It’s an irrefutable fact that the tech sector is not representative of the population as a whole. Men outnumber women by 4:1, according to the 2018 Tech Nation report released last week. And that’s before we get into issues around ethnicity, class, neurodiversity or sexuality.
It’s an issue that is increasingly coming under the spotlight, not just for ethical reasons, but because if we’re ever going to meet demand for digital skills, appealing to a wider section of society is surely one of the fastest ways to broaden the talent pool.
This is a complex, emotive issue, and there are no quick fixes. But there are some practical steps companies can take.
“The best way to implement a diversity scheme is to make purposeful and genuine efforts to address the problem and take a top down approach. Management must not dismiss diversity as simply a HR issue; it should run through your business so it naturally filters into the work and company culture,” says Jas Panesar, founder of web development agency Aspiring Panda.
It’s important that business leaders understand this is not only about the ideal of “inclusion”, but also an opportunity to solve problems they may never have experienced personally, says Jill Hodges, founder and CEO of tech education provider Fire Tech Camp.
A good start could be regular diversity training for management and junior employees, Panesar suggests.
Hiring seems another obvious place to start. The methods you use to recruit new people, where you look for them and how you try to appeal to them can all have a big impact.
“We pay particular attention to recruitment. The pipeline is smaller, so it takes longer. But we’re taking steps like ensuring diverse interview panels,” Yvonne Agyei, chief people officer at Booking.com, tells Techworld.
It’s worth implementing a ‘blind’ application process to remove biases during recruitment, Panesar argues. For example this could entail removing candidates’ names or photos from application forms or using software built for this specific purpose.
Of course, there is no getting away from the fact that there simply are not enough women entering the tech industry in the first place, Gunita Bhasin, CEO and founder of social app Showcased, says.
Schools and universities should hold more information sessions, taster sessions and workshops to provide advice for people considering a STEM degree.
Employers who are really committed to improving diversity in tech, and who have sufficient budgets, should consider setting up programmes to target women, girls and under-represented groups far earlier on in their careers. Amazon and Booking.com have started running scholarship programmes for university students, for example. It’s also worth considering ways to help women switch careers into tech further down the line.
Tech companies can learn from new rules requiring UK companies to publish the difference in average pay between all men and women across the entire company.
Most of the tech giants already publish diversity statistics. It’s not the whole answer, but it can be a useful addition to a firm’s arsenal. Tracking progress and providing evidence of what works and what doesn’t is never a bad idea.
“Since we’ve been focused on recruitment we’ve seen diversity numbers really increasing, especially in product and tech roles,” Agyei says.
Booking.com collects data on attrition and pay equity, “and happily we don’t see a difference between men and women”, Agyei says.
Men have a 3.3 percent advantage in average pay at the company, but this is largely explained by the fact there are fewer men in entry level roles, she adds.
It can be tough to encourage companies to be open with their status, especially as it can feel embarrassing or intrusive, but at least by measuring these types of metrics they can start to track progress.
Role models and mentors
While actually attracting women into the tech industry in the first place is a crucial first step, another less-discussed but equally vital aspect is retention. One crucial part of keeping women in the sector is ensuring they see role models in leadership positions, says Agyei.
“We’ve set up mentoring programmes and find that having one-on-one interaction with another woman, especially in a senior role, can have a huge impact,” she explains. “We’re lucky because we have slightly more women than men and our CEO is a woman, but if you look at leadership roles, representation does decrease.”
Booking.com has also run mentoring schemes externally, for example at Web Summit in Lisbon and via sponsoring women to attend other conferences.
A growing number of companies are setting up ‘returner’ programmes for people who have had a career break – be it caring for elderly parents, bringing up children, illness, or just wishing to have some time off. FDM Group and techUK have been big advocates for these schemes within the tech sector.
Rather than focusing on diversity as a problem to be solved, surely a crucial part of encouraging more women into the tech is banging the drum for the industry as a fun, exciting and rewarding sector to work in.
“One of the things I like about tech is it’s less focused on seniority and more on what you can do. It tends to be a more flat, dynamic environment where people are more willing to take a chance on you,” Agyei says.
Despite the challenges, women in the industry are increasingly optimistic that the issue of diversity is finally starting to break through into the wider tech sector’s consciousness.
“In time, we can all make a difference…Conversations are happening that haven’t before and there’s more chance for progression than ever,” says Gemma Young, cofounder and CEO of digital property platform Settled.