Why do we still have a diversity and skills problem in the Tech sector?

Woman speaking to a crowd at a salon, Diversity in Tech

Written by Elizabeth Vega, CEO for Informed Solutions

If we are serious in wanting to #PressforProgress in tech, we must have the ‘real’ conversation about what’s really holding our industry back.

This year’s International Women’s Day #PressforProgress campaign is firmly aligned with the growing global movement for women gaining equality, greater opportunities and dignity for their gender.  From emboldened and articulate actors at the Oscars, to the great and wonderful diversity of voices willing to share their personal pain and experiences through #MeToo, media coverage about women’s battles to win equality would suggest that we’ve achieved serious advances in gender parity.

The facts, however, are less persuasive.

The latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report evidences that the gap between the achievements and wellbeing of men and women has actually widened in the last year.  Across the globe, women have lost ground in accessing the same opportunities that are open to men, and they are far more limited in their ability to fulfil their social and economic potential.  This is especially true in the tech industry, which worryingly is also the sector that offers the largest and broadest skills and jobs opportunities for the future.

By now, most of us are familiar with the sobering statistics.  Only 17 per cent of employees in the UK tech sector are women.  Over a quarter of female students say they’ve been put off by a career in tech.  The laddish culture and boorish behaviours in many overtly male dominated workplaces are unwelcoming, intimidating and can be demeaning to female colleagues.  It genuinely upsets me to say that in Manchester, our UK headquarters, over half of all businesses surveyed by the Manchester Digital annual skills audit responded that their tech teams are exclusively male.

These types of statistics are well reported, and so too are the rational arguments around why we simply must close the gender and skills gap.  It therefore seems that rational argument doesn’t gain traction.

Perhaps, it’s time to explain the unpleasant consequences of complacency and empty rhetoric, however unintended or benign.

The tech sector is growing fast and creating most of the new job, business and economic growth opportunities.  The tech sector is a global and highly competitive marketplace and other nations, including those previously considered third world or developing, are keen to compete for business and invest in upskilling their workforce to improve their economic prospects.  The unvarnished truth is that the UK and Australia has a critical shortage of tech, data sciences, cyber security and digital skills, amongst others.  Our ability to maintain the economic prosperity and quality of life, that we are accustomed to having in Australia and the UK, relies upon us developing the full breadth of our workforce and ensuring that it is appropriately skilled.

Unless parents and leaders in education, business and government are serious about overcoming diversity and culture issues, we will not have a capable workforce, our businesses and economy will not be competitive, and our young people will have far fewer and more limiting life choices.

I call it out, loud and clear, that the prejudiced attitudes and undermining behaviours evident every single day – across homes, schools, universities, workplaces, on company and institutional boards and in government – disincentivise and discriminate against women in tech and in leadership careers.  Our national and regional economies, businesses and children will pay a heavy price, within just a handful of years.

Rather like global climate change, it may be more convenient and expedient to ‘market a good message’ and gloss over the real challenges of addressing workforce diversity and the skills shortfall.  However, not developing the full potential of a nation’s workforce will have grave social and economic consequences, within just a few years and certainly within the window of the current generation.

A UK parliamentary committee warned that the current failure to equip the workforce with the digital skills that employers need is already costing the British economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

So, we need to have ‘real’ conversations.

Innovation is at the heart of opportunity in the new economy and there have been many studies showing that women help make a group more effective at solving problems.  Unless women are actively engaged in shaping the future of technology then our industry doesn’t have the means to contribute to society as it needs to.

For example, early speech recognition technology was created by all-male teams and proved to be useless in a workplace of primarily female administrative and secretarial staff.  Similarly, air bags in vehicles, initially produced by an all-male team resulted in the deaths of women and children when deployed, because they had been designed and only tested against the height and weight standards for men.

Disturbingly, consider a study by computer scientists from California Polytechnic State University and North Carolina State University.  It found that female participants in an open source programming event had their code rated more harshly than their male counterparts.

When the gender of the coder was hidden in the study, ‘gender blind’ assessments found that female developers were rated as having consistently better code.  The study concluded that women were very clearly disadvantaged by overt gender bias, despite in fact being better contributors.

What this study, and virtually every other gender gap study shows, is that engrained prejudice is underlying the lack of progress in closing the gap of workplace diversity and women in tech and leadership roles.

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity comes to mind: “Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome”.

So, we need more than rousing campaigns, inspirational hashtags and rational argument to close the gender diversity gap in tech. 

We need committed leaders that lead by example and personally oversee a workplace culture that enshrines equality, respect and inclusiveness across the organisation.  We need more credible female and male role models that authentically champion these values.  And we need more early interventions to make sure girls’ career choices aren’t restricted, even before they realise they have options.

Both men and women need to call out and challenge prejudice when it’s clear that women are being held back by outdated views and discriminatory behaviours.  There is nothing more powerful or effective than a male colleague standing by a female colleague because it’s ‘not fair or right’.  We need to make these men into our role models as well.

We also need muscular policies to address the persistent lack of progress to date, and real consequences if policies are breached.  To provoke some lively debate, may I suggest a merit/demerit system for grants and taxation schemes?

More than a decade ago, I moved on from feeling any angst over ‘token gesture’ sensitivities or academic argument around ‘affirmative action’ initiatives.  The statistics show we haven’t progressed and we now need to develop cut through, making workplace equality and diversity the ‘new normal’.

This will take proper, robust reporting on targets for gender ratios on STEM courses and in tech jobs.  Perhaps it’s also time to start looking at the concept of an “inclusion rider”, as raised by Frances McDormand at this year’s Oscars Awards ceremony.  This is a contract clause used by an influential actor to insist that the cast and crew, recruited to work on their film, meet an agreed level of diversity.

If Hollywood is actively looking at strong, potent measures to manage equality, respect and inclusion in their industry then we in the equally powerful tech industry couldn’t and shouldn’t do any less.


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