Lack of Women in Tech and Innovation: Addressing the Digital Gender Gap

Anna Higueras, Paola Zanchetta, Giovanni Maccani (Ideas for Change)

The underrepresentation of women and LGTBIQA+ individuals in the tech and innovation sectors is a well-known issue. Recent statistics consistently highlight the scarcity of females in STEM and digital innovation environments. Addressing this imbalance is a key objective of  the Next Generation Internet Outreach Office (NGIOO) that is coordinating and supporting the Next Generation Internet (NGI) community.

The European Commission’s NGI programme works since 2016 on fostering the growth of a strong, cohesive and committed open-source community to build a human-centric internet. It has funded over 1,000 innovative solutions to date, with new funding opportunities continually emerging. The dynamic NGI ecosystem spans a broad range of internet building blocks, including digital identity, data sovereignty, decentralised technologies, blockchain, open web search, internet architecture, data and AI, network infrastructure, software engineering, protocols, interoperability, operating systems, vertical use cases, among others. Given the evident complexity of uniting such diverse communities, initial efforts to characterise the demographic variables of these teams—such as origin, background, interests, and gender distribution—were undertaken. Despite some data limitations (i.e. not all Open Calls ask the applicants for their gender or the nature of the team involved), the resulting figures offer a revealing snapshot of the current landscape, and can be consulted in two more extensive documents –  NGI Diversity and Inclusion Report – Deliverable 4.2, as well as in NGI Strategic Guidance Report Deliverables 1.2.

Representation in NGI: zooming in gender distribution

In order to better tackle gender inequalities, Ideas for Change (partner of the NGIOO) has led a specific analysis to further understand the gender composition of the NGI innovators’ teams. Evidence for gender data in NGI was found for 225 of the almost 1,000 innovator teams (20% of all teams), encompassing 988 individuals. Key findings include:

  • – 86% (852 out of 988 individuals) identify as males, while 14% identify as females.
  • – Women are present in 47% of NGI innovator teams, whereas 53% consist solely of male participants.

Crucially, this gender distribution does not extend to leadership roles. Only 17 out of the 225 teams analysed are led by women, representing 7.6% of the total. This trend is not unique to NGI; it reflects broader patterns in the open-source sector, where women’s participation is even more limited.

Broader context in Open Source

An examination of the broader open-source environment reveals more stark gender disparities:

  • – Women constitute only 2.3% of contributors to the Linux kernel (Linux Foundation Report 2020).
  • – Only 4% of open-source contributors identify as women (GitHub survey, 2021).
  • – Women represent 5.2% of contributors in the Apache Software Foundation (Trinkenreich et al., 2022).
  • – Globally, women are core developers in just about 5% of projects, and they author less than 5% of pull-requests, despite having comparable or higher acceptance rates than men.

Tackling root causes and opportunities

Understanding the root causes of these disparities and identifying opportunities to improve the representation of women and other minority genders in the NGI and broader tech landscape is crucial. Ongoing actions within the NGIOO include desk research, conducting interviews with women in STEAM, developing webinars and dedicated tech mentoring sessions to women in tech to explain current funding and Open Call opportunities, and creating safe spaces for connection and information exchange. These initiatives foster deeper understanding and generate actionable insights to be integrated into the NGI programme in the near future.

A recent event organised by Ideas for Change at the IFC offices in collaboration with TechFems – a community for women+ in tech – highlighted several critical insights. The event gathered 30 women+ (women, non-binary, and transgender participants) from diverse nationalities and backgrounds to discuss their experiences and challenges in the tech industry. Key takeaways from this enlightening session included:

TechFems, as appears on their website, is ‘a community for women+ (including trans and non-binary) who are interested or working in tech, welcoming members from Barcelona and beyond, and providing a safe space for women+ to empower each other. In a sector where women+ are by far the minority, TechFems offers a warm welcome and a supportive community, full of learning, networking, and social activities.’ The community currently gathers more than 500 representatives from more than 40 nationalities.

  • Economic empowerment: many participants view tech careers as a means to combat poverty and the gender wage gap. This is particularly important for minority and dissident genders, migrants and racialized collectives.
  • – Combating bias: the digital environment offers unique opportunities to fight gender and cultural biases. Participants agreed on ideas such as “if you can make the algorithm work, it does not matter how you look… the code should speak for ourselves and not gender or any other peculiar aspect”.
  • – It is agreed that mentoring is crucial based on some of the life experiences of the participants and is considered a catalyst to ensure presence and continuity in the technological environment for many women+. In many cases, mentoring was conducted by someone close to them: family members, friends, teachers in school or their partners.
  • – Community support: receiving the support from communities like TechFems is vital for joining the digital sphere, as sometimes it can get complicated to find the right door when coming from migrant or other social complex realities. But also and mostly it can improve the persistence in the tech field.
  • – Late access to technology: migrants from the Global South often face delayed access to tech education, making mentorship and community support even more critical.
  • Self-demanding nature: the societal pressure put on women when seeking for recognition and validation can have negative impacts and could shape many women+ in tech. This perfectionism is often also driven (and multiplied) by the required precision for properly coding.
  • Industry education: when receiving negative comments or feedback that can have an influence in women+, an advice largely received in the room was: simply ask. Ask the person why he/she/them has treated you in that way to spark critical thinking about our interactions.

The ongoing efforts to address gender disparities in the tech sector are integral to creating a more inclusive and equitable digital landscape. The conclusions from these and future workshops will continually inform NGI’s initiatives, guiding regulatory and policy recommendations to foster diversity and inclusion in NGI and in the wider tech ecosystem.

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