Close the Gap research finds that fixed term contracts are amplifying the inequalities and disadvantage that women face in the tech industry

At Close the Gap, we’ve started exploring how automation and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ will drive changes in women’s experiences of work. To date, despite automation being something of a hot topic, little attention has been afforded to the impact on women’s employment specifically.

One of the expected impacts of automation is a growth in STEM roles. Women are currently under-represented in STEM and it is therefore likely that men will disproportionately benefit from future job creation, thus cementing women’s stark under-representation in the sector. There are also patterns of occupation segregation within tech sub-sectors with a dearth of women in AI and in its subsets of machine learning and deep learning, which has clear implications for the development of data-driven technologies.

As a key driver of the gender pay gap, occupational segregation is a core focus for Close the Gap but improving women’s representation within the tech sector is particularly important in the context of automation and potential changes in the broader labour market. As part of our wider work on automation, it is therefore necessary to explore the barriers to women’s participation and progression into tech roles.

Data from ONS highlights that in Scotland women account for just 16.9% of IT and telecommunications professionals which includes roles in programming, software development, web design and development, business analysis, and systems design. A similar proportion of women (18.0%) comprise IT technicians in Scotland.[1] UK-wide research by the PwC in 2017 found that only 5% of those in tech leadership roles are women.

Equate Scotland, Scotland’s national organisation working on women in STEM, does a range of work with women and employers in the tech sector to challenge the barriers that exist. There has also been a myriad of short-term, supply-side initiatives, predominantly in education settings, to address the under-representation of women in the sector, including coding clubs for girls, school-based activity to encourage more girls to take STEM-related subjects and outreach work such as tech workplace visits. However, we haven’t yet seen a strategic policy response to the persistent dearth of women in tech.

Research by Close the Gap with women working in the tech industry in Scotland [2] highlights that insecure working practices are likely to pose an additional barrier to women entering and progressing in the industry. This new data gleans useful insight into some of the changes that are required to job design if employers are to challenge the current patterns of occupational segregation.

Women’s employment in general is increasingly precarious, with women more likely to be in low-paid work, and on temporary and zero hour contracts. This new research highlights that this rising insecurity may be an issue for some women in the tech sector. The key findings include:

  • Almost half (47%) of respondents had been on a fixed term contract in the tech sector and 45% viewed fixed term contracts as a common feature of their experience in the sector.
  • 46% of respondents felt that fixed term contracts amplified the inequalities and disadvantage that women face in the tech industry.
  • Half (50%) of respondents who had been on a fixed-term contract had experienced involuntary gaps in employment.
  • Fixed term contracts were seen as having an adverse effect on the ability of respondents to plan for the future (70%), on their financial situation (53%) and their mental health (40%).

The majority of respondents viewed fixed term contracts as being both a positive and a negative (61%). However, only 9% saw fixed term contracts as being a positive feature of the tech industry, while more than a quarter (27%) believed such contracts to be a negative feature.

Some of the positive comments around fixed term contracts were that they can provide flexibility and can support a return to work after maternity leave or a career break. However, that fixed term contracts are seen as providing relative flexibility may also be reflective of the lack of other flexible and part-time working opportunities in the tech sector. Currently, just 6% of information technology roles are advertised on a flexible basis making it difficult for women in tech to balance earning with caring. A lack of quality part-time and flexible work in the labour market is a key contributing factor to women’s skills-related underemployment, occupational segregation and the gender pay gap. Given the technological infrastructure available in the sector, and the emphasis placed on agile working, the sector should be leading the way in flexible working practices.

Certainly, the tech sector remains characterised by horizontal and vertical occupational segregation. There are further differences in the types of work women and men do, with women more likely to be in project management, web design or technician jobs, while men are more likely to be programmers and engineers.

While 44% of respondents in programming and 51% of those in software development have been on a fixed term contract, this figure rises to 100% for those working in online education and to 70% for those in digital media. While sub-sectors use fixed term contracts to varying degrees, it appears that fixed term contracts are used to a lesser extent in those sub-sectors which are particularly male-dominated. Those roles where women are under-represented are the jobs which attract higher pay and more secure contracts.

