IWD Special: Challenging the gender imbalance in fashion technology

Mention Me
Courtney Wylie

Since the explosion of pure online brands, technology has made a huge impact on the fashion industry – but does this translate to defying the gender gap typically found in the tech sector?

In recognition of International Women’s Day 2020, we’re proud to challenge the notion of gender stereotyping in STEM recruitment at our London-based martech company. At Mention Me, talented women make up roles across every department, from marketing to product and recruitment to engineering, and we work with some fantastic female tech champions at brands including Elvie, Toast, Seraphine.

However, with 73% of employees at apparel stores female, compared with only 12.5% of fashion CEOs and 26% of board members, it’s apparent we’re an anomaly. Women are massively underrepresented in more technical and management roles, both in the UK and globally. This is exacerbated further down the line with inconsistencies in salary and opportunities after having a family. A PWC study last year revealed just 12.5% of apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 are led by women.

The fashion industry needs technical skills and experience, not only in traditional technical roles, but also within marketing, product and design. Smartphone usage, the proliferation of social media channels and apps, emerging AI, 3D printing, machine learning, experiential experiences in-store – all these advances in technology within retail require new skill sets and experience. This means fashion professionals are needing to re-train and undertake technical courses to remain in the industry – a factor that risks exacerbating the gender imbalance.

Other technical areas that present more potential opportunities for women are CAD (Computer Aided Design), VR, and the IoT (Internet of things), data analytics and wearables. Women in Immersive Technologies Europe, an organisation tackling gender stereotyping within tech, believes the early stages of these industries improves the chance of balancing the gender gap.

According to a US survey, women held just 20% of tech jobs in 2018; a stark contrast to the  74% of girls aspiring to a career in STEM fields. The numbers are no better when looking at tech giants. Despite women making up 27% and 47% of the wider workforce at Microsoft and Netflix respectively, when it comes to tech jobs, the numbers are bleak. Women occupy just 2 in every 10 tech roles at the seven tech giants surveyed.

In the UK, there are 300,000 more tech jobs now than in 2009, but the percentage of female tech professionals remains stuck at 16%. Higher education exacerbates the issue, with only 9% of female graduates in 2018 studying a core STEM subject; significantly lower than the 30% required for sustainable representation of women in tech. The attrition rate of women in STEM is also poor, with parenthood highlighted as the most likely cause.

According to Forbes, women in the fashion world tend to occupy supporting rather than starring roles, while men occupy positions of power. Opinions on why this is differ, although two-thirds of respondents to recent agree the lack of gender diversity at board-level in fashion negatively impacts the industry.

There appears to be a misalignment between young girls’ aspirations to work in tech and fashion, their further education and career choices, and their career and salary expectations within the workplace. There is the possibility this may change with women like Martha Lane Fox, Sheryl Sandberg and Kathryn Parsons taking prominence on the tech world stage, previously dominated by the legends of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. (For those seeking inspiration, I highly recommend taking a look at the Women of Wearables list, showcasing 100 powerful women working in fashion tech today.)

As countries around the world celebrate the achievements of women on 8th March, and highlight the continuing struggles for gender equality on a global scale, we explored where this disparity begins, how and with whom. Is it rooted in education, societal stereotypes and pressures, or employment opportunities? And what can those of us working in the marketing, tech and fashion world do to bring about change?

Valerie Mann, Head of People for Mention Me, comments: “There is a lot of emphasis on STEM careers for women rooted in getting girls interested as early as secondary school. I’m sure this is true, but I don’t think girls should be put off by ‘not loving’ maths!

“Soft skills are just as important in tech jobs as they are in any other field. In my experience, being a lifelong learner, open communicator, well organised with good working relationships gets you far in most careers (engineering and fashion included). I also think the variety of tech jobs are not well understood by secondary schools, and they might not give the most up-to-date advice. For example, I’m not sure my children’s school would direct students between being an engineer vs a QA vs a Product Manager vs a VR in fashion specialist – and yet the skills are quite different!”

Arbie Rodriguez, Product Marketing Manager at Mention Me, highlights the importance of women getting the right training in STEM fields, even if they don’t work in pure tech or engineering roles. “There’s so much more to being a modern marketer. Our profession is simultaneously becoming more creative and more technical. We can have an idea, execute it, back it up with data, and share it with the world, all without leaving our desks.”

Sowmya Somanath has experienced stereotyping in her role as Software Engineer at Mention Me. “The usual response is ‘it must be really hard’. But that applies to anything you haven’t done before. We need to break this perception by giving a flavour of programming /coding / tech early on in life and make it like learning another language. In this day and age, technology is one common source for any field of business. Removing the fear of getting involved in technology is the key.”

Coding at school gave me confidence to get a computer science degree. I remember enjoying my computer class when I was 12. I got introduced to C and C++ [programming software] when I was 15 and that was the start of my programming life. Even though I have mostly been lucky to be part of great teams, I think the greatest challenge for women in tech is to be taken seriously, to matter. I think you have to just let your work show what you are made of”.

QA Engineer for Mention Me Tulay Murtaz Unal advises women in tech to: “always fight against the gender pay gap” and “work hard at improving both soft and technical skills”. She says “It’s a great idea to follow some of the many very successful women on Twitter who work in companies in Silicon Valley. I was feeling a lack of women in technology when I started my professional life but the contribution of women in technology increases every day.

There’s no doubting technology will continue to transform the fashion industry. Its impact is felt across every touchpoint, from design to the manufacturing supply chain and shop floor. Ongoing development will create greater opportunities for women to undertake education and training in growing disciplines such as IoT and CAD. Ultimately, a grassroots approach is needed.

We need to change the mindset that deters girls from pursuing STEM subjects, and instead educate them about real-world careers, including those in fashion rooted in tech. It’s time to teach our children being “creative” and “technical” are not mutually exclusive skill sets – but that combining them can achieve great things – especially in the fashion industry.

Courtney Wylie is  VP of Product & Marketing at Mention Me