Arm Newsroom Blog

Tipping Tech’s Gender Imbalance

Teresa McLaurin, Arm Fellow, Senior Director of Design for Test architecture, and winner of the TTTC Bob Madge Innovation Award and the Global Semiconductor Alliance’s Rising Women of Influence Award, explains why we need more diversity in tech
By Teresa McLaurin, Fellow and Senior Director of Design for Test Architecture, Arm

The world has changed a lot in the last two decades. But things haven’t shifted so very far for women in tech, where a gender imbalance stubbornly persists. According to the US Census Bureau, by 2019, women still filled only 27 percent of STEM roles, and just 15 percent of engineers were female. Only 5 percent of tech leaders are women and a measly 3 percent of females say a career in technology is their first choice.

Technology shapes our modern lives, from the smart homes we live in, to the social media channels we follow and the commerce sites where we shop. And that technology is underpinned and informed by data – the majority of which is, and always has been, based on the requirements of men. Why? Because nobody was collecting data on women.

Why data is a feminist issue

It has long been acknowledged that a gender data gap exists. The ‘average human’ is still typically assumed to be the average man. Most data that’s used to design solutions is still gathered for and by men – even when that data is detrimental to women’s health and wellbeing.

In her book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez famously documented a shockingly broad range of circumstances in which the gender data gap detrimentally impacts women, from personal protective equipment that just doesn’t fit to crash test dummies that ensure safety for the average man, while ignoring the female form. This means that while men are more likely to crash their car, women are 47 percent more likely to suffer a serious injury, and 17 percent more likely to die in a collision.

So, if the gender data gap and its problematic nature are universally acknowledged, why is so little being done about it?

The ‘default male’

Part of the problem is the near-universal assumption – held by men and women alike – that the default, universal sex is male. Arguably, this is because women throughout history were excluded from writing the history books, so the male perspective was typically the only perspective.

This neglect of female data may not be deliberate, but it is problematic – particularly when it’s shaping one-size-fits-all solutions that actually serve just half their target audience. This is no way detracts from the skills and abilities of these men, nor does it indicate intent, but if we continue to use men as the default, we’re going to keep getting male-centric solutions. We need other voices in the room to ensure that our solutions work for everyone, whether they’re male or female – or black, or non-binary, or neurodiverse or any other minority group. In short, diversity in the workforce goes a long way to creating inclusive solutions for everyone.

The business case for diversity is solid, too. Research by McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

Bucking the trend of centuries is not an easy task, but we have to start somewhere. The first step is acknowledging the problem. This sounds like a tiny step, but in reality, it’s a big deal because once you acknowledge it, you become accountable for making it better.

The importance of STEM exposure

I got into the tech industry by chance. My first major at university was languages, but before I graduated, I was given a Heathkit computer to build – and I was hooked. I immediately knew I wanted to do more of … whatever this was … but I didn’t even have a name for it. I had to contact a local university to discover that my new passion was called electronic engineering. It was the start of a beautiful adventure – and a successful career – and it’s something I’m still passionate about 20 years later. 

Why didn’t I know what engineering was? The answer is that I had never been exposed to it.

When I ask students or new graduates why they chose engineering, around 90 percent of them say that one parent was an engineer – in other words, they had exposure. That’s why I consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to be so important.

I’ve always loved puzzles and problem solving, but I never realised that these are essential skills for being a successful engineer. Maybe if I’d been exposed to the concept of STEM somewhere in my education journey, I’d have had the tools to move forward in my career journey sooner. But my father worked for the airlines and my mother worked harder, raising nine children. However, they both had a passion for travel. They passed that passion for travelling to me and that’s why my first university major was languages. STEM wasn’t a feature in our household. You can’t know that you’re interested in something unless you’ve been exposed to it – but once I had, I loved it.

Educating the next generation

Black businesswoman in wheelchair leading a meeting

That’s why I think it’s important for tech companies to do all they can to inspire and encourage the next generation of problem solvers. Programs like Arm Education can make a big difference, providing resources to both teachers and learners free of charge to lower the barriers to entry. Arm’s education program starts with projects for schools using Arduino or micro:bit, and goes right the way through to education kits for universities and colleges, so there’s something for everyone, independent of their stage of development.

For several years, Arm has also had a charitable partnership with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRSTprepares six- to 18-year-olds for the future through team robotics challenges that see them solving complex problems. More than 600,000 young people participate each year, across more than 100 countries. And FIRST’s longitudinal study shows female participants have significant gains in STEM interest, career interest, activity, knowledge, and identity compared to young women in a non-participating comparison group.

Only by engaging children early – and maintaining that engagement throughout their education – can we develop in them the skills and enthusiasm they will need to be the leaders of the future. But skills and enthusiasm alone aren’t enough to tip the gender balance. We also need visibility of role models to lead the way and give a helping hand to those who follow in their footsteps.

Women supporting women

For many years, I was busy with the challenge and excitement of my day job; engineering was fun! It didn’t seem strange to be the only female in a classroom, or a meeting – after all, I’d often been the only girl to play out with the boys on my street. I worked hard to introduce, and then standardize, design for test (DFT) across Arm and influence DFT in the industry. I published numerous papers, wrote magazine articles, contributed to multiple IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association) standards and even co-authored a book, The Core Test Wrapper Handbook.

But then I began studying industry data that showed that the ratio of women to men got smaller as the grade level got higher. I started researching the reasons behind this and began to get more involved. I shouldn’t, I thought, be the only female Fellow and the first – ever – in the then 25 years of Arm’s existence.

And then, while serving as Vice Program Chair for the International Test Conference (ITC) – the largest, most prestigious, test event in the world – I was tasked with finding keynote speakers and realized that I’d seen only one female in that role in the 20 years I’d been attending the conference. I made sure that I found a fantastic woman for the job.

Tipping the gender balance

I’m pleased to say that things at Arm are moving in the right direction, helped by a programmatic focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. But this is something that needs to change on a broad scale. Women need to see other women in prominent roles – especially young women at the start of their careers, and even younger women who have yet to choose a study path.

Although I’ve had my work recognised – receiving both the TTTC Bob Madge Innovation Award 2020 and the Global Semiconductor Alliance’s Rising Women of Influence Award 2021 – I know that there are many more brilliant women in STEM that we should be celebrating and advancing. That’s why, in addition to making myself available as a mentor, I’ve recently become Global Career Chair for the Women@Arm employee resource group. I’m really excited about helping women at Arm move forward!

By educating, challenging stereotypes, and giving visibility to role models and mentors, we can inspire the next generation of female engineers. Tipping tech’s gender balance in the right direction will not only create better opportunities for women, it will boost individual companies’ profitability and increase the tech industry’s ability to meet the needs of all sectors of society. By increasing diversity, we can ensure that everyone’s a winner.

Arm Education

Arm Education’s mission is to help close education and skills gaps in Computer Engineering and STEM. By drawing on Arm’s technological expertise, innovation and partner ecosystem, we provide content to help both teachers and learners achieve their objectives.

Arm Education

Arm Education’s mission is to help close education and skills gaps in Computer Engineering and STEM. By drawing on Arm’s technological expertise, innovation and partner ecosystem, we help both teachers and learners achieve their objectives.

Article Text
Copy Text

Any re-use permitted for informational and non-commercial or personal use only.

Editorial Contact

Brian Fuller and Jack Melling
Subscribe to Blogs and Podcasts
Get the latest blogs & podcasts direct from Arm

Latest on Twitter