry. In keeping with the cliché, it is mainly men who determine the image. Both among developers and on the executive floors. Women in IT are still a rarity. In leading German companies, the imbalance is even greater.
The history of computer development is actually one that certainly knows female role models. The mathematician Ada Lovelace is considered by quite a few historians to be the first female programmer ever. As early as 1843, she worked with her colleague Charles Babbage on a device that can be counted among the forerunners of today's computers. Or the physicist Grace Hopper, who did essential development work in computer science in the 1950s. During the Second World War, too, it was primarily women who were involved in programming the first serious computing machines.
Back then, working with simple computers was considered a supposedly simple office job. Today, jobs in the IT sector are among the most sought-after of all. Nevertheless, women are a rarity in IT professions. And at universities, too, male students dominate the corresponding subjects. Only about 23 per cent of students in Germany are women. Although there are now signs of a slightly positive trend in the development, a career in IT professions is still attractive mainly to men in 2019.
For industry experts, the reasons for the comparatively low number of women in IT lie in a complex mix of certain factors. As much as society's perspective on gender equality has changed in recent years, long-established forms of social moulding persist in our nurseries.
Boys are encouraged to play with technical toys as a matter of course, while other things are chosen for girls. Thus the foundations of the problem are laid early on, and the chain continues in kindergarten and school. Teachers are often not even aware of this; there are no structures to ensure attention is paid.
The promotion of young talent, which is needed to inspire creative young women for IT, hardly exists in Germany. At the moment, the only nationwide initiative to introduce girls to topics like computer science and coding and to increase the number of women in these professions is the "Girls Day". Many young women are quickly enthusiastic once they have come into contact with computer development. Therefore, the sector has long wished for a much stronger commitment from the political side.
Precisely because the social and structural hurdles make it incomparably more difficult for women in IT to gain a foothold in the industry, it is important to have visible and strong role models. Like ex-Yahoo boss Marissa Meyer or Facebook's co-chief executive Sheryl Sandberg, who have repeatedly stood up for the interests of women in public and, as mothers, have been successful at the helm of a global corporation.
However, approachable personalities have even more weight in the local industry. Women like Fränzi Kühne, who once abandoned her law studies to set up her own agency to advise companies nationwide on digitalisation issues. A few years ago, at just 34, she became a member of the supervisory board of the telecommunications company Freenet and thus the youngest woman to hold such an office up to that time.
The importance of getting girls and women excited about the so-called MINT subjects and a career in information technology is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the field of artificial intelligence. The lack of female perspective in the development of this, but also other highly innovative technologies, carries the danger that inequalities and discrimination will eventually become entrenched in algorithms as well. Because at the moment, it is mainly male perspectives that underlie the programmes. But systems that are supposed to serve society in general one day have to be developed in an inclusive way right from the start.
In many other areas of the IT industry, too, roles with strong communication skills are increasingly important, because agile working and progressive project management methods have long been standard in the industry. Soft skills such as diplomatic flair, creativity and empathy are more important than ever to achieve good results in cooperation and mediation between departments or with customers. For women, this opens up many new and interesting positions. If one believes the surveys of the Institute of the German Economy, there is already a shortage of more than 200,000 workers in the MINT subjects. So it has long been about more than social commitment or image cultivation. Forgoing the female perspective and women in IT professions could quickly become an existential risk for companies in the near future.
However, before the IT industry can succeed in becoming a desirable employer across gender lines, many clichés still have to be overcome. This can only be done through active countermeasures by politics, society and employers alike. Quite a few of the women in the IT industry consider this a generational project. But anyone who wants to remain competitive can hardly afford to remain stuck in old role models and established structures in the wake of increasing digitalisation and the resulting shortage of skilled workers.