Why creativity can close the gender gap in tech

Microsoft's Lisa Gibson on why arts skills are vital to success at companies undertaking digital transformations.
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By Lisa Gibson

Every year around International Women’s Day, the dialogue around women in STEM spikes reminding us that if we are going to close the gender gap in tech, we need to be purposeful about our work all year long. The good news is we have made some progress when it comes to women in STEM. The United Nations recently shared that there are 22,000 more women working as science and engineering technicians than there were in 2016. However, we’re still scratching the surface when women only make up 27% of total STEM roles and only 15% of the total STEM management roles.

Increasing the dialogue and, more importantly, the investment to drive more female STEM graduates and deeper technical skills is critically important. However, an area I don’t believe gets much attention is women in tech like me who have an arts degree.

At the start of their careers, women often reach out looking for advice on how to break into the tech industry with an arts degree thinking STEM companies are only looking for STEM degrees. From someone who has an arts degree, working for one the world’s biggest technology companies, I can tell you: that just isn’t true.

A recent study from Harvard Business Review found that liberal arts graduates bring important skillsets into the workplace, particularly critical thinking, analytical skills, ethical judgement and the ability to work in teams – all critical skills in any modern work environment, but particularly for tech companies that are grappling with the implications of future technologies like IoT and automation.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said recently that all companies are becoming tech companies and I believe that all roles are becoming tech roles. The implications of this for marketing and communications professionals are huge.

In this era of tech intensity and digital transformation, the communications function is more important than ever. For organizations in the midst of a major digital transformation, change management communications and employee engagement are essential for success and, often, fall under the purview of comms.

It is widely accepted that artificial intelligence is the defining technology of our time, but it also brings unique challenges around privacy and security. I believe that all too often caution outweighs opportunity. Recent studies found that Canada is 35th in ICT adoption globally, and 10th out of 10 countries in AI adoption. If we stay at this pace, it will impact our economy, but communicators and marketers can help reverse the trend. One of the main factors holding businesses back from deploying technology like AI, according to Gartner, is they don’t see a viable use case. Marketing and communications can help reinforce the power of technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges by doing what we do best: authentic storytelling.

So how do you break through?

Of course, we need to have comms and marketing skills, but we also need to understand how breakthrough technologies work and how organizations are leveraging these technologies to drive innovation and growth. Couple this with knowledge of current debates and where your company fits into that conversation and you will stand out among your peers – and you will be as important as the people building the technology. There are some great tools available, such as online resources and industry events that provide both viewpoints. Investing in your skillset now will pay dividends for your career in the long run.

The last piece of advice I have for women working in tech companies is this: regardless of your academic background, you deserve to be there. Too often in the tech space, I hear women with arts degrees apologize for their credentials. As a comms or marketing pro, you play a vital role in your company and seeking continuous learning opportunities can help give you the confidence you need to find your voice. But organizations have a responsibility to create space for all women and underserved communities to use those voices.

Lisa Gibson is director of communications for Microsoft Canada.