Encouraging diversity and talent in tech

By Lorraine Johnson

It’s almost impossible to quantify the extent of the digital skills gap, but the main conclusion from all of the many surveys out there is that the UK has a severe skills shortage.

Despite the urgent need for technology skills, fuelled by rapid developments in areas such as artificial intelligence, women account for only 26 per cent of the technology workforce. Therefore, it is clear that we have a large untapped resource pool.

It’s important to contextualise these statistics against the variety and impact of tech, from the traditional technology sector to the technology and skills that are crucial to every business. The reality is that all facets of technology, from the sector itself to the fundamental skills businesses need, require greater representation and society must work to solve both aspects, across education, recruitment and industry.

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, recently warned: “It will take 283 years before women make up an equal share of the tech workforce if the current trend continues.”

The scale of the challenge is huge, and one we won’t be able to solve overnight, so it is important that government, industry and educators put the foundations in place to remove the systemic barriers causing the lack of diversity in technology.

Female CIOs, for example, while still in the minority, have been increasing in recent years among the Fortune 500, highlighting that companies are at least opening their eyes to the gender gap.

But it’s not simply a case of hiring female leaders, it’s a case of changing perceptions within the technology sector, driving interest and retention at an education level, providing the pathways to break into the technology sector, and following those up with the training and skills for successful career development, guided by mentors and role models.

Tackling the issue starts from the bottom; we have to figure out how to increase interest in technology and retention at an early age

For that simplified roadmap to be sustainable to the point that the 283-year gender gap in tech is closed, we need to remove the systemic barriers that are stopping women from reaching senior positions in technology.

Ninety-four per cent of girls and 79 per cent of boys drop computing as a subject in school at 14. Those numbers are too high across the board, given the importance of technology and skills in all aspects of daily life, let alone for businesses, but they are particularly concerning for females.

Tackling the issue starts from the bottom; we have to figure out how to increase interest in technology and retention at an early age. How can we expect women to enter the sector or develop critical digital skills if they are all dropping computing at 14?

Whether it’s adjusting the curriculum, showcasing the career prospects that technology can offer or putting on bootcamps with industry to generate excitement from those thriving in the sector, getting the education phase right is essential.

There is also a significant role to be played by recruiters, building on the educational foundations, who can oversee diversity at the hiring stage and provide women with opportunities at all levels from their first job in technology, right the way up to the C-suite.

Around two-thirds of technology workers in the UK believe that women are the answer to bridging the tech talent gap, yet only 40 per cent said their company had a concrete plan to improve the gender split in their IT teams. It’s a similar situation to the computing dropout rate in schools: how can we expect to make any sort of progress if businesses aren’t actually addressing the issue despite acknowledging women as a core part of the situation?

It is also important to acknowledge that gender makes up just one strand of diversity and businesses should be focused on improving all strands.

When it comes to the senior end of the scale, just 10 per cent of executive directors in FTSE firms across all industries are women, according to Women on Boards

From a recruitment perspective, I personally have seen a definite shift in mindset towards diversity from businesses. For example, increasingly, employers are wanting diverse candidate lists to choose from and are putting in effort to create gender-neutral job descriptions to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants.

In fact, hidden bias in job descriptions has been one of the barriers that has added to diversity issues across all industries. Research from Openreach revealed that hidden bias in job adverts deterred 50 per cent of female applicants looking for engineering roles. When advertising jobs, considering gendered phraseology, active vs passive construction, and improving key skillset descriptors, can have a subtle impact on the wording of a job specification, but a huge impact on application rates.

When it comes to the senior end of the scale, just 10 per cent of executive directors in FTSE firms across all industries are women, according to Women on Boards, so while certain sectors have been more progressive in evolving their diversity agenda, women in leadership is an issue plaguing many, if not all industries. However, leaders in transformation programmes tend to be more balanced.

A huge step towards shifting behaviour is in both breaking down the barriers to entry for technology roles and perceptions around the skills needed within tech roles. It is important to recognise that lots of people either don’t take or drop out of technical and computing skills training, but companies can focus more on interpersonal skills as an entry point before then providing technical training. Companies like Sigma Labs focus on removing barriers for graduates by providing training with an emphasis on both technical and professional high-performance thinking and behaviours.

Acknowledging the issue is an important first step, but we need to collectively kicksta meaningful change, starting at an educational level, to truly begin reducing the gender gap in tech.

Lorraine Johnson is Associate Director of Investigo


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