I kicked off this year's London Tech Week with a panel hosted by The Trainline on why there aren’t enough women in tech, and what we can do about it. I  am really interested in the complex discussions around diversity in tech, and I have been to a number of panels and events focused on the lack of women in tech. However, this one stood out because it had a clear call to action: what can we do about it?

The panel consisted of Amali de Alwis from Code First Girls, Clare Gilmartin the CEO of The Trainline, Chi Onwurah, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, and Ana Avaliani from the Royal Academy of Engineering and was hosted by Mike Butcher of TechCrunch.

For me, this event’s key message was the Suffragette adage “Deeds not words”. We know that there is a problem, and many in the industry want to address it – but it needs more than discussion, it needs action.

So, without further ado…

Let’s start with some statistics

To frame the event, it was pointed out that currently only 20% of technical jobs are done by women. This isn’t news to anyone in the sector (which is why the event was so well-attended) but I wasn’t aware that this figure has nosedived from 33% in 2007.

The market remains buoyant, with lots more people choosing a career in a technical field; however, it seems that most of these people are still male, with women largely choosing to opt out of STEM careers. Chi Onwurah pointed out that when she graduated from Imperial with a degree in engineering, just 10% of her class was female. Fast forward 30 years, and this has only increased to 12%. We need to do something now if we don’t want to see similarly disappointing results in another 30 years.

The statistics suggest that there is still not enough being done to dismantle the stereotype that STEM jobs aren’t for women, and the industry needs to step up its efforts to include women. It is important that both men and women act to co-create a positive future for us.

Finally, 85% of female engineers love their job – so let’s tell young girls this!

Education, Education, Education

We know girls at school age are more likely to drop maths and science, but what can we do about this? There is a systematic problem behind some of this and there are important points to consider around what we can do today to help in the long term.

We need to challenge what careers girls see themselves doing. Women have all the creativity, all the strategic ideas, and the ability to build new products already, but their skills are currently being pumped into other industries. There needs to be more education about career options at a young age to give students, male as well as female, multiple options of how they can channel their talents into a future career. We can teach these age groups more about what the wider purpose of technology in the world is, and how they can contribute.

The Royal Academy of Engineering is leading the way on this and working to encourage more 14 to 18-year olds to look at engineering as an option. Outside of engineering, we can show students what other options are available in technology businesses, giving them more options to contribute to the market.

Education post-university is also important. It is rare to know what you want to do when you are 18, so can the industry do more to support career changes and life-long education?

Role models are important

The panel emphasised the importance of role models – for girls at school, for university graduates, women at the beginning of their career, and those looking to make a change in career. To encourage more women into these roles, they need to see and hear more from women who are already doing it.

Mentoring is also helpful to encourage women to progress. It has also been noted that some women drop out of careers in tech due to the lack of support they are given. The more women that get into tech, the more likely others are to follow as well.

Why is diversity important?

Chi Onwurah said that “Diversity isn’t a nice to have, it’s about our competitiveness on the global stage.” There was scepticism about some tech businesses wanting to appear diverse, but not fully understanding the benefits they can achieve from diversity.  

Diverse teams create better products. Claire Gilmartin pointed out that the user base for Trainline is diverse and is 50/50 male/female; so it makes sense that the team building the product should be diverse too.

So how can tech companies be held accountable for their initiatives to make their teams more diverse? Should they be regulated, or simply encouraged? Most businesses that we work with want to be more diverse, which is encouraging, but what else can they do to hire more women and underrepresented groups?

What can employers do?

The good news is that there are plenty of tech businesses can do to get more women into tech, whether that is in the future, now, or focusing on retaining women in your business.  We know there is a skills shortage today, and tech businesses have a part to play in changing this for the future.

We need to take action to make deeper changes – it’s not just about outside appearances. There were some great ideas that can make an impact:

  • Encourage diversity through your hiring process. Consider how you can have a more diverse workplace, not only with more women but also with other underrepresented groups. For example, look at your hiring process, and how new candidates perceive you. Make your interview panel as diverse as possible, to enable input on hiring decisions to come from across the business; and encouraging other diverse candidates to feel more comfortable.
  • Give women the space to give their ideas. Smaller, agile teams suit technology, and this can encourage women to speak up and share their ideas within a trusted group. Help adapt your culture to suit different personalities, and your ideas can be more innovative.
  • Set up mentoring programmes. This could be internally or programmes where you can interact with women who are new to the industry.
  • Have a better work/life balance. It is one thing to hire women, but we need to do more to retain women as well. This works for men too! Step away from traditional structures where you are rewarded for the number of hours you work, but rather the work you do. Trust your staff in how they manage their time.
  • Coming back to work after maternity is a big step. Tech companies could look at what they offered operationally offering paternity cover too, as well as flexible and part-time work.
  • Consider how your business can help to educate students about tech. Support universities and schools in helping to get more kids interested in technology and showing them what opportunities there are in your workplace.
  • Can you support the transition from other careers as well? There is a vast amount of talent not being given the chance to take a step into technology. Can your business offer training programmes to help women coming back to work, or look for a new career? Can you do more internally to encourage women to take on engineering positions?

There is plenty to be done and lots that we can all contribute to make a difference, whether you are from an established business or a start-up. Start making a change today!

The future of tech

There is no escaping the fact that the future is going to be technical! Tech and engineering are going to be key skills in the future and we need to be diverse to ensure we are a competitor on the world stage, and in the global economy.

We are on the cusp of a big change, and we need to push for women to be a big part of that. It isn’t just about choices made at school, this is about changing the culture to encourage women to join and stay in the technical industry. We can help to normalise difference – and call it out when this is discouraged.

The panel showed that this is not something we can let slip or only pay lip-service to, we need to embed an everlasting change to empower the future.

Now – let’s get talented women into tech!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of getting more women into tech careers. Say hello at emily@wearefutureheads.co.uk.

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