It’s time for a more practical approach to gender diversity

There needs to be a concerted, proactive approach from the government, businesses and HR to increase representation of women in the tech sector, argues Jane Keith

The need to address the under-representation of women within technology roles shouldn’t still be an ongoing conversation, but unfortunately it is. There is, however, new urgency to address this, which is in part connected to the current speed of technological change. Those technology businesses that have embraced diversity are best able to adapt to change, see the opportunity and evolve – and those that haven’t are left trailing behind.

The problem starts in education. According to the UNESCO report Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM, only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education globally are women. There is a raft of reasons why, from the perpetuation of stereotypes about the subjects girls study right through to a lack of positive encouragement from teachers to help girls pursue STEM subjects.

This lack of representation ultimately leads to a lack of women in technology roles. Overall, women technologists make up 29 per cent of the tech workforce today. Data from AnitaB.org shows that if numbers continue to increase at the current pace, it could take 12 years before women see equal representation in tech. We mustn’t wait that long. 

A lack of role models, together with a lack of transparency and flexibility within recruitment and retention, have deterred many women from applying for roles for too long. And across the sector, too few women make their way into managerial positions. Indeed, a 2020 study, led by Accenture and Girls who Code found that the two primary reasons why women are underrepresented in technology are the lack of mentors (referenced by 48 per cent of respondents) and the lack of female role models in the field (42 per cent).

Driving positive societal change

To address these issues, there is a need for a global workforce strategy. Society, including the government and the education system, must play its part. The government can start by encouraging schools to start championing girls from a young age to dream big and provide them with education and resources that don’t limit their aspirations. It can start encouraging schools to do more to break down the negative stereotypes that continue to characterise technology subjects as more relevant to males.

While schools educating girls in the importance of technology subjects will bring long-term benefits, it would take a number of years to see the impact of this and a generation gap would exist which is why education alone is not the answer. Gender diversity levels within technology management will need to improve as an urgent priority and governments should be incentivising tech firms to retrain women with the necessary skillsets from other industries into technology roles. 

What businesses can do 

Separate to what governments may be able to offer to improve gender diversity, there is much that technology businesses themselves should be taking responsibility for. Many firms have the investment and expertise behind them, particularly in HR, to take proactive action and start to embed a more gender-diverse approach in the way they work today. For example, providing programmes to retrain women who have had career breaks and therefore encouraging more female senior management by making the path back into work clear, accessible, and supported. 

HR leaders are the vital cog in initiating change and HR as a whole must be committed to making change happen. HR is instrumental in training managers in areas such as goal setting, performance management and annual reviews to ensure the gender diversity agenda is considered throughout. Line managers need to be told to have these open and honest conversations with female members of their teams and ask pertinent questions, such as ‘are there any opportunities you feel aren’t available to you?’ and ‘is there anything you feel is holding back your progress or development?’. Asking these questions will open a conversation that may typically otherwise be overlooked. 

In line with this, the business, with HR at the front, always needs to ensure that communication is clear, especially through the recruitment process. Candidates need to understand exactly what level of flexibility the business supports, including maternity policies, and exactly what its approach is around hybrid working. HR teams must move away from rigid job descriptions that talk about 37.5-hour, five-day working weeks. They must be prepared to consider roles for those working part-time or a condensed working week if they don’t want to deter talented female candidates. Too many talented young women today are lost to the technology profession when they decide to have children. 

All this, of course, does not negate the need for women themselves to take action to disrupt the status quo in technology businesses and raise their voices to initiate change. A key element of this is mentoring, whether formal or informal. Every woman who reaches a certain level within a technology organisation should have that desire to be an educator themselves and pass on that knowledge and understanding to multiple others. 

A joint responsibility

The end goal of gender diversity is difficult to achieve. Making progress requires societal involvement from education through government and on into business. Business can’t operate in a vacuum but, with HR at the helm, there is much it can do to drive through change from breaking down stereotypes to supporting flexible and hybrid working. 

Jane Keith is chief HR officer at IFS