The term “women in tech,” though well-meaning, has become degrading and disempowering for women. I believe women should think of themselves as technologists, not as “women in tech.” If “women in tech” is about gender equality, then it’s well past time that we define gender equality at work—and fight for it.
The rallying cry for having more women in tech has excused many business leaders from confronting gender equality and has made victims of exceptional technologists who happen to be women. We as business leaders have a moral duty to transform how our cultures treat gender and identity.
That duty does not involve compensating for historical wrongs against women—a futile task. Our job is to create conditions under which all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other identity, can pursue their career of choice and thrive.
An undefined struggle
In 1995, after serving in the Israel Defense Forces, I began taking IT administration classes by night and working at Iscar Metalworking by day. I was the only woman in the IT department, so I heard all the chauvinist remarks, “dumb blond” jokes, and lewd comments you can imagine. Even today as CEO of SysAid, a global provider of IT service management software, I face prejudices. Men often look confused when I tell them that I’m the CEO.
Long after I entered IT, “women in tech” became a movement of sorts, with implied gripes but no declared vision. The hype of having women in tech felt vacuous, but it did raise a good question: What do women in tech wish to change: themselves, the male gender, culture, laws, or something else?
It’s unclear. I believe “women in tech” sends the message that, until some unspecified change comes about, women are victims.
“Women in tech” seems divorced from history. The state of gender relations is the output of societies that did not take women seriously. Many still don’t. Our religious texts, philosophies, histories, art, novels, and inventions emerged from patriarchal societies and, in many cases, actively denigrate women. The technology sector’s struggles are a footnote in this ancient struggle.
That means we leaders have no precedents for gender equality at work. We are responsible for defining and innovating it. And rather than continue the discourse through the lens of gender, which can make women feel inferior to men and outcasts from this industry—we can choose a better message.
I say we start by clarifying what we mean by gender equality at work. Gender equality, in my opinion, is not a state in which every department at every company has an equal proportion of men and women. Rather, gender equality is an outcome of equal opportunity, which is the ability to choose our career path and be paid fairly regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.
Equality requires choice
I want women to do work that makes them smile and savor life. I want them to be paid as much as their male colleagues of equal skill and experience. That means leaders cannot control what women find interesting nor what jobs they apply to. Regardless of all the pressure to fill gender and identity quotas, we must resist and hire the best people we can.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 26% of employees in professional computing jobs are women. Others in the tech sector are usually found in administrative and HR roles rather than R&D. Is that a sign of gender inequality?
It could signal that, at a young age, today’s working women were subjected to cultural stereotypes and various barriers that guided them away from STEM fields. Or maybe these women want jobs in HR and finance and have never felt deprived of other opportunities. I cannot speak for these women. Nor can the phrase “women in tech.”
Although SysAid’s workforce has equal proportions of men and women, few women apply for R&D positions at the company. As a CEO, I will not use affirmative action to correct what culture wrought 20 years ago. I will not compromise my judgment or SysAid’s success to reject a more qualified man in favor of a less qualified woman. That would be doing wrong by our investors, employees, customers, and applicants. It would be a step away from gender equality.
Now and later
If we want to fight for gender equality, we must act in the present and think 20 years into the future. Today, women are discriminated against in the technology industry. The gender pay gap, for example, is abominable. According to a report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, 46% of women in tech feel they are being paid less than their male counterparts, and 45% say wage growth—not bias, discrimination, or harassment—is their biggest job challenge. But is it not easy to fix?
Today, you could launch an audit to examine whether men and women with comparable experience and roles are being paid equally. I know it’s safer to promote fluffy diversity initiatives and cheer for “women in tech.” Instead, I’m asking you to investigate inequality at your organization. Whether you find pay gaps, harassment, or discrimination, be ready to do something about it.
On the 20-year scale, we must fund public institutions that provide equal access to education, health care, nourishment, and mentorship regardless of background or socioeconomic status. We must support leaders, thinkers, and artists who have the courage to stand for gender equality in mass media. Our choice to pay taxes, donate to nonprofits, volunteer our time, and subscribe to quality media shape who today’s young girls will become.
I believe the movement for “women in tech” is stuck. I can’t say definitively what it is asking for, but if it wants to elevate women because of their gender instead of their skills, I will not play along. If you want women to feel more welcome in tech, stop using the term.
I am a woman, a mother, a CEO, and a technologist, but I’m not a “woman in tech.” I will continue to act in SysAid’s best interest. I want the best person for every job, and I don’t care who that is. I hope other leaders feel the same way.
Sarah Lahav is CEO of SysAid Technologies.