Us and STEM: The Collective Paving The Way for Women in Tech
This is the second of a three-part series to mark International Women’s Day this year. Read part one here.
In 2019, Cai Xinying was at a crossroads. On the one hand, as a well-paid lawyer at a leading real estate firm, she had a job that most people dreamed of. And on the other, she longed to strike out on her own — she always felt her salaried job was only a stepping stone.
“Life is short,” Cai told Sixth Tone. “I didn’t want to live under rules where every aspect was chalked out decades ahead. I want life to be full of meaning and color.”
But just when it dawned on her that the transition was easier said than done, she found Ladies Who Tech — a 50,000-plus network of women across China, all interested in pursuing careers in the traditionally male-dominated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) sector.
Through annual conventions, salons, and workshops, Ladies Who Tech offered a platform where successful STEM entrepreneurs exchanged expertise, experience, and resources with relative novices in the field.
“By talking to them, I learned that people can’t become excellent overnight. Each of them got to where they are moving step by step, solving problems as they encountered them. A quantitative change leads to a qualitative change,” says Cai, now the CEO of a fast-rising smart home solutions startup that just received a new round of funding.
And in China, where women in STEM industries face more challenges such as unconscious bias, hustle culture, and a pay gap, Cai is just one of tens of thousands of women to benefit from Ladies Who Tech.
Jill Tang, the co-founder of Ladies Who Tech, told Sixth Tone: “Our mission has been the same — close the gender gap and bring gender diversification in tech.”
She explains that, although women are well accepted across China’s workforce, they are still the minority in STEM industries. Citing Mao Zedong’s dictum of “Women hold up half the sky,” she underscores: “If you dive into tech departments of Chinese companies, less than 10% of the employees are women.”
Incidentally, Tang, born and raised in Shanghai, isn’t from a tech background herself — she completed her studies in Australia where she majored in accounting and finance. But she found herself drawn to women empowerment more by chance than choice.
It began when she came back to China in 2012 and decided to try her hand at running her own startup. She first launched CareerXFactor, a recruitment platform for Chinese overseas returnees like herself, and then a second startup named TheBrewGirls to promote craft beer in China.
The entrepreneurial experience helped Tang cultivate the required passion and expertise to build communities for the group for her tech friends who had been facing gender inequality. And in 2017, when a friend asked her to help build a collective focused on women interested in pursuing a career in STEM, she jumped on board without any hesitation.
Initially, it got off to a rocky start, particularly when she found herself staring at the challenges that women in STEM faced, which often go unnoticed by the public.
Coming from China’s financial hub and not from a tech background, Tang recalls that she couldn’t relate to the obvious gender bias women interested in STEM had to contend with.
“After talking to our members, I realized their world is different because they are a minority. That’s when it hit me that what I’m doing is really helping a lot of people, even just giving them the possibility to meet people who shared the same experience,” she says.
Tang derives a sense of achievement from many personal growth stories, like Cai Xinying, a member of the Ladies Who Tech branch in southwest China’s Chengdu, Sichuan province.
Says Cai about the experience. “I was amazed by the upbeat vibe and diversity of the community. The experience really broadened my mind and allowed me to look at the same problem from different perspectives.”
The benefits of gender equality are not just personal and social, but also economic. Overall, 75% of digital product users in China are women, but the tech teams in such companies are predominantly male — nine men to one woman, says a survey that Ladies Who Tech released in July 2021.
“Imagine you have a product for women to use that was designed by men. It’s possible, but definitely not the best experience,” says Tang, adding that bringing gender equality to the tech field will be a “win-win situation” both for female employees and the companies, which will drive a better business and develop a better company culture.
However, it would still need a fundamental change in mindset.
According to Tang, little has changed since the survey was released in 2021. In fact, the rift further widened due to the pandemic, she says.
Women are more likely to lose their jobs since fewer of them work in the tech sector. So, once such companies need to cut costs, they often choose to retrench jobs not directly linked to the core business. In tech companies, this often means jobs in marketing or administration, where women make up most of the workforce. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more women faced domestic violence and sexual harassment too, Tang said.
On the brighter side, China’s central government, in a crucial July 2021 decision, rolled out a set of policies to promote the participation of women in the fields of science and technology.
Multinational companies in China, Tang says, have been driving the promotion of gender equality in the country because that’s already become part of their core value and global strategy.
Chinese companies have yet to fully understand the benefit of the cause both business-wise and company culture-wise. “But things are changing as more Chinese companies are looking into ESG investments,” she said.
ESG investing is a strategy used by socially conscious investors to evaluate investment opportunities based on a set of environmental, social, and governance standards. These standards are used to screen potential investments and ensure that they align with the values and principles of the investor.
“Five years is a long time for a startup, but you can’t do as much as you want for a global issue like gender equality. You need everyone to work together,” says Tang. “But again it’s back to the mindset. People fail to see the connection between gender equality and their own lives. That’s the biggest challenge.”
(Header image: Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)