Why I’m optimistic on International Women’s Day despite the frustratingly slow pace of change

March 8, 2024
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On International Women's Day, our CEO, Bev White, shares her thoughts on the progress (and lack of!) there has been in the number of women in tech. This article first appeared on Computing.co.uk.

Although gender equality is still nowhere near where it should be, as we celebrate another International Women’s Day I put myself in the optimistic camp. There are signs of change in society and business and, overall, things are moving in the right direction – the question is, how fast can we make that change go?

Technology lagging on gender

Certainly, in my own industry of technology, change needs to happen much faster. The Digital Leadership Report that we publish every year shows that the proportion of women in technology leadership roles and in the IT workforce as a whole is only inching up by degrees year on year. Our 2023 research showed that globally 14% of leaders and 23% of the workforce are female – these are the highest we’ve seen but there again the rate of change is glacial and they are far below where they should be.

In fact, a sobering finding from the British Computer Society (BCS) is that, for the proportion of women in technology to grow to equal the 48% of women in the wider workforce, at the current rate of change it would take 283 years!

I don’t know about you, but I am not prepared to wait nearly three centuries for women to have their rightful representation in the wonderful world of tech. It’s very frustrating to see such slow progress given how fantastically suited so many women are to careers in technology.

Because there are so many different roles and skills needed in the industry – from technical skillsets through to broader problem solvers, communicators and creative thinkers – and women can tick all the boxes just as much as men.

So why isn’t change happening faster in the technology industry? Partly it’s because transformation just does take time.

There is no doubt that action is increasing at the entry level end, and this is great to see. Initiatives like T Levels, the government’s digital bootcamps aimed at Gen Z, and the growing number of schemes from employers specifically to attract a more diverse range of young talent, are all helping attract more young girls (and other young people from diverse backgrounds) into technology. There is further to go and more to do, but I am encouraged by what we’re seeing.

Losing women from the pipeline

However, the problem that we continue to encounter is that too many young women join an employer – and then bounce out again further down the line when their life circumstances change, perhaps never really returning to the professional marketplace. The middle and upper layers still need intensive focus. Because if we don’t fix that, no matter how many young women join at entry level, too few will make it through to the other side.

There are many reasons why so many women bounce out. Sometimes it’s to do with the prevailing culture and attitudes of the workplace, which remain very male-dominated in many businesses. Often it’s to do with the struggle of balancing work with family and caring responsibilities which, despite societal change, still fall disproportionately on women.

Changing the dynamic

That’s why embracing flexible working is so important. This helps all of us, regardless of gender or other characteristic, to manage workloads and balance them with the other elements of our lives. It means that people can give the best of themselves and develop their full potential.

But flexible working is only part of the story. More broadly, it’s about changing the dynamic, it’s a question of thinking about the structural governance and communication needed to create and sustain a diverse workforce. Sometimes this requires standing back and being very thoughtful and considered about how, as leaders, you’re establishing the conditions where everyone can thrive.

We had an example of this at Nash Squared which demonstrates the point. We hold all-company town halls once a quarter, and hold two events each time so that people from different parts of the world can join depending on what time zone they’re in. We have been holding these at 8am and 4pm GMT. But we noticed that attendance rates were a little below what we expected and hoped for: why was this?

Discussing this as a management team, we realised that the times conflicted for some parents with school drop-off or pick-up times. We hadn’t properly factored this in. As a result, we are going to change the time for at least one of the sessions next time, and hope that this will enable more to join.

Creating channels for diverse voices

Another way of changing the dynamic is to give the opportunity for a wider range of diverse voices to be heard.

Your leadership team may be lacking in some aspects of diversity – so look beyond your direct team sometimes and give other people the opportunity to step up and contribute in terms of reporting to the Board on specific projects, or representing the business to certain clients or suppliers. Look for that up and coming talent who can be mentored, supported and encouraged to grow – they will rarely disappoint! This can be a powerful tool not only for gender but other forms of diversity too.

In short, it’s about finding ways of doing things differently. We’ve grown up as leaders in a system that’s very different to the one we need to create. So, we have to get used to trying new things, even if sometimes this takes us out of our immediate comfort zone. If we don’t do this, little will actually change.

Reasons for optimism

I said at the beginning of this piece that I am optimistic. Given all the challenges I’ve highlighted, you may be wondering why. Firstly, we’re seeing an improving picture across the Big Tech giants, with Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple all reporting progress in the numbers of women they’re recruiting and employing. These are brands that should be setting an example, and now are doing so through action and making their diversity figures publicly known.

But a broader reason for optimism is that I believe there are more people who want the world to be a better place for future generations than those who don’t. More people than not look beyond outward markers like gender or ethnicity to see the capability and potential that’s there. That’s why I believe that we will make significant progress over time – even if I hope it doesn’t take 283 years.

Let’s celebrate all the achievements and contributions of women this International Women’s Day – but remember that we should be doing that every day, not once a year. More accurately still, every day should be ‘International Diversity Day’. If that was the case, we’d soon see positive change accelerating and diverse people thriving in every walk of life.

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