A shortage of highly skilled employees is the number one challenge for UK digital tech businesses. Yet large swathes of the population, like women and disabled people, are seriously underrepresented in these firms.
Are technology businesses missing a trick by failing to recruit from the widest pool of applicants? Or is the reality more complex than this? We sought the views of key individuals in the Manchester tech scene on the challenges and opportunities presented by diversity.
Just How Male and Pale is the Tech Industry?
Tech is known for being male dominated. And these statistics paint a damning picture of the state of diversity in the industry. All except in the area of ethnicity where firms recruit more than a representative number of people from non-white backgrounds.
Demographic Area2016 UK Population Aged 16+Representation in Tech Firms
Source: Diversity in IT 2017
Why does this matter? With diversity comes business benefit.
There’s plenty of research that shows how companies with a broader range of employees gain value from their different perspectives, ideas and innovation. And the biggest advantage of all? Diversity improves the bottom line by as much as 35%.
Disability or Different-ability?
“I have a first class honours degree,” says Nicola, a 26 year-old woman with cerebral palsy who featured on Employable Me, a recent BBC2 disability series. “Why have you not got a job?” asks the interviewer. “You tell me”, Nicola replies.
Under-representation in roles where physical disability is a genuine barrier (like becoming a roofer for someone in a wheelchair) is understandable. But in a field like tech, where many jobs are desk-based and can even be carried out from home, you would expect to see higher levels of representation.
In fact, some disabilities, like autism, may help certain employees excel in the right roles. Yet, as the stats show, hiring people with disability is simply not happening in tech.
Vimla Apadoo is co-founder of She Says, a platform for women in the digital, tech and creative industries to voice their stories about working in non-diverse environments. Her events have opened the door on the sector to reveal a “jaw dropping” lack of diversity that goes beyond gender:
“When it comes to diversity as a whole we are still really far behind. You certainly don’t get people from ethnic minorities working in management or at senior levels. And disability is virtually non-existent in tech. It just isn’t catered for”.
Apadoo puts this down to leaders not being conscious enough of these issues and points to the fact that “people find it easy to talk about gender but struggle to talk about race or disability.” This keeps certain doors firmly shut, be they entrances into the sector or glass ceilings for the few who have managed to make it in.
Challenging unconscious bias and creating a landscape open to all relies on decision makers being part of the conversation that addresses diversity and understanding the benefits it brings.
Websites like Ambitious About Autism help employers find ways to make workplaces accessible. Not only does this help those with disability access employment but it helps employers realise the potential of this untapped workforce.
Gender Diversity Starts With Education
A lot has been said about the underrepresentation of women in the tech sector. Many believe the problem stems from a lack of suitably qualified females because so few women take Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (STEM) subjects. And the stats seem to back this up.
In the UK, only 20% of students studying computer science at GCSE level are girls and this dips to 16% at degree level and beyond. This figure is broadly in line with the 17% of women working in tech indicating that there may be a direct correlation between field of study and career.
This situation presents employers with a challenge as Barry Lowe, CEO of IT support firm SAN-iT says,
“Unfortunately, we have struggled to recruit women due to a lack of female graduates specialising in IT. I could count on one hand the number of female applicants we have received when recruiting for IT support roles.”
Lowe would “love to see this situation change” but he might have a while to wait. Because although gender diversity has started to be called out in the industry, the gender balance of the workforce hasn’t changed.
Apadoo warns that “while the industry has a come a really long way in terms of people no longer being afraid to call out gender inequality and say “this isn’t ok”, it still has a long way to go.”
A Complex Challenge
This is something that Adaobi Adibe agrees with. She runs Sisterhood Movement to help women of colour progress in their careers. She believes that lack of diversity is not a challenge restricted to the tech sector pointing to the fact that there are no black female CEOs in the Fortune 500.Adibe believes that part of the challenge is that “people only network within their own groups.” This lack of cross-diversity means “white middle class men don’t get to meet black working-class women from inner-city London.” Making it difficult for white male leaders to spot upcoming talent from different backgrounds.Networking is just one part of the problem as Adibe sees it and she agrees that “education is also a big part of the issue.” Her school only encouraged children to reach for careers that were considered to be realistic. And she warns, “if you are only taught that you can make it to a certain level that’s all you will achieve at best.”Contrast this to other countries where women are encouraged to see tech as a genuine career opportunity and the numbers of women studying computing varies significantly. In India and Malaysia, for example, around 50% of students in computing classes are female.
