Women in Tech: Is the UK Tech Community Inclusive?
The short answer: Yes and No.
There are no job applications in the UK that will say ‘women cannot apply for x and y job in tech’ nor ‘women cannot speak at tech events nor be coders’. Today more than ever we see initiatives to encourage women to join the tech community. Women in tech events like the ones done in Birmingham by Silicon Canaland to a larger scale, even in this year's Web Summit (one of the worlds largest and leading technology conference) we had a whole "Women in Tech Lounge" offering mentorship for women that signed up and subsidising 14,000 tickets for women to attend to even out the men to women ratio. (Picture Left to right: Data protection specialist Anna Walter, Chair of West Midlands Mayor Leadership Commission Anita Bhalla OBE, Mayor of the West Midlands Andrew Street, Community Manager of Silicon Canal Molly Thompson, Tech journalist Pauline Roche, and Behaviour Hackers Director Victoria Masso)
It was wonderful to see so many intelligent women gathered in a single space interacting and sharing their knowledge. However, even with the efforts made to encourage women to come to the WebSummit, you could still notice that there were fewer women than men in the event. This is the same for the tech industry in the UK.
Reality is that, there are not as many women in tech as men, and the percentage gets even lower the more senior the position is and across specific roles such as software developers. When I graduated from Sound Engineering in Liverpool, I was the only women in that class, and each year had roughly 3 women in them.
There are still barriers, and I believe these are the 2 main ones:
1) Lack of equal pay
Women in tech earn 9% less than men. The larger the company the worse it is, where it can be 17% less. This clearly demotivates women to go into tech. Only 43% of girls in the UK consider choosing a career in STEM, and 70% indicated they would consider it if they had equal employment opportunities. This issue was the third most prevalent in the poll at this year's Web Summit. If women are not paid equally, how do we expect them to go into Tech, regardless of all the new initiatives to engage them into this world? Mr Men is releasing Little Miss Inventor next year on International Women's Day to encourage women to go into STEM-related careers.
There was a poll done in the women in tech lounge where they were asking: what will empower women in tech? The most voted answer was ‘Changing the perceptions’. I believe this is very important in 2 main areas:
Skills and Leadership Roles:
I have heard firsthand from developers and tech company business owners that are millennials my age or younger ( I am not even talking about older generation men) Saying: ‘Women are terrible coders’. I find this generalisation outrageous. How can you state that more than half of the population in the UK are not able to code? This is a conscious bias, for some people part of their unconscious bias. This unconscious bias falls in the tech skills and leadership capacity.
On the other hand, women tend to be less vocal about their expertise. In fact, research shows that more women suffer from ‘impostor syndrome’ than men. This means that women are less likely to put themselves forward for leadership roles. This doesn’t mean they cannot do it, but the dynamic of hiring should change to more headhunting instead of just considering applications to be able to tap into that diverse pool of talent that it's out there. Proactively improving and widening the pools were we choose our talent from is a key action to lower the barriers. Another key solution is to deal with it at the root by training women in leadership and to have the confidence to overcome these biases.
Without Funding, Startups Might Not Make It:
There is something called the Similarity-Attraction Effect. We tend to be attracted to people that are similar to us, and having these biases doesn’t help. I think Christine Herron, Director of Intel Capital, put it very well in this year's Websummit: "Investors will give money to people that they like, that are similar to them, that they can hang out with... This means that to be able to tackle diversity they need to be comfortable with differences".
The VC world dominated by men, if they invest in people similar to them female tech companies stand less of a chance. In fact, on average female let tech companies raise less funding than male lead tech companies. John Doerr who backed companies like Google summed up his philosophy as “invest in white male nerds dropouts of Harvard and Stanford”.
Women are expected to pitch and act like men, what they are familiar with. In reality, they need to embrace and learn we do things differently. I have a fellow female colleague that was raising investment. At some point, she was so uncomfortable with this issue that once had to stop a pitch and say “look, I am not a startup guy” to which the investor replied, “you need to become one”.
As the world digitalises, there comes an increased demand for more digitally skilled people. This demands inclusion and diversity to fill that gap. According to Fujitsu’s PACT report, 70% of companies find a noticeable gap of digital skills. Companies acknowledge is hard to find people with the necessary technical skills, as well with the soft skills such as communication. This means that companies end up hiring the same people over and over again and not covering the demand for the projects. This is costing companies a fortune and a deceleration of innovation.
Without that diversity in tech, we are missing out on innovation and making a digital world designed only for men. It's a vicious cycle.
We are entering the world of AI. An AI learns like a baby, taking data and knowledge from the world around it. If we don't have women as part of the equation, it will learn from a male world making its knowledge very limited.
So, are we inclusive? Not yet, but things are getting better. It is not about having diversity as a buzzword or a tick box, which can have some adverse reactions. It is about recognising diversity as a key tool for innovation to drive real change. We are in the ‘digital revolution’ and if we keep thinking and acting the same way as we have before, no innovation will be made. Einstein's definition of Madness is doing things the same way and expecting different results. Changing the perceptions and embracing differences is key to this much-needed diversity and innovation to happen.