People

Striking the right balance

EGR Technology finds out why there are relatively so few women taking up tech roles and how there needs to be a shake-up at the education level to address the gender imbalance

In the 1840s, Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer at a time when mathematics was considered to be ‘a man’s work’. But through the support of her mother, Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine invented by mathematician Charles Babbage. However, while nearly 200 years have passed since Lovelace’s gender ‘breakthrough’, some of the barriers she had to overcome arguably still remain today.

Despite a huge gender equality drive in the 1900s, which continues into this century, the UK tech industry in particular remains a largely male-dominated sector. According to a recent survey by BCS/Tech Partnership, just 17% of all technology roles are currently held by women. Worryingly, that lowly figure has remained flat over the past few years, meaning there has been no further ground made on rectifying the significant gender imbalance.

A major cause of concern is a recent survey carried out by UK technology training and apprenticeship organisation QA, which found that half of all women in tech roles had previously been discouraged from forging a career in the tech industry. In order to improve the ratio of women in tech, 80% of women said they would need more female role models in tech, while 76% did not view technology as an attractive career path when at school.

Lovelace remains one of the leading role models for female tech wannabies, which highlights the need for more modern day heroines. The likes of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Apple SVP for retail Angela Ahrendts, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Lastminute.com founder Baroness Martha Lane-Fox are those banging the drum today, but the issue runs deeper than a lack of inspirational figures.

Many believe having a diverse workforce is necessary to bring a variety of viewpoints and ideas to the table, which in turn brings benefits to a business. It’s also crucial to have a female perspective when it comes to creating products and experiences for consumers, explains Nicole Meissner, chief digital officer at production agency Hogarth Worldwide. “How can you define a female experience if you never have anyone female in the group?” she asks.

Nicole Meissner

Nicole Meissner – Hogarth Worldwide

Early intervention

Former Sony executive and past president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Naomi Climer believes the lack of female technologists and engineers is an inherently British problem and one that has caused the UK to lag behind its European counterparts. “We’re the worst in Europe and strikingly behind other territories such as China or Eastern Europe,” she explains. “It’s a big challenge to shift an entire nation’s stereotypes.” Climer, who became the first female president of the IET in its 145-year history, believes parents, teachers and employers all have major roles to play but argues there needs to be a much broader effort to elicit change.

The lack of females in technology roles is not because companies don’t want to hire women into tech jobs but is more to do with the lack of female applicants in the first place, argues Bill Walker, CTO for QA. Walker says this goes back to schools and universities and the stereotyping of technology roles.

“It’s seen as a male oriented job which then becomes self-perpetuating,” explains Walker. “A good example is software development – this is very much a creative job, and yet we have plenty of world renowned female artists, photographers, potters, jewellery makers  – the only difference is that the computer has replaced the paint brush/potting wheel. But the art of designing software is no different to being able to draw a landscape.” He believes if we can demonstrate the creativity that technology allows someone to bring to the workplace then the industry will be in a much stronger position to attract a greater number of female candidates.

One of the fundamental issues behind the lack of women in tech is at the education level, where not enough females are studying technology-related subjects at school or university. PwC’s recent Women in Tech research report found that just 3% of females say a career in technology is their first choice. The results also found that females aren’t considering technology as a career option because it either isn’t being put forward as an option to them or they aren’t being given enough information at school about what working in the sector involves.

The UK recently acknowledged the need for a greater focus on technical careers. In its Spring Budget, the Chancellor unveiled a £500m investment in technical education for 16-to-19 year-olds. The new T-Levels, expected to be introduced from 2019, will enable students to choose from 15 different career routes such as construction, digital, engineering or agriculture. And while the money isn’t directed at young women specifically, it is thought the greater awareness of career outcomes the course will bring could result in a more balanced gender take-up.

Back to basics

However, there remains plenty of work for schools and universities to do to try and encourage, and certainly not discourage, more young women to take up a career in technology. Claire Tran, who is a software engineer at classified ads website Gumtree and a City Lead for Women Who Code, says when she was growing up technology just wasn’t promoted among girls and believes there’s a definite need to make sure technology is taught in the right way. “I was taught by someone who didn’t know how to programme,” she adds.

Jody Conibear, head of strategy and planning, group technology at Sky, says tech roles are still considered niche and sometimes misunderstood, so it’s all about introducing children to technology in the right way. “I don’t think the teaching population has the skills or the equipment to give the best experience to children when they’re learning IT and tech,” she remarks.

But just because Britain appears to be struggling at selling technology as an attractive career path, that doesn’t mean other nations are too. For instance, in Finland there’s a radical new approach being taken in schools where children are learning to code informally before the age of seven. Conibear argues that it is just like learning another language and that children in Britain would benefit from learning similar at a younger age.

PwC has also been working with educational bodies in a variety of ways to get more school children engaged with technology careers. The firm recently organised an event for 100 schoolgirls to promote technology as a career and this year took on 150 apprentices straight from school. “We see that as a key way to bring more people into tech and we’ll definitely be targeting women,” explains Sheridan Ash, women in tech leader at PwC.

And of course, if women aren’t attracted to roles in technology in their early years, it means the pool of talented women for technology companies to pick from is severely limited further down the line. In an effort to address this, security firm Symantec actively supports an effort called TeenTech. Symantec has a goal to excite, engage, and educate one million students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM), with an emphasis on computer science and cybersecurity, by the year 2020. Sian John, EMEA chief strategist at Symantec, says the one-day learning events are aimed at changing the somewhat dated perception of what a career in technology is like.

Sian John – Symantec

The diversity drive

As well as working with education bodies, businesses are seeing the importance of driving diversity in their workforce through internal initiatives, sponsoring external groups and hosting talks and workshops to attract more women into technology. Sky has been particularly proactive in pushing forward initiatives to encourage more women across the company.

For the past two years, the broadcaster has been running its Women in Leadership scheme across the whole of the business to make sure it has a diverse organisation from top to bottom. The programme has seen a 7% increase of women in leadership positions over the course of the initiative, which now stands at 38%.

Within the technology side of the business, which employs 4,200 staff in the UK, 20% of the workforce is made up of women – slightly more than the national average. In some areas such as networks, TV and IT infrastructure engineers, females are very under-represented, while in software engineering and broader project management teams this jumps much higher and is above 25%. Other initiatives from Sky include retaining and developing its internal female workforce and mandating a 50/50 balanced shortlist for all new roles where possible.

One of Sky’s most successful programmes has been the Get into Tech initiative, where women with little or no previous technical experience can learn some of the skills necessary to begin a career in software development. The scheme has seen more than 100 women enrolled on a free course to learn foundation skills in coding.

“What we’re trying to do is address quite an imbalance we saw in our software academy, particularly in apprentices and graduates which is about 10% women,” adds Conibear. “We have around 70 new joiners each year through the academy and it just wasn’t acceptable for us to continue like that. Our aim is to get to 50/50. We’re aiming for 30% female intake this year which is a massive improvement.”

Meanwhile for start-ups, if gender balance is a focus from the outset it’s much easier to maintain that balance as the business grows. As was the case for data analytics firm Aquila Insights, which has a high proportion of women in the workforce, with 57% female and 43% male, as diversity was one of the key principles that guided Aquila’s founders. “If diversity is being attended early in a company’s life, naturally a more robust work environment will be created, the pipeline of candidates will be affected and the number of female candidates passing the interview process and accepting an offer will increase,” explains Sevy.

Sky Jody Conibear

Jody Conibear- Sky

Flexible working

One of the main reasons why women are said to be either overlooked for top jobs or fail to put themselves forward is around family life and flexible working.

According to PwC’s Ash, its women in tech initiative, which has been ongoing for three years, has focused on getting the basic rights by looking at how the consultancy firm attracts, retains, advances and develops women.

“We were losing a lot of our female technologists when they went on maternity leave as they either didn’t come back or came back, weren’t happy with their roles and left,” she says.

One of the schemes set up to help mothers is called ‘maternity mates’, designed to support female employees throughout their pregnancy, during maternity leave and on their return to work. The maternity mate, who could be a senior staff member who is a mother or father, will actively mentor and sponsor the pregnant colleague throughout.

Flexible working has also been a focus for Sky. Not only has the company been using gender balanced panels when recruiting staff, but in order to attract more females into roles they have made clear that flexi-working is an option. “We changed our job descriptions to have much more female-friendly language and a strapline ‘happy to talk flexible working’,” explains Conibear.

A recent survey from recruitment firm Robert Walters and British job board Jobsite found that 76% of female tech professionals in the UK said businesses offering remote working would be more likely to retain top talent while 72% considered career progression opportunities important to keeping employees happy.

However, Ady Sevy, product manager at data analytics firm Aquila Insight, is quick to dismiss the stereotype of the tech industry being really demanding in terms of hours of work and the work/life balance. She highlights that in software development a lot of companies are trying to be progressive in terms of their way of thinking. “I believe this whole work/life balance works really well in the hi-tech industry because you are less constrained to being in a specific location at a specific time,” she adds.

Sheridan Ash

Sheridan Ash – PwC

Breaking the mould

While the women who have forged a career in technology have had mainly positive experiences, some have found the need to prove themselves time and time again within a male-dominated environment. Sevy believes culture has a big part to play in this. “There is a sense of ego in the culture. Also a need to be more competitive and maybe not to be as transparent as I would like my work environment to be,” she adds.

Symantec’s John, who has had a positive experience as a women in technology, says she has faced the assumption that, because she is a women, she’s not as technically gifted as men. “You do find it sometimes,” she says, “you say something that gets ignored, but then it gets repeated by somebody else.”

