With females making up just 17% of the tech industry, David Craik reports on how signatories to the UK's Tech Talent Charter are trying to redress the gender balance
When you think of the world’s most prominent tech boffins which images come to mind? The t-shirt-clad Mark Zuckerberg, the bespectacled Bill Gates or the wild stare of Elon Musk?
Apart from their genius and great wealth the most obvious trait the three share is that they are all male.
Indeed, the tech sector is failing badly when it comes to gender equality.
According to a report from Inclusive Tech Alliance, women make up just 12.6% of board members and 16.6% of senior executives in the UK’s top 500 tech firms. This compares with 30% amongst FTSE 100 firms.
Another recent study from Women in Tech revealed that only 17% of workers in technology are female, with just 7% of girl students taking computer science A-levels.
One of the benefits of diversity is you get a wider range of views around the boardroom table
Firms are being encouraged to redress this balance not just on a moral level, but because it makes business sense. A Credit Suisse report from 2016 stated that firms with at least 15% of female senior managers were 50% more profitable than those with fewer than 10%.
“One of the benefits of diversity is you get a wider range of views around the boardroom table,” says Rina Goldenberg Lynch, founder of gender inclusion consultants Voice At The Table. “In the technology sector you must have this diversity to innovate. If you are under-representing the needs of half the population then it will narrow what you create, how you design and market your products. You need to reflect society.”
Diversity will also help firms recruit the extra 1 million digitally skilled workers needed in the UK by 2020. “If you continue to fish for skills in the same small pond you will struggle. To attract more female talent you need to show that they will be treated equally and get every opportunity to contribute,” says Goldenberg Lynch.
So, what is and can be done to increase female representation?
Voice At The Table says cultural change is vital. “You need to create an environment which is friendly to women,” says Goldenberg Lynch. “We work with companies to make them more cognisant of what inclusive behaviours are. Part of that could be through reverse mentoring, so women working with men and showing them what they encounter in their role. Unconscious bias, where people may favour someone who looks like them or shares their values when hiring, setting tasks or promoting, must also be tackled.”
The cultural change must be led from the top – at present mainly males. “Yes, there is the business case behind diversity but it is also about fairness and leaving a better world for your daughters or nieces,” she says.
Five years ago, you had to work hard to show companies that there was a diversity issue in technology
The Tech Talent Charter (TTC) has, since 2017, been at the forefront of fostering leadership and cultural change. It encourages companies from corporates such as Deloitte and BT to small to medium-size enterprises to sign up to its charter and deliver greater diversity in their technology workforce.
To date, over 330 signatories have agreed to a series of pledges, including having women on job shortlists, actively encouraging women to apply and having employment policies to aid retention. They must also work collectively to share and implement best practice such as engaging with schools or training mums.
“Five years ago, you had to work hard to show companies that there was a diversity issue in technology. There is now increased buy-in from the top table. They see that it is not just the right thing to do, it is smart business,” says Debbie Forster, chief executive of the TTC. “We need more women in tech firms but also in any company using tech, such as banks or broadcasters.”
She says the process is working, with its member firms typically 9% ahead of average female representation in tech.
“There is no single bullet, but it is getting the inclusive culture right, offering more flexible working hours and part-time roles to retain and recruit,” she states. “It is about re-thinking how you word your job descriptions, your recruitment channels and retraining people from other sectors.”
One TTC member is insurance firm Aviva. It has created Women in Tech under the guidance of programme director Freya MacLachlan to improve the number of women in its IT department.
We have a very inclusive culture where decisions are based on talent and work ethic
“We want to get new female talent in and drive further innovation,” she states. “We already have a great flexible working system and provide equal paid parental leave for males and females. On unconscious bias we have rolled out a mandatory balanced selection process requiring all new hires to meet with a man and woman at some point during their recruitment process. We also have a number of other initiatives, such as stretch assignments – where an employee tries out a role at the grade above to see if it suits them, before being formally appointed – mentoring and job shadowing opportunities.”
When hiring, it uses tools such as Textio to support gender-neutral job adverts and is currently working on developing a Women in Technology landing page for its careers website.
