Why marketing needs to worry about the black hole for girls in ICT

A worrying decline in female ICT graduates isn’t just bad news for the tech industry – it’s bad news for marketing, and for society

May 30, 2019

One of LinkedIn’s senior female software engineers, Ya Xu, recently returned from a visit to the university where she studied Computer Science with worrying news. The number of women taking the class hadn’t improved since she left. In fact, it had declined.

When we conducted a new analysis of LinkedIn data to mark last month’s Girls in ICT Day, we discovered that this was no isolated incident. The proportion of ICT graduates who are women is decreasing – it dropped slightly to just 19% in 2018. Whereas 9% of all male graduates now enter the sector, only 2% of female graduates do. ICT is becoming more attractive to young men, less attractive to young women.

This is bad news for the tech industry, bad news for equality of opportunity generally – and bad news for marketing. As society as a whole becomes more dependent on Artificial Intelligence (AI), the need to address the gender imbalance in technology has never been more urgent. A recent study by LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum revealed that women make up only 22% of professionals worldwide working in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and that their share of active AI development roles is even lower. Not only is this excluding women from one of the most important growth sectors of the global economy, but it’s also excluding them from the development of technology that will shape opportunity and choice for both genders going forward.

Much of that opportunity plays out through different aspects of marketing: the way that we connect audiences with choice and opportunity, and the way that we increasingly use marketing skills to build employer brands and identify relevant talent. Brands and businesses alike increasingly use AI to shape the experience of the world that people have. It’s therefore vital that men and women are equally involved in developing the technology. We desperately need more women pursuing careers in ICT both within the tech industry itself, and within marketing. Right now, the trend is moving in the opposite direction.

The missing ICT role models

Earlier this month, the news feeds of the world stopped as people found themselves staring at an image unlike anything they’d ever seen before. The first ever picture of a black hole was a spectacular scientific breakthrough, one only made possible by computer science and the imaginative algorithms enabling a network of eight telescopes to work together. It was shortly followed by another image that too many people had never seen before – a young woman leading the software engineering team that made such a breakthrough possible.

Dr. Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is the type of role model that girls choosing their degree courses, and young women considering their career options, need. She’s innovative, collaborative and inclusive – and she demonstrates how successful careers in Information Communications Technology (ICT) aren’t limited to brash or reclusive men working alone at a computer, or issuing orders from the top of a tech company.

Look closer at the coverage of Dr. Bouman though, and you quickly realise how thin on the ground role models like her have been. MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab marked her achievement alongside a photo of the last female MIT computer scientist playing such a prominent role in space exploration. That picture was black and white. It showed Margaret Hamilton, whose code helped to put the first man on the moon – almost exactly half a century ago.

This isn’t a comment on MIT – it’s a reflection of the size of the challenge that we have. Despite the inspiring story of Dr. Bouman she remains all too rare as a young woman working in ICT. If we’re to reverse the trend in young women turning their back on technology careers, we need to ask tough questions about why this is happening.

Where do female STEM students go?

Dropping female representation in ICT is shocking – because it comes after years of effort to encourage more girls in school to take Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. Our data analysis shows that these efforts haven’t actually been in vain. The proportion of STEM graduates who are women has been steadily rising, to reach 33% in 2018. The problem is that an increase in STEM participation isn’t translating into an increase in ICT participation. It’s long been assumed that more young women qualifying in STEM would automatically mean more young women being attracted to opportunities in technology, software engineering and AI. Our data shows that this was a mistake.

Young women taking STEM subjects are overwhelmingly choosing careers in the Life Sciences like zoology, biology, biophysics and behavioural science, over careers in ICT. In fact, 62% of all female STEM graduates are now leaving with Life Science degrees. These women are choosing the careers that they consider the most stimulating, exciting – and open to them. Too few of them are seeing those opportunities in ICT.

In two important respects, this is becoming a marketing challenge. It’s a marketing challenge because we won’t change things unless we can update perceptions at scale, and put forward a proposition for careers in tech that’s compelling for a female audience. The data is clearly telling us that we can’t just play a numbers game here – we need to approach it from a marketing mindset.

It’s also a marketing challenge because marketing careers making greater use of AI could offer an alternative route towards shaping the future that’s more attractive. Marketing applies AI to real-world situations in a creative, collaborative environment. As marketers we need to be proactive in making the case to young people about what the future of digital marketing has to offer.

The perceptions keeping women away from ICT

Whether you’re working in a marketing department or a tech company, AI and machine learning can involve working on projects with the potential for hugely positive social impact and making lives better. Progress depends on effective teams – and skills around leadership, collaborative working and emotional intelligence are dramatically increasing in importance. The problem is that, from the outside, the stereotype of ICT involves male entrepreneurs and engineers working alone, competing aggressively, and being motivated largely by the promise of wealth. It’s a very unattractive package, and this means that too few young women discover the truth.

Thinking differently about where to find female tech talent

How do we change things? Celebrating role models like Dr. Bouman is a great start, but we also need to work quickly and pragmatically to empower and elevate more of them. We need to be more proactive about revealing the reality of the industry and consciously addressing the stereotypes that media coverage tends to create. We also need to create pathways for women with the right mindset and skills to find attractive tech roles, whether they graduated with Computer Science degrees or not. When female students graduate with Life Science degrees that shouldn’t mean they are lost to ICT. We need to focus not just on attracting those graduates into technology – but on making careers in tech more accessible to them.

At LinkedIn, for example, we’re developing an AI Academy Programme that is designed specifically to help people in related STEM fields make the transition into AI careers. It’s part of our wider Women in Tech initiative, a programme driven by our employees themselves, which aims to address the gender imbalance among software engineers and other tech roles. If we’re to address the gender imbalance that tech currently faces, initiatives like this are essential. We have to work with the choices that young female STEM students are making. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and wait for the supply of talent to change.

Every female role model in ICT is an opportunity to address the barriers that keep too many young women away from the sector. We need to do a better job of empowering and elevating those we have. However, we also need to take a broader view of where female tech talent can come from, in order to ensure a supply of role models in the future. Building the algorithms that enable collaborating telescopes to capture black holes takes imaginative thinking. Building the structures that can pull more female STEM graduate towards careers in tech requires something similar.