Achieving equality is a marathon we must all run together
It has been ingrained into society that females must follow one path, while males follow the other. This is reinforced in our daily lives through the adverts we see, clothes we buy and the roles we assume. Jacqueline de Rojas, President of techUKand Chair of the United Kingdom’s Digital Leaders board, discusses how we must progress together as a society to achieve gender equality.
Over the last year, we have seen a huge change in attitudes towards women across many industries. The incredible #metoo movement shook the modern world and highlighted intrinsic on-going sexism in the hope to stamp it out. As a woman in business – in fact, regardless of my position – I am so proud of all the women (and men) working to shift attitudes and strive towards equal rights. With International Women’s Day falling during this month, on 8th March, now is the time to celebrate the successes we have seen to date, but also highlight how important it is that we all continue to press for progress. We are running a marathon here, and it is only by taking every next powerful step together that we will cross the finish line.
Within the tech sector, gender diversity is a major concern. The facts speak for themselves. Although women represent 47% of the whole UK workforce, they only make up 17% when you look at the technology sector. That is shocking when you consider that the UK already has a large and growing chasm between the digital skills needed to remain a leading digital nation, and the skills available within the workforce at present.
Developing more diverse work cultures is not just "the right thing to do": it is the right thing for a business and for the sector as a whole. Diversity breeds creativity. Ideas that originate from non-diverse teams often do not reflect the markets’ need. A diverse team can more accurately understand and serve a variety of customer bases and their requirements. Some reports suggest gender-diverse companies are 45% more likely to improve market share and are 70% more likely to successfully capture new markets. By encouraging women to enter and thrive in the tech industry at all levels, we become more robust, more competitive, more innovative and, of course, more inclusive.
Many businesses are acutely aware of the growing problem and have set initiatives to turn the tide, but many companies work in silos. We must work together to shift the balance and look at every stage of the pipeline: attracting children into tech, retaining them and supporting the progression of women throughout their tech careers, as well as bringing men into that conversation.
It starts well before a female begins her working career. For example, A-Level results in 2017 show less than 10% of those completing a computing course were female. Much of this is as a result of exposure from a young age to gender bias, and teachers can also be affected by these external cues. A recent Centrica survey on teacher and pupil STEM perception found that nearly a third of male and 16% of female teachers think STEM careers are more suited to boys than girls.
Some resources are available to empower young women to understand the opportunities in tech, including People Like Me. It allows girls to use their natural tendency to define themselves by adjectives – such as imaginative or good with numbers – rather than objectively, as boys generally do. The tools translate the descriptions into career types, such as Explorer or Regulator, Persuader or Developer, and shows which STEM careers could be of interest.
Opportunities for progression are so important. Women must have, and feel that they have, the opportunity to progress through a business. The Tech Talent Charter (TTC), launched at the end of last year, is a government-backed initiative where organisations commit to a set of undertakings that aim to deliver greater diversity in the UK tech workforce, better reflecting the make-up of the population. A vital tenet of the Charter is that companies must commit to monitoring diversity across their own business so that we can evaluate success and make more impactful, measurable changes as an industry for the future.
Finally, I would also like to shine a light on women returning to the labour market – returners – and the importance for them to embrace technology in the new world of work for advancement. Estimates suggest that almost two million women in the UK are currently economically inactive due to caring commitments, and 76% of professional women on career breaks want to return to work. The tech sector has some way to go with keeping women within the industry: the average tenure of a woman in the industry is seven years.
Traditionally, there are no proper structures in place for women who have taken leave for caring responsibilities. This translates into a widening gap in senior female tech leaders; fewer than one in ten of the 17% of women in tech are in leadership positions. The techUK Returners Hub aims to bring tools from different companies together so returners can understand their options and become empowered to step back into the tech sector.
More action is being taken: the Chancellor has also announced £5 million to support returners’ programmes. But we must continue to push for progress so that women are not left behind as technology, and the skills needed to thrive in this sector, develop at speed.
By continuing to grow, support and develop initiatives already in place within the tech sector, we can make a real difference and make our society, and our workplaces, more fair and equal. We can win the race for equality together.
Read Chapter 7: The under-representation of women in STEM fields taken from the OECD report The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle