Women in tech: why it’s time to reframe the conversation

·5 min read

Boosting female representation in technology has been high on the agenda for the past decade. Yet despite the industry-wide push, gender pay gap reporting, TED talks and campaigns to encourage girls to study Stem subjects at school and university, the percentage of women employed in tech in the UK has barely moved from 15.7% in 2009 to 17% today. And women hold just 10% of leadership roles in the industry.

Some companies though are determined to buck the trend. That’s definitely the case at Depop, the pre-loved fashion digital marketplace and app, where 57% of the executive leadership team is female. Chief technology officer Remo Gettini says building diversity into all levels of the engineering department has been a priority. “We make a conscious effort to ensure that our jobs are designed and advertised in a way that removes any perceived barrier to entry … creating specifications that are gender neutral and avoiding language and phrases that are too tribal or male-oriented, such as ‘pack leader’ and ‘competitive environment’. Instead of creating an impression of a hierarchy, we want to be seen as a place of collaboration.”

Gettini has worked with Makers Academy, a coding bootcamp, to recruit promising female engineers. The bootcamp, which teaches students how to code in as little as 12 weeks, has helped more than 2,200 people to become software engineers since launching in 2013. More than a third of its graduates are women, and many have gone on to work for brands such as Deloitte, Google, the BBC and the Financial Times. Two years ago, Makers launched the UK’s first Women in Software Power List to showcase role models for the next generation of engineers and reframe the conversation around diversity in tech.

“Obviously it’s important to speak about the fact that women are underrepresented,” Haylee Potts, events lead at Makers, says. “But having that conversation is a double-edged sword. If that’s the only message that gets out there, it tells women that this is a hostile environment. And it doesn’t account for the amazing organisations, like Depop, that are really working to make change.”

It’s estimated that almost 1 million women need to be hired to reach gender parity in the sector, a shift that would benefit the UK economy by £2.6bn each year, not least through better communication and innovative ideas. Research has also shown that gender diversity at board level leads to better decision-making, curbs excessive risk-taking, improves a firm’s reputation and boosts earnings. But if the benefits are well established, why has progress been so slow?

Portrait of businesswoman working late in the office
Organisations such as Makers Academy and Women in Tech provide training and support to help women into the tech industry. Photograph: FG Trade/Getty Images

Sarah Luxford, partner in digital data and technology practice at the executive recruitment specialists GatenbySanderson, believes there needs to be broader, systematic change, to tackle persistent attitudes that a woman’s place is at home. “For me, this is about socioeconomic issues as well as the infrastructure. There’s also this big myth that to work in tech, you have to be a techie. In fact, the industry is crying out for different skill sets, be it programme management, finance, operations.”

Some years ago, while working at a headhunting firm, Luxford was frustrated by the lack of women shortlisted for executive roles. To understand the barriers and how to overcome them, she visited Silicon Valley, outside San Francisco, to interview 50 of the top women working in technology. “What it came down to was: having the right digital skills; ensuring there’s strong mentoring in place; looking at funding for [company] founders; increasing the number of female venture capitalists and angels; [promoting] best practice as a whole; and changing the tenure at a board and non-executive director level to allow for further diversity.”

Armed with this knowledge, Luxford went on to co-found Women in Tech in 2016. It now has 5,500 members in the UK and works with organisations, government and women to inspire change. “We’ve had startups formed by putting people in contact with each other, we’ve had multi-million pound contracts signed, we’ve had careers transformed,” she says of the success of the network. Having a support infrastructure can provide the extra confidence a woman needs to apply for promotion or a board position. It can also be an opportunity for women to raise their profiles through events or public speaking, and to develop leadership skills through mentoring.

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But for progress to be achieved, business leaders also need to address the barriers within their organisations, says Claudia Harris, chief executive of Makers: “If there are low numbers of women reaching the top, there is something wrong with the system and it needs to be fixed. Promote some of your high performers into leadership roles quickly to show that you are serious and there is a route through. Make sure women get the same support and sponsorship as men, and access to the same high-profile work.”

Luxford agrees that the shift has to come from the top to have the most impact. “It needs to be systematic and coordinated, not just a set of initiatives. This is not just a women’s problem or a HR problem.” She would like to see “digital” removed from job titles to attract a wider talent pool, for businesses to embrace flexible working in the long term, and for success to be measured by outcomes rather than time spent in the office. “Have a diverse panel in terms of your interviewing, and ensure your leaders are approaching the women in their teams to encourage them to apply for roles and to build confidence,” she adds. “I used to be wary of quotas but now I’m for them.”

For women looking to take the next step up, her advice is clear: “Go for it.”

To reframe your conversation around tech talent, contact Sarah Luxford at GatenbySanderson