Occupational segregation is reinforced by the prevailing workplace culture in the tech sector. Un-transparent and biased recruitment practice, and a lack of access to informal networks continue to prevent women from entering and progressing in the industry. Research published by ScotlandIS, the trade body for the digital technologies industry, also identified evidence of sexist workplace cultures in which women report feeling undervalued, being excluded from discussions and discouraged from pursuing more technical projects, being talked over at meetings, and being asked to do lower status admin tasks that are not related to their role.

Fixed term contracts were seen as having an adverse effect on key aspects of employment such as pay, progression and pensions, potentially exacerbating women’s existing inequality. Of those who were currently, or had previously been, on a fixed term contract half (50%) had experienced involuntary gaps between successive fixed term contracts which can have longer term impacts on women’s career progression, lifetime earnings and likelihood of experiencing poverty.

While a majority (60%) of respondents agreed that that they had taken a job or worked on a project below their skill level because of being unable to find appropriate work, this rose to more than three-quarters (78%) of respondents who had been on a fixed term contract. These insecure working practices are likely to be contributing to women’s higher rates of underemployment and the under-utilisation of women’s skills, which contributes to skill shortages and is a drag on economic growth.

In terms of the effects on broader life factors, fixed term contracts were seen as impacting the ability to plan for the future (70%), the respondent’s financial situation (53%) and their mental health (40%). A lack of affordable, flexible and accessible childcare is one key reason for women’s systemic inequality in the labour market, and respondents noted the additional difficulties of accessing childcare while on a fixed-term contract.

The research found that almost half (46%) of respondents felt that fixed term contracts amplified the inequalities and disadvantage that women face in the tech industry. However, among participants who had experience of fixed term contracts, this figure rises to 58%. In addition to the plethora of barriers facing women upon entering and progressing within tech, such as gender stereotyping and male-oriented workplace cultures, these results highlight that fixed term contracts may be an additional barrier.

STEM is both a key focus of Scotland’s Economic Strategy, and the Scottish Government Labour Market Strategy. However, these findings highlight that it is necessary to take a broader approach to efforts to address women’s under-representation, including tackling toxic workplace cultures and the quality and security of the jobs in tech that are more likely to be done by women. Addressing demand-side barriers to women entering and progressing within STEM is particularly pertinent given existing evidence on the potential impact of automation. Women workers are concentrated at the extreme ends of the automation spectrum, with women over-represented in jobs that are at the highest risk of automation, and under-represented in STEM where job growth is likely to result.

It is vitally important, therefore, that Scotland’s response to automation and the changing labour market is gendered, thus ensuring new technologies do not cement, or indeed, worsen existing gender inequalities. AI may accelerate digital disruption in the jobs market and pre-existing research and analysis has shown that this disruption is expected to have a gendered impact. As part of our new Women’s Future Skills project, this year Close the Gap will be bringing a focus to women’s skills and automation, looking at not only women in STEM, but also how technological change affects women’s employment in the wider labour market. Crucially, we’ll be looking at how gender competent policymaking can ensure that technological change doesn’t entrench women’s labour market inequality in Scotland.

Overall, this new data offers further evidence of the importance of fair and flexible work to women’s labour market equality. reviewing the design of jobs in tech, and developing gender-sensitive employment practice for example through offering flexible working at all levels, can enable more women to enter and progress within the sector, with benefits not just for individual women and their employers, but also for Scotland’s economy.

Annual Population Survey (June 18-June 19) Regional employment by occupation

[2] The primary research, in the form of an online survey, was undertaken by Close the Gap over the course of 2018. The online survey comprised 11 close-ended questions, 7 demographic questions and 1 open-ended question. There were 92 participants who were sourced through social media, networks of women working in the tech industry in Scotland and key stakeholders working with women in tech.

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