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Are women’s mental models preventing them from being open to a career in tech?

  • Kristel Miller, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development at Ulster University, reflects on why there seems to be a lack of women within the tech sector. 

    A few months back I was out for a walk with a female friend of mine, who asked for some advice on how she could enter into a new career. She had worked for many years as a manager prior to having her son, and now that he is at school she wanted to try to develop a new career for herself. I advised that she should consider the technology sector, since it is a sector which is rapidly growing and will transform how we live and work. However, she  immediately said “I could never work in the tech industry!” and when I asked her why not, she had this mental depiction of a male programmer sitting in front of a computer each day.

    This interaction sparked me to reflect on why the perception around technology careers has not changed much over the past 10 years despite the fact that a career in technology is now more encompassing than ever, spanning a broad spectrum of roles where you don’t need coding skills, such as working in senior management, product/software managers, designers, content writers, operations, social media and marketing and customer services.

    I have been inquisitive about tech ever since when we received our first home computer in 1995. Being open to a career in tech was deeply engrained in my mind from that day. That conversation with my friend stuck in my mind, since despite her being very highly skilled, the technology stereotypes are deeply ingrained in society and result in mental blocks leading to many overlooking a technology career. The lack of women choosing a technology career perpetuates the issue, where the industry continues to be male dominated, reinforcing stereotypes. To try to understand what causes mental blocks, it is useful to draw on cognitive-behavioural theories. In simple terms, cognition (beliefs and mindset) can influence someone’s behaviour (i.e. a woman’s decision to pursue a career in tech). However, understanding what impacts someone’s cognition is complex.

    A very influential psychologist, Albert Bandura, developed the concept of ‘social cognitive theory’ in 1986 which identified a dynamic interaction between people, their behaviour and their environment. The ‘social’ element identifies the important role which social contexts play in influencing our thoughts and actions (e.g. family, friends, work colleagues, media, institutions). For example, if someone cannot see or hear about the many different types of tech careers available for women, or see diverse role models in tech, then this reinforces stereotypes which become engrained into someone’s mental model. Mental models are a representation of how something ‘works’, which can include societal expectations or perceived industry based norms.  

    As we get older, we have more life experiences, which makes our mental models more robust. For example, if a woman does not see diverse women role models in technology careers, that will mean that their beliefs are reinforced that a tech career is not for them. It is clear that introducing young women to the wide range of technology careers available as young as possible, and emphasing that a technology career can be for everyone is very important. This will help develop mental models which view a career in technology positively. However, even for others who may feel that a technology career is not form them, their mental models can be changed. But this will be harder and will require a combined effort from both policy makers and employers to work collaboratively to help change beliefs and mindsets which are deeply engrained in society.

    There is a real need for appropriate support and skills-based interventions to help the Northern Ireland (NI) technology sector to create a more diverse workforce. Whilst there are good examples of businesses taking the lead to be innovative with pathways into technology careers, more can still be done for particular groups. Women, individuals with disabilities and individuals over 50 form a large portion of what can be called the ‘hidden unemployed’. The ‘hidden unemployed’ are individuals who are economically inactive, can and do want to work, if they can find meaningful work which aligns with their circumstances. I truly believe these individuals can offer a lot of skills which are much needed in the NI technology sector.

    There is a real need to explore the lived experiences and factors which shape the mental models of women in NI to understand how they can be supported to pursue careers in technology. This is not to imply that the reason for a lack of women in technology lies with women not taking action. As noted, policy, employers and education providers need to do more. However, to help shape more targeted interventions which can truly break down stereotypes and deeply engrained mental models, there is a need to explore and showcase women’s lived experiences. Only then can we fully understand the social and cultural contexts which may limit the attractiveness of technology careers.  

    I have been fortunate to be conducting research which aligns to this area. Ulster University recently led a funding bid alongside external partners from across education, policy, community and business representatives, to secure £4.8million to develop a Local Policy Innovation Partnership (LPIP) in NI. This project is funded by the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI), under their creating opportunities and improving outcomes theme. Our NI Local Policy Partnership is called ‘EPIC Futures NI’ which stands for ‘Economic and Social Partnering for Inclusive Innovation and Collaboration (EPIC) to contribute towards a prosperous and sustainable future for Northern Ireland (NI)’.

    As part of our work, we will develop an open forum for collaboration across NI, in order to fill data gaps and provide an evidence base to inform policy and supports aimed at alleviating NI’s most pressing skills and labour market challenges. This includes taking a deep dive into factors which influence the behaviour of hidden unemployed groups such as women, individuals with disabilities and individuals over 50, who are seeking to enter the labour market. One of our outputs will be a labour market observatory for NI, which we hope will help individuals see more clearly the range of careers available, not only in the technology sector, but across other sectors too. It will also help them to map out the pathways they can take to pursue their career ambitions.

    I hope our project can make an impact and play it’s part in helping break down mental models. We are early on our journey, but are passionate at doing our part in helping NI’s skills and labour market challenges. If anyone is interested in following the work we are doing and would like to explore working together collaboratively, please reach out to us at @EPICFuturesNI.

    This article appears in the skills, education and tech careers edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here.

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