The contribution to the allied war effort made by codebreaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing is now rightly celebrated. The scores of women engaged in similar work, at the vanguard of the birth of modern computing are perhaps less well known. In fact, the majority of those working at the famous codebreaking HQ Bletchley Park during World War II, were women.
Fast forward to 2019, and just 17% of the overall technology workforce in the UK are women, and only one-in-ten IT leaders are women. The need for a more balanced representation of women is now the critical challenge facing the technology sector in 2019.
Balance for better, especially in tech
There are of course big gains to be made when the diversity of a workforce is improved – better morale, higher business profitability and a commercial edge over competitors to begin with.
However, the technology sector has another, perhaps more urgent, driver that makes the push towards greater diversity even more pressing. We are hearing stories every day that highlight how we are building this lack of gender diversity into programming and how artificial intelligence risks replicating gender bias across areas such as policing, the judiciary, recruitment and financial services.
In fact, a recent high-profile Silicon Valley AI recruitment trial was shut down when it was found to have developed a bias against women, because it favoured the CVs of men, due to their dominance in technology roles.
It is not hard to see how bad data inputs can lead to such biased outputs and that the repercussions will be significant across society. AI will affect all aspects our lives, so it is essential that we have diversity in the stakeholders who design and build it.
Take proactive steps to attract, select and retain women in tech
Technology industry leaders and recruiters must engage proactively to drive change. We all need to take more practical steps to engage, sustain and develop more women in technology careers.
In the Hays UK Diversity & Inclusion 2018 report, 57% of technology professionals said there have been occasions where they felt their chances of being accepted for a job have been limited due to their sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, gender or disability – and this figure was higher amongst female technology professionals, at 78%. Of these, 73% cited gender as the reason for their career progression being limited. So, on a very practical level we need to focus on what women really need to move their careers forward – such as flexible working, home working, and other agile working practices that support working parents, care givers and women returning to work after a career break.
None of this is new. In the United Kingdom, Dame Steve Shirley built her software company, Freelance Programmers, in 1962 by creating opportunities for women with dependents – offering a truly flexible working environment. She predominantly employed female programmers and had just three male programmers in her first 300 staff, until the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act made these hiring practices illegal. By offering women what they needed – including flexible working and consciously employing female returnees to the workforce – Shirley’s team of female programmers delivered several high-profile projects, including programming Concorde’s black box flight recorder.
It is hard to believe that in the Hays report, over a third (34%) of all technology professionals still felt that their organisation does not promote flexible working opportunities to all staff.
A top-down and bottom-up approach
A quarter of FTSE 350 board positions are now filled by women, and the UK’s technology sector needs to ensure it is following suit. Women are arguably better represented in fields such as HR, Legal, Compliance, Finance and Business Operations – and as such technology organisations should also look to develop female leaders in these fields to create more visible female technology leaders.
In addition, a bottom-up solution means technology organisations taking a proactive approach within their wider communities to raise awareness about careers in technology. For example, Hays Digital Technology is a partner to Teen-Turn, a charity which aims to provide teenage girls with hands-on experience working in technology, so that they can visualise themselves in a technology career. They do this through after school activities, work placements and career development programmes.
The industry has a big part to play in encouraging more girls into STEM subjects, and by offering internships and sponsorship opportunities. Industry leaders can all take on mentorship roles – there is no lack of strong advocates to support women developing their careers in technology today.
The future can be so much better
There is hope that women can re-balance their representation in the technology sector, and Teen-Turn alumnae is just one example of a programme that can foster real awareness, confidence and set young women onto a career path in technology.
Let’s grasp the issue of gender balance in technology head on, in the spirit of the pioneering women of Bletchley Park and trailblazers like Dame Steve Shirley. It is clear what must be done.
Although we are starting to see improvements in gender diversity, we all have a part to play to continue this journey. View our diversity page for more insights from Hays experts, and to get the latest Hays UK Diversity & Inclusion report.