“We are also launching a Women in Technology internship scheme this year and will have seven women in their second year of university joining us,” says MacLachlan.
Further down the road on tech diversity is managed service provider SysGroup. It has a 50% female management team and 40% female workforce. “It is an unusual ratio in our industry,” says group marketing director Emmy Lippold. “We have a very inclusive culture where decisions are based on talent and work ethic. We want to get the best person for the job no matter if they are male or female. We’ve found that our diverse culture has driven our growth and innovation in solutions and marketing.”
She acknowledges that finding female talent isn’t always easy in the tech sector so is also encouraging the next generation to consider it as a career.
SysGroup works closely with organisations such as InnovateHer, which aims to give girls aged between 12 and 16 the “self-belief, confidence and skills” to pursue a technology career. It includes an eight-week after-school programme where girls can work with and learn from industry role models.
One area we are looking to do more in is hiring women from other sectors, so based on competency rather than direct experience
Computer group Lenovo has also improved its gender ratio through its global Women in Lenovo Leadership (WILL) development programme. Of its executives, 18.7% are women – up by a third in the last four years. Overall, it has a 35% female workforce.
On recruitment its managers are encouraged to seek out diverse candidates and it is also using AI tools to analyse job descriptions and suggest changes to help them appeal to female candidates.
“There are two ways to impact representation of female executives namely the internal talent pipeline and hiring externally,” explains Seth Smiley-Humphries, director of global diversity & inclusion at Lenovo. “We focused on advancing high-potential females working internally and overcoming workplace biases such as lack of visibility or being given key assignments. It also includes mentoring, coaching, working with senior leaders and improving communication skills.”
On external hires it began by analysing its recruitment data such as who had applied for roles and who had been interviewed. “We trained our talent acquisition team on unconscious bias and having conversations with managers on diversity inclusion,” he states. “We also focus on diverse slates because if you never interview women how are you ever going to hire one? One area we are looking to do more in is hiring women from other sectors, so based on competency rather than direct experience.”
Cerys Johnson, chief executive of the REPL Group, made such a shift moving from an early career in accountancy to the tech world. “My degree was in physics, where I was the only woman on my course, and I then spent 15 years in finance. I moved into project management and became more aware of technology,” she recalls. “I came to REPL as a project manager and worked through the roles to chief executive. People here have been incredibly supportive. That includes being offered flexible working when I became a parent.”
This experience has given her the passion to encourage more women into the sector. “If a company nurtures you in the right way then the possibilities are limitless,” she states. “Being a company with a female chief executive makes you more interesting to potential female candidates. I can engage with them and tell my story.”
Being a company with a female chief executive makes you more interesting to potential female candidates. I can engage with them and tell my story
REPL makes online female tech communities aware of new roles a week or so before they are advertised more generally, and has taken away aggressive recruitment wording such as “assertive and analytical” and replaced it with “creative and responsible”.
REPL has also hired women with no tech experience or qualifications and through a buddying scheme, and on-the-job training has helped them to build lengthy careers. In the last 12 months, female representation has risen from 25% to 34%.
One alternative is to launch your own business, but even here females appear to be treated differently. According to a recent report into the European tech sector by Atomico, 93% of venture capital funds went into all-male founder teams in 2018.
One person trying to address this is Sarah Turner, co-founder of investment network Angel Academe, which invests in tech startups with at least one woman in the founding team.
“I have seen female tech entrepreneurs in front of male investors and it can be distinctly uncomfortable,” she says. “They just aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts. There are perceptions that women set up beauty firms not tech.”
Angel has, to date, invested in 25 firms, including stress-reducing wristband Doppel. “This is about proving that women can build tech businesses, are ambitious and confident,” Turner says.
It is a positive message taken up by Forster of TTC. “Tech builds and affects everything. With AI and machine learning we have to make sure as women that the creators of devices reflect all our lives,” she says. “We can’t just sit back and see what comes off the conveyor belt. We have to go in and shape these ideas.”
David Craik has been a freelance journalist for 15 years. He writes business news and feature articles for a variety of national newspapers and magazines
This article is part of the in-depth Tech for Good briefing. See also: