Growing up in China as a top student, I saw the technology field much like many young women see it here in the west: male-dominated. As a result, I learned very early in my life that to be successful, you need to have mentors.
Luckily for me, I had an advantage: the support and encouragement of my father, a visiting professor in electronic engineering and communications. He nurtured my interest and constantly encouraged me to follow my dreams, and was able to give me invaluable practical advice.
Having knowledgeable, supportive parents won't necessarily make or break a young woman's dreams of working in tech, but it is a tremendous advantage. This prepared me to take the opportunity, when it came, to learn about technology. Around the world, too many girls are discouraged from taking up STEM subjects because, either consciously or unconsciously, teachers and family members perceive it as a “male” field of study, unsuitable for “typical” girls.
What does this have to do with business leaders? The commercial world is not separate from education, especially when it comes to STEM. Technology advances so rapidly that curricula will quickly become outdated without technology firms' participation. It is today's business leaders who will be employing these young students in a few years' time, so they have the responsibility to actively foster the next generation of female technologists and engineers.
A key issue is that businesses are too busy focusing on the bottom line to think about the future. Like almost every other industry, the technology sector will soon face a major skills shortage, which could mitigated through encouraging more women into the industry. Business leaders need to step up and encourage the next generation of technical experts and leaders, because women represent an enormous (and, as yet, largely untapped) source of talent.
Businesses' role in education…
So, how can business leaders encourage women in tech? Let's start with education. When I was an engineering student at Tsinghau University, women made up three percent of all students. Since then, progress can only be described as glacial. According to figures from the Women's Engineering Society, only nine percent of the engineering workforce is female, while in 2016 the UK had the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. Only one in seven engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female – around half the rate of India.
If businesses are serious about increasing female participation in technology, they should be using their clout, expertise and considerable resources to question why so few women choose to pursue technical subjects - and then, they should do something about it. Whether it is sponsoring scholarships for young women, putting forward female executives and technicians as speakers and guest lecturers, or providing “year in industry” placements for women, there is so much that business leaders could be doing to inspire women in schools and colleges.
…and in the workplace itself
When she was growing up, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was told by her parents that she would have to be “twice as good” to achieve the same success as her male peers.
It often feels like that for women in the tech industry. As my career progressed, I've realised that it is not just women who should be working harder, but the technology industry could be doing much more to help talented, ambitious women.
Helping women achieve a good work-life balance is one of the key things that business should be doing better. Of course, technology is a high-pressure, hard-working industry, but that doesn't mean that we can't provide everyone with the flexibility to work in the way that best suits them. We are supposed to be the world's problem-solvers; if we can't work out a way to help all our employees reach their full potential while still living fulfilled lives, then we're in the wrong business.
Technology has an important role to play here, not least in providing collaboration tools that enable remote working. But culture is just as important, and I'd like to see more businesses engaging with their employees – both male and female – to help them find the right balance, while remaining productive. Businesses that aim to ease the work-life balance in the technology industry should set up grassroots support and resource groups, and benefit programmes that both men and women really care about.
There has never been a better time to be a woman in tech, but the pace of progress can feel frustratingly slow at times. I don't want a career in technology to be a matter of luck and opportunity, as it was for me, but something altogether unremarkable. Everyone will gain from greater female participation; and that means that we all have a role to play.
Contributed by Haiyan Song, SVP of security markets, Splunk.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of SC Media UK or Haymarket Media.