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I’ve worked to improve diversity in IT for decades. Here’s why we’re still struggling

BCS president Rebecca George takes over Tech Monitor as guest editor for the day. Here, she writes about her experience of encouraging women to join the industry.

Tech Monitor today welcomes a special guest editor, BCS president Rebecca George. BCS is the chartered institute for IT and has 68,000 members in 150 countries. For her editorial takeover, George has commissioned a series of guest articles from industry experts. To kick off, she writes about why, after decades of concerted effort, the IT industry is still struggling to improve its diversity.

I’ve been trying to get more women into IT since I became involved with the BCS in 1997, when I got back from the US and joined a group the eminent computer scientist Dame Wendy Hall was running for senior women in IT.

I helped to run, and later lead, programmes which addressed issues that were central to getting more women in tech. These included supporting girls computing at schools, getting people from non-technical degrees into the industry supporting technical graduate and experienced personnel hiring programmes, looking at how to support women through career breaks and returning to work, and developing strategies to advance women’s careers.

However, the number of women in IT has continued to decline to where we are now, hovering at around 20% in 2020, according to analysis from BCS. The lack of diversity in technology continues to undermine the industry, just as it did in 1997. But why?

One issue is a lack of professional female role models within the industry – I used to do presentations to parents at one point and I would always ask them to put their hands up if they knew a teacher, doctor or nurse. Many hands would go up. I would ask them to keep their hands up if they knew someone who was an IT executive and almost all would go down. When I said keep your hands up if that IT executive is a woman, all the hands would go down.

Rebecca George, President, BCS. (Photo courtesy of BCS)

During my career, I’ve benefitted from the support of male leaders within the industry. I got all my jobs because men appointed me. I have very rarely actually applied for a job or role – usually I’ve been asked if I will take something on and when I think about it, I realise I could probably have a go. It’s human nature to surround yourselves with people that look and think like you. With many more men in the industry than women, some may see hiring a woman as the riskier option – putting someone who does things differently into a job and letting them get on with it. For women to succeed in the industry, more men must be encouraged to make decisions to promote and support women into leadership roles.

Addressing the problem at the grass-roots level, within education, must be a priority as well.  Studies have shown that many girls are put off studying STEM subjects as they are stereotypically viewed as ‘male’ subjects, that they are less likely to succeed in. I was in co-education from three to 18, where boys dominated in computer science. I hated maths and wanted practical applications rather than theory in any science subject. However, if I had done computer programming I think I would have enjoyed it – I was very good at a version of it we had before we had Word! Making the most of my ability in logic, being numerate, loving patterns, could all have been harnessed and taken me into a more technical place if, like today, computer science was presented as a route to a strong career for women as well as men.

Meanwhile, within workplaces, organisations, programmes and culture – things are changing and Covid-19 will perhaps accelerate that development. In order to recruit, retain and enable people of all backgrounds to flourish, then all companies, big and small, need to think hard about how to do it. Just leaving it to chance clearly doesn’t work.  If organisations want senior leaders to be diverse, they have to put in place programmes, systems and processes to make sure it happens.

Diversity networks, targets, unconscious bias training, recognition for senior leaders who do a great job in this area, executive reviews of the numbers on a regular basis, upward mentoring, sponsorship, top talent development programmes – they all play a role. Culture matters too. What is acceptable in the office, how people talk to each other, role models demonstrating good behaviours, getting rid of presenteeism, capitalising on the benefits we have found in working from home during Covid-19 are all important.

So too is making changes for what is likely to be a more blended future, nurturing and celebrating people with neurodiverse capabilities, looking after mental health and well-being – all of this is important.  The way we are working is changing – and this brave new normal must look at how we can do things better.

Finally, out of both choice and necessity, more women are now working in the UK than ever before. Many companies have adapted to support those working while caring for a family, but there are still some that fail to make allowances for family life, thereby hobbling career options. Caitlin Moran warns that your partner or spouse can be your glass ceiling.  My own experience is that being totally honest from the start about how important your work and career are is really important. It can be very rewarding being the partner of a successful leader, but there are compromises to be made, as well.

How to promote diversity in IT

Three ways organisations can ensure they can attract and retain the best man, or woman, for the job.

1. Women rarely apply for jobs unless they think they can do it all. Research from LinkedIn found that women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men, but are 16% more likely than men to get hired after applying to a job. Ensuring job adverts are written in a gender-inclusive way will encourage a better diversity in applicants. So too will focusing on the critical skills applicants must have, rather than those that are preferable.

2. From my experience, women are likely to regard interviews as exams, when any statement could be picked apart or questioned, while men are more likely to be in selling mode. This behaviour is often exacerbated depending on whether it is a man or woman leading the interview. Having clear competency-based questions is key to ensure that every interviewee can be judged on the skills they will bring to the role.

3. Research undertaken in the UK found that two in three men said they would be comfortable asking their employer for higher pay compared with just two in five women. In these situations, I’ve found that support and sponsorship are influential to women aspiring to take on new roles and promotions. Having three key stakeholders – one in your direct management line and two others as senior as your bosses’ boss, but in other reporting lines – can give women the confidence, as well as the assurance, that they are qualified for the position they are putting themselves forward for.