Women in Tech: Look how far we’ve come – look how far there is to go

August 31, 2023
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Sam Wilson, interim CIO, and Lily Haake, Head of Technology & Digital Executive Search at Harvey Nash, look at the positive steps made when it comes to women in the technology sector, but also what needs to happen for more progress in the future.

While the tech industry has challenged itself to increase the representation of women in recent years, there remains much further to go.

Women are still firmly in the minority and the proportion gets smaller the further up the ranks you look. Nash Squared’s annual Digital Leadership Report, for example, finds that only 23% of the tech workforce is female, and this reduces to just 14% of tech leaders.

On the positive side, these are the highest figures we’ve recorded in 24 years of research. Research from S&P also found that globally the proportion of women on technology boards has nearly doubled since 2010.

Encouragingly, the issue of gender equality – and diversity more generally – is becoming a much higher strategic priority and there is a growing determination to drive change.

Making progress ‘stick’

However, it is hard to make progress ‘stick’. Looking at ONS figures for the UK, for example, we see that the number of women in the tech sector rose from 384,000 in early 2018 to 518,000 in early 2021 – an increase of 35% that was likely fuelled by the equalising effect of the move to remote and hybrid working due to the pandemic.

But this then fell back, standing at 488,000 in early 2023.

Without doubt, for all the effort being expended, big picture change has been painfully slow. We need to find ways of accelerating the momentum. Our latest DLR research found that 28% of new hires in the previous year had been female – substantive change will take many years at that rate.

For a number of reasons, girls and young women are put off coming into tech. Only between 20-30% of computer science GCSEs are taken by girls. Research from PwC amongst 2,000 A-level and university students found that only 27% of females would consider a career in tech compared to 61% of males.

Over a quarter of female students said they’d been put off a career in tech because it’s too male dominated.

Faster progress

We need to change all this. We need faster progress that really moves the dial. After all, according to McKinsey gender-diverse companies are 48% more likely to outperform their competitors – but many organisations have a ‘broken rung’ on the career ladder for women in technical roles.

Nash Squared research has shown that being successful at diversity has improved trust and collaboration in technology teams. Moreover, our research found that six in ten respondents believed their approach to diversity and inclusion is improving the quality of their hires.

To create the step change needed, we believe five things are key:

1. We need to transform the way tech is talked about and taught at school.

This is fundamentally important because the root of the problem starts here. Too many girls are put off tech because it is presented as a technical, scientific subject that plays much more to traditional male attributes. In fact, tech is so much wider – encompassing problem solving, creative thinking, communication skills, leadership and project management, business analytics and more.

Our education system needs to bring out the full richness, variety and real-world relevance of tech so that it resonates with girls (and a more diverse range of young talented people in general). By capturing their imagination and enthusiasm early, we could then build a sustainable pipeline of girls and young women interested in tech as a career.

2. We need to broaden recruitment approaches and pathways into tech.

Alongside traditional outreach and graduate schemes, we need to see more alternative schemes such as apprenticeships, diversity-related talent programmes and internships, as well as taster programmes such as bootcamps, holiday courses and workshops. We need businesses to step up their outreach activity.

At entry level and also for experienced hires, we also need to see employers embracing balanced shortlists that have a good diversity mix.

They should insist on balanced shortlists from their recruitment partners. It is also vital to track results and analyse the outcomes in gender and diversity terms in order to identify and address any possible blockages or barriers that emerge.

3. We need to keep building and strengthening role model, coaching and mentoring models.

Once women enter the tech workforce, it’s critically important that they progress and stay. For this, we need to empower senior tech women to stand up as role models and be visible patterns of success. Men also have a critically important part to play as role models and allies.

Formal and informal mentoring, by both women and men, is also key – we know from our personal experience that this can be an incredibly powerful and effective support. Women need to feel empowered and able to put themselves forward for opportunities on an equal footing to men.

Company-wide coaching and skills development programmes, women’s networks, links to external organisations committed to promoting and furthering gender and other diversity – all of these can make the difference in enabling women to overcome the barriers that still undoubtedly exist and pursue a flourishing career.

4. We need to fix the home and caring responsibility imbalance.

One of the biggest barriers many women still face comes down to simple biology: having a child. The career break this involves can set women back. Many only come back part-time. Women still tend to shoulder the bulk of ongoing childcare and other caring responsibilities (even those who work full-time).

This has begun to shift somewhat in recent years with many men increasing their share of the load, which is very encouraging – but it hasn’t gone far enough.

We need to see more organisations following a trend that has begun to emerge in some sectors including banking and legal, where a number of firms are now offering paid paternity leave of an equal length to maternity leave.

If more men took extended leave after the birth of a child, this would help to level the playing field – and perceptions of responsibilities – from the start.

Childcare remains a huge issue. Early years education is massively expensive. At school age, children are on holiday for 13 weeks of the year. In termtime, schools’ wraparound care is still usually only for very restricted hours and doesn’t cover the full working day.

Hybrid working has made a significant difference here. But we still need better fixes and solutions to this intractable issue. We would like to see a recognition of the fact that nearly all roles, including the most senior positions, can be performed flexibly. This includes part-time and job-sharing.

5. We need everyone to realise they have a part to play to change the status quo.

Too often, there is a perception that actually making change happen is someone else’s responsibility. But in fact, we all have a part to play.

Men can act as powerful allies in this – and many do. However, some men may think they are allies without actually changing any of their behaviours – sticking to traditional skills requirements and profiles when recruiting, for example.

To change the status quo, everyone needs to adjust their behaviours to a greater or lesser degree.

There is no silver bullet to fix the problem. Rather, it’s about taking a balanced portfolio of approaches that will steadily build the momentum – breaking down 1,000 tiny walls that often we hardly see: prejudices, micro-aggressions, ingrained habits and assumptions.

It won’t happen overnight – but if the profession can build on the progress that has started to be made, the face of tech could look quite different in the years to come.

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