International Women’s Day: What can we do about tech’s diversity problem?

This piece was written in February 2017, but it covers important topics that are well worth considering on International Women’s Day: an important time for reflection on how far we have to come as an industry.

Around 50.7% of the population of the UK is female, but as a tech journalist, that sure as hell doesn’t match my day-to-day experience. The journalists, the data scientists, the CEOs, the people attending conferences – the demographics plainly don’t match what you would expect just by flipping an equality coin. Instead, it’s more reminiscent of the opening scene of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead: the coin should land on tails half the time, and yet here were are. Heads. Heads. Heads.

Indeed, as I sat down to write this, another report landed in my inbox: Manchester Digital’s annual digital skills audit, which found that the gender gap in the northern tech industry had jumped from 60:40 to 72:28. Oh, and it’s not just a UK problem, as this chart from our friends at Statista shows:20170216_women_in_tech 

The Everywoman Forum gave me a nice taste of my own medicine: men were in the significant minority. The event too was hugely welcoming, which is often more than can be said for events where the gender balance is reversed. “I’m really happy to see some guys there,” says Niki Dow, senior director of technical communications at ARM. “It’s great to see that men are engaging in it as well.”everywoman_forum_women_in_tech_-_3

That welcoming attitude shouldn’t be a surprise. For diversity to work, after all, it requires the efforts of not just every woman, as the name of the conference suggests, but a sizeable contingent of the men too. “Although this is the Everywoman forum promoting women in technology, men still play a role – we have to do it together. It has to be a collaborative effort where we’re all working for the same thing.”

The numbers in tech speak for themselves. Last year, I spoke to Dr Jessica Kirkpatrick, data scientist for job marketplace Hired, who gave me an insight into the full extent of the problem. Because Hired runs an open platform where both the expected and actual salaries are transparent, their findings give an interesting perspective into the mindsets of companies and their candidates: both male and female. In short, the gender pay gap in tech averages at 9% in the UK – greater than the US, Australia and Canada. There are legitimate reasons why this gap may exist (time taken on maternity leave, for example), but Hired’s analysis takes account of that by comparing years of experience rather than age, and it’s still there. “There is a band, and you expect there to be variation – but the problem is when you’re systematically seeing a certain group of people being paid on the lower end of the band,” Kirkpatrick explained.

ARM’s diversity, by Dow’s own admission, needs work. The company has jumped from around 16% to 18% female in the past year, but it’s clear there’s still room for improvement. And the overwhelming feeling of everyone I talk to at the forum is that this isn’t just a fairness issue: anyone interested in the good old capitalist dream should be looking to make tech more representative. “Men and women are different, we all know that. Our brains are wired differently, we think differently and we bring something different to the table when running a business. And if you’re running a business and your goal is to make money and be successful and have happy customers, then you need that diversity of thought and opinion,” explains Dow.everywoman_forum_women_in_tech_-_1

Jennifer Thomas, Direct Line’s head of internal communications, agrees. “I think probably where I’ve made the biggest shift in the last year or so is moving on from thinking that diversity is just a nice moral thing to do – which it still is, but it’s bigger than that,” she explains.

“I think it’s a business imperative now to have diversity throughout your organisation. It does contribute to the bottom line, it does contribute to innovation. You need diverse thinking, and you can’t get diverse thinking if you have all of the same people.”

Stephanie Davies – CEO and founder of Laughology, a company that examines workplace happiness – says similar things, from her experience of visiting a full range of businesses, from the most diverse to the most identikit. “You get a diverse mix around the senior leadership table, you’re more likely for that organisation to move forwards and attract a diverse audience. And we’re moving into a huge global audience – the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in. As a company you’re going to be left behind if you don’t do something different and have a diverse leadership team that is driving decisions.”

Thomas sees a huge contrast between current business trends and the workforce of the future. Born in Britain, but with family from the West Indies, her children just see diversity as “just the norm”.everywoman_forum_women_in_tech_-_4

“When those young people then enter the job world, they’re going to have very different expectations, so if businesses don’t start now, there will be a disconnect. You’ll either be searching for a pool of recruits that don’t exist anymore, or you’re going to bring in the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

“We have to be bolder and conversation is good. If I were to generalise, [in] the British culture, so much is taboo and so many things are unspoken. I think we have to break that a bit, and not be afraid to talk – not just in the boardroom, but with friends, peers, family. It’s the only way you bring to the surface what the real challenges are.”

How does the industry improve? Obviously the process starts early with education, and getting young girls more interested in STEM subjects, but businesses have their part to play too. A theme that crops up time and time again is companies that support a better home/life balance, either with child support and crèches, or with flexible working arrangements, but it also comes down to the way companies conduct their recruitment process. “The excuse that these women don’t exist is just not true. What you have to do as a business is challenge your recruiters to look in different places and think about your brief,” Thomas explains. “Everybody gets the role on merit – it’s not a quota system or a tickbox exercise. But if you start with a diverse pool, we’re findingthat when you get down to selection between two or three individuals, a lot of women are coming through and getting selected on merit. And they might have fallen off lower down in the process.”

Dow, for her part, is also not keen on quotas, “because a quota is just a number”. Instead, she favours a mix of life-friendly policies and encouraging businesses to think differently when it comes to their hiring processes.

“We all like to think we’re being fair, we’re being objective, but we all have our own biases – but you can try and be aware of what you’re doing. I personally try to instill in my leadership team: be aware of what you’re doing, stop hiring a bunch of ‘mini-mes’, be very careful about what you say, be careful about who you put forward for promotion, because your biases will influence all of those things.” To that end, Dow is flirting with the idea of completely anonymised CVs for future applications. “I think you can be adversely affected by what you see, even before you meet the individuals. I want decisions made on talent and judgements rather than all the decisions we’ve already made.”everywoman_forum_women_in_tech_-_2

Of course there’s every chance that this specific change will make no difference whatsoever. On the surface, anonymous CVs may level the playing field, but there are earlier pitches that are uneven too, from school and media to previous rungs on the career ladder. “I do think for a variety of reasons women deselect themselves. They decide quite early on that they can’t/shouldn’t/not supposed to do certain things,” Thomas says.

That wasn’t the case with her, however, in part due to her mother working in IT in the 1980s as a systems analyst, bucking the trend quite early on. “In a weird sort of way, it was great, and I was proud, but I didn’t see that as extraordinary. I was just like, ‘of course she is’. I never questioned it or thought it was odd that she was in IT, it was just great.” Sure, that’s anecdotal, but there’s something to be said about female role models normalising equality in the workplace, and opening young eyes to more opportunities.

But for the numbers in tech to reflect our wider society, culturally, we have to accept that women seeking equality in the workplace is a positive thing for everyone. Our culture is set up in such a way that assertiveness is seen as a positive trait in men (“ballsy”, “bold”, “confident”), but for women it’s more ambiguous (“pushy”, “difficult”, “not a team player”). These attitudes take time to change, and such gendered language is plainly unhelpful but, awkwardly, such assertiveness is necessary to make the point in the first place.

Some people may feel uneasy about a conference aimed purely at women, and they might have a point if females weren’t so criminally underrepresented elsewhere in tech culture (“that can be on the flipside too – you don’t want an entire board of women,” Thomas points out), but at our current point on the journey, I find myself in complete agreement with the aims of the conference. In a world where female writers are significantly more likely to be harassed than male ones for putting their views online, I’m happy to publicly say: female representation in tech is poor, and we should do everything in our power to fix that.

Images: Everywoman Forum, infographic from Statista

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