Take Your Business Beyond Female Friendly
Prof Dame Wendy Hall, a director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, believes that the gender bias towards men in tech is down to the fact that computers were originally marketed as ‘boys’ toys’ in the 1980s. Something that has perpetuated the concept of computing as a male job.
What can employers do to counteract this? While you can’t specifically target the recruitment of females over males, you can advertise your business in such as way as to make it more appealing to women.
Firms like Apple and Google have taken drastic steps like offering to freeze employees’ eggs to attract more females. Although this tactic is probably not for your firm, providing flexible working and family friendly policies and having female representation on your leadership team can attract more women.
But there are also other, more subtle ways of making organisations more welcoming to specific groups.
Michelle Pratt is a mentor at the Albert Kennedy Trust that represents LGBTQ youth and was also the global co-chair of the Rainbow Network at RBS. She believes that diversity is not just about adhering to the law and preventing discrimination but challenging unconscious behaviours that:
“in isolation might seem insignificant but have a big cumulative impact over time. Lots of little comments or actions that tell people that they don’t belong or that they aren’t valued as highly.”
In Pratt’s view, a diverse workforce is made up of different genders, gender identities, ages, sexual orientations, disabilities and a whole range of other factors. Just as importantly, diverse businesses are places where everyone can truly be themselves:
“If you have a good mix of people but they all conform to the same behaviours, that might suggest people are ‘bending themselves’ to fit in. People will only fulfil their full potential when they can bring their whole selves to work.”
Bring Diversity Out of the Closet
As with any major social change, communication is key. Adibe is an advocate of putting diversity on the agenda recommending that firms “create space for inclusivity and push people to be comfortable talking about the uncomfortable.”
She calls on business leaders to understand their own privilege and think about “why your business is made up of other white middle-class people.” While this might feel difficult, it’s certainly not impossible as Pratt’s experience at RBS shows.
To put diversity at the heart of business operations, each white male exec was appointed to and held accountable for representing a strand of diversity:
“Not only did each leader put a lot of effort into understanding the challenges faced by the people they were representing but they spoke about them constantly to everyone in the business.”
When top execs make diversity and inclusion a visible priority in this way, it tells the layers of management below that it is an important subject and makes a huge difference.
Look For Experience Across the Ages
With retirement age increasing, many of us will be working into our late sixties. Which makes employment for the over-50s a pressing topic. However, this demographic is under-represented in the tech industry despite older people being present at the dawn of popular computing.
At SAN-iT, Lowe enjoys having a balance of ages within the team because it brings “experience, expertise and a different dynamic” to the business. That said, he’s also a big advocate of IT apprenticeships to ensure a full complement of ages and knowledge:
“Amarjit and Tom started with us five and three years ago as apprentices. They have both worked their way up with Amarjit now a support team leader and Tom providing third line support and project engineering.”
Using apprenticeships in this way has enabled SAN-iT to bridge the gap between government apprentice training schemes and the knowledge and skills required to work in a professional IT role.
Combinations of government and in-house training schemes are also important from an economic perspective as they provide access to careers some may never has thought possible before.
Apadoo stresses that removing such blockers is particularly important for the tech industry because for those who don’t come from a background where their family is digitally enabled or tech literate, people are less likely to pursue tech as a career.
And there are benefits of this approach for organisations too. Finding ways to bring a range of people with different backgrounds into SAN-iT has propelled the business forward with the firm winning Best IT Provider at the Talk of Manchester Awards.
For an industry so proud of disrupting the status quo, so far tech hasn’t been able to fully disrupt itself. As a sector with problem solving at its core, there’s no reason tech businesses can’t overcome diversity challenges.
In fact, the industry is already part of the way there. As the stats at the start of this piece show, tech firms have bucked the trend when it comes to hiring ethnically diverse workforces. Now more tech businesses need to apply their success in this area to those of age, women, gender identity, sexuality, disability and all the other identities that make up the sector’s wonderfully diverse workforce.
Not only will this help businesses close the skills gap but it will propel those who first take the initiative to even greater success.