Women in tech ‘Action Lab’

Women in Tech® is an international non-profit organisation on a mission to bridge the gender gap and help women get into tech. They held an ‘Action Lab’ at The Guardian to generate ideas to take to government. How can we can challenge the current status quo in tech, where even among other male dominated industries, female representation is shockingly low? PWC cites only 5% of tech leadership roles are held by women. 

The event was an open invitation for everyone to share their experience and ideas of how to improve gender parity in a sector, where we can name the Bill Gates and Mark Zukerburgs of the world, but struggle to name a single high profile female working in tech. 

Why does it matter? Visibility is a topic that came up time and again on the industry panel and the flash talk discussions. Technology is a sector that offers a fantastic variety of careers with huge earning potential. Whether women are being excluded from that from outright prejudice, or their choosing not to pursue those careers because of their own industry perceptions, businesses can’t reap the benefits of their insight. If women currently  working in tech are happy to share their journey, more women like them can see themselves in a similar position and follow suit. 

The availability of role models is beneficial, even if it’s just from a myth busting perspective. The idea that you have be good at maths or have an in-depth knowledge of coding to succeed in tech seems to be a commonly held misconception. And yet many of these professionals at the top of their game denounce these statements to be true. Technology, like other STEM professions, requires both critical and creative thinking, tasks which many women purport to enjoying.  

There are a rich variety of roles within tech organisations, the majority of which do not require bashing out code for 8 hours a day. It can be about creating a product, an experience or a means of delivering a message. If we can highlight those potential career paths to the workforce of tomorrow, would we see more women and girls engaging with the sector?

The people building technology needs to reflect our society as a whole because when they don’t that bias becomes a real-world problem and minority groups suffer. A shocking but not unique example of this was raised by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently. They found that that autonomous cars are more likely to hit back people as the detection sensors are better at picking up lighter skin tones. If the teams building those sensors had been more diverse, it’s an issue that’s likely to have been considered.

So, beyond misconceptions about the industry what are the other barriers to entry? Confidence and self-belief. Women are less likely to apply for job roles if they feel they don’t fulfil all the criteria on job adverts, whereas men will try their luck. Women are reported to me considerate in the job applications they apply for and one of the panellists noted the longer a role is advertised, the more women appear to apply. 

We could talk at length as to historical, societal and cultural reasons why this may be the case. But ultimately, whose responsibility is it to encourage women to step up into leadership roles? The answer seems to be everyone. When examining gender parity in the telecoms sector, Pickr did an interview with Virgin Media’s Executive Director of Construction and Delivery, Julie Agnew, who seemed to sum it up best. 

“I don’t agree with the victimisation calls from females or the “it’s not fair attitude”.  Women need to step outside their comfort zones and push themselves forward for promotional roles. However, to do this, we must support and develop them to be more confident, understand their own worth and help them raise their profiles.” 

This is where we can call upon our male allies to become agents of change. Where misogyny exists in the workplace, so do the men who challenge it. They may do this directly, calling out bias where they see it, or unconsciously, championing their female colleagues because that’s just who they are. 

Confronting barriers to women in the workplace including internalised ones, is critical to effecting positive change throughout the sector. The biggest threat to those conversations, however, is diversity fatigue. Some people, male and female, are tired of having these gendered conversations, especially when change feels like it moves at a glacial pace. To reinvigorate that focus, try asking what are your motivations for change?

Anju Solanki from the MEA Consulting Group, says there are three key motivations for change. Personal motivations, organisational motivation and societal motivations. For our male allies their personal motivation may be a desire to forge a more equal world for their daughters. Their organisational motivation might be acknowledging diverse businesses perform better. The societal motivation might be a moral obligation to create a level playing field for everyone, regardless of gender, race, age, physical abilities ect. You can see Anju’s top inclusion takeaways from our Diversity and inclusion discussions with AWS. 

There’s nothing wrong with tapping into our personal motivations as these often result in strongest proponents for change. But some prospective male allies have expressed worry about how to offer their support. To get around this we must understand small daily actions can lead to long-term transformation. Whether it’s moderating your own use of language or calling out others, actively attending diversity events or offering your services as professional mentor, giving people a tool kit of how to offer that support will be key to building a diverse and inclusive workplace that benefits everyone, individuals and businesses alike.