John believes culture is key and says firms often find themselves falling into the trap of maintaining the status quo rather than trying to implement change. “If you’ve already got one dominating culture, you’re likely to hire people that are more like that,” she says. “There’s the same problem for men getting roles in HR. I don’t think it’s conscious though.”

As well as encouraging more young women to study tech subjects, there is also a need for more female role models to attract women into the sector. John at Symantec agrees that we need more role models showing that “it’s normal” for women to work in tech.

Until we see more females studying and being encouraged to take STEM subjects at school and universities, the numbers of female candidates for technology roles will continue to remain low. But if more companies invest in initiatives, promote female role models and work with schools to raise awareness of the importance of STEM, hopefully the gender gap in the tech sector will start to close.

With technology all around us as consumers and in business, Meissner encourages more women to take that leap of faith and follow a career in tech. “Women are needed more than ever in technology to build the solutions we need for tomorrow. If you want a futureproofed job, hop on the technology wagon.”

Ady Sevy- product manager Aquila Insight

Ady Sevy- Aquila Insight

Gaming’s diversity push

Promising strides are being made to drive more women into tech roles within the egaming industry. Companies are very aware of the gender divide, and have been introducing initiatives to tackle it. Sky Betting & Gaming (SB&G), for example, is hosting a coding course for beginners at the Leeds Tech Festival this month. Head of service delivery at SB&G Rachel Watson says the company has a real need to support more women into well-paid tech roles. Its ‘Women in Tech Survey’ is challenging participants to rank issues like salary levels, support from male colleagues, corporate culture and visibility in order of importance. ”We’ve had a really good balance of responses with regards to age and seniority too,” Watson notes.

Similarly, the Kindred Group last month sponsored the Women in Technology Stockholm event, marking International Women’s Day. “The mission is to inspire talented women to consider a future in technology,” says Kindred Group head of communications Alex Westrell.

With only 25% of the operator’s total number of employees being female “improving these figures is a key driver in [our] efforts on diversity,” he says. Westrell adds the most common worry received from young women interested in technology was ‘am I good enough?’ “Our response to that was: we care as much about finding the right people as we do about great technical skills, and one of the best assets you have is yourself. You have to just dare to put yourself out there,” he adds.

Kindred CTO Marcus Smedman believes the number of women in the tech field is increasing across most markets. “I think it’s partly due to the fact that tech has become a much broader skill than just programming, and also partly the result of successful companies such as Amazon and Apple,” he says.

“There is a still a long way to go, but I hope the trend we see is just the start and we continue to move into a more balanced mix of techies.” Smedman, who has worked in IT for 27 years and the last six within egaming, says the areas with the least female involvement are those “closer to the bare metal – like network infrastructure and traditional database domain.” He suspects a shift as cloud techniques and global operations are creating new challenges.

Another trying to rebalance the industry is NetEnt CEO Per Eriksson. “I think it’s still very much a male-dominated industry, but if you want to have a good gender balance, you can reach it for sure,” he says. NetEnt is year on year edging closer to bridging the gender gap, with 2016 marking a male-leaning 42/58 balance. Their longer term target is to reach 50/50 by 2020. “That doesn’t mean pouring women into jobs that are typically dominated by females. I want a balance in all departments.” He believes one way to attract more women is to outwardly express a desire to work towards a balanced workforce.

CEO of egaming developer BtoBet Kostandina Zafirovska is encouraging women to “consider the good side of working in a male-dominated industry”. She claims it’s easier to grow in an environment where all the attention is on you as the only woman. BtoBet can boast a gender ratio of 50/50, with senior roles like CMO, project manager, support manager and technical manager all carried out by women.

kostandina Btobet CEO

Kostandina Zafirovska – Btobet

Girl power

Inspiring women share their words of wisdom for young women wanting to pursue a career in tech

“Believe in yourself and have confidence. Don’t be afraid to be creative. And join a support network. It’s a chance to learn and grow yourself. You’re not alone. You don’t have to struggle getting into tech.” – Claire Tran, Gumtree

“They should think of this as a business career. It’s not just about coding, it’s about understanding what customers want and it’s about understanding how a business operates. Tech is everything to businesses these days. Keep an open mind and think of this as a long and flexible career journey.” – Jody Conibear, Sky

“There’s never been a better time for women to get into tech and help close that gender gap. The range of skills needed in technology today is much broader. Digitisation means you need creativity, collaboration and relationship building skills.” – Sheridan Ash, PwC

“Go for it. The tech industry is one of those that can be flexible. You can work from different places. You are not as time constrained as long as you deliver the things you need to do. I believe the work/life balance works really well in the tech industry.” – Ady Sevy, Aquila Insight

“Don’t worry about what you think the image is. I’ve never met two women who are the same. Being in the minority when you know what you’re doing can actually be an advantage.” – Sian John, Symantec

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