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Q&A: Leveling the playing field for women in tech

We recently spoke to Jackie Kinsey, chief leadership officer at ThoughtWorks, about what more needs to be done to address the issue of gender diversity in technology and how the industry can get more women involved.

  1. What's the current state of play for women in tech?

It is slowly improving but it’s still not where it should be. It is hard to attract girls into IT and once we have them, it can be challenging for them to move through to senior and executive leadership positions for a multitude of reasons.

One hurdle relates to women who decide to return to IT after maternity leave. If you choose to leave IT and look after children, tech can be a difficult industry to get back into as trends, languages and approaches change so quickly, meaning skills can become outdated. Organisations are starting to look at programmes which support women returning to work, and thanks to various strong female role models in the industry, we can hopefully continue to hire more women, be inspired by female workers, and implement positive long term changes for women in Technology. However, to enable this, organisations need to be open to change in terms of how they work and realise that improvements in this domain can be hugely beneficial.

  1. Companies such as Apple and Facebook have made public attempts to address the issue, but what more needs to be done?

Publishing statistics gives a current state of play within the industry, which is good, but it isn’t necessarily doing anything to address the fundamental issues surrounding gender imbalance within the workplace. I think being aware of the actual numbers of women entering the industry, and understanding the patterns of employment is key knowledge for organisations so they can change processes which affect these outcomes at different stages in careers.

Legislation is nudging businesses in the right direction, but doesn’t create immediate benefits as exemplified by the 1970 Equal Pay Act, with the gender pay gap still making headlines today, 46 years after the Act was passed. In order to affect real change, businesses need to do something different to the norm, like challenge existing perceptions of what work looks like and when and where it takes place. Technology organisations should be role models in innovative and mobile ways of working, and it’s interesting to note that whilst technology is all around us and could support this change, businesses are quite resistant to actually changing their core processes.

One example I recently came across was the case of two women who were doing a senior job share, each working 3 days a week, but neither admitting they were part time as this was more accepted by the organisation and one of the ways the job share was endorsed. Why did both the organisation and women feel less comfortable acknowledging these roles were part time? Who says that the right unit to capture work is 40 hours a week and that this is the only unit that will deliver value to an organisation? Whilst I understand a number of the financial and operational planning processes use this metric, that shouldn’t be a restricting factor in what the future of work could look like.

In order to do more, we need to be exploring what work looks like for all sectors of society and how technology and organisations can evolve to ensure we harness all of the current benefits. It seems we are trying to retro fit industrial patterns of work in a technology era which should facilitate much more flexibility.

  1. What can women offer to businesses that men perhaps can't?

Diversity is good. A diverse team, inclusive of all genders races and ages, can offer different perspectives and approaches than a less diverse team can, with benefits including increased innovation, which can provoke different thinking and perspectives; one study found an increase in profitability where the leadership team had 42 per cent women.

It isn’t as much what women can offer that men can’t, but more that women are representative of just over 50 per cent of the population in the UK, so if your business, industry, or product is universal, it makes sense to have all views and ideas represented.

There are behavioural attributes that are sometimes attached to women or men but I personally don’t think stereotyping is helpful in thinking about why a gender balanced leadership team is a good thing. From experience, I have seen that decisions that come from a team which is balanced tend to be more thought through and well rounded. I have also noticed from our WiLD programmes (Women in Leadership Development) that a female only environment means contributions and debates happen in a more open and free flowing way and trust is established much quicker. Women generally feel more comfortable and empowered to share their thoughts and ideas, but I don’t think female only teams would be the answer either, though feedback from consultants who have had the luck and opportunity to work in all women development team said it made a welcome change.

Upon reflection, the WiLD programme showed me that is the key to unlocking every leaders potential is defining leadership in a way that is personal and meaningful to you. Whilst the traditional patterns of leadership are patriarchal and authoritative, this isn’t everyone’s natural style or approach. You will be much more effective if you define leadership in a way that suits your natural style and this is something that we spend time on in all our leadership programmes.

  1. How big of a role do you think the education sector has in getting more girls interested in technology?

The education sector should absolutely be helping to find and inspire our future Chief Technology Officers. There are legacy perceptions around IT, which suggest the industry means you sit in a room on your own, writing code and don’t talk to customers, which is far from today’s reality. It is critical that in our schools and universities, those responsible for career advice and the syllabus have an accurate appreciation of the latest technology trends and methodologies, as well as the careers that are open to students.

Organisations can encourage this by connecting with schools and universities, running awareness events and mentoring activities. ThoughtWorks created a workshop with UCL and the STEM Ambassador programme to help students understand the role of organisation and culture in businesses. This was part of an overall skills programme they were running to equip students with broader job search skills and organisational understanding to help them in their future job search.

Our children are now much more technically savvy than a number of teachers and career advisors, and organisations need to get out there and show children how amazing careers in technology are whatever your gender.

  1. Is ThoughtWorks running any initiatives at the moment?

We run a number of initiatives and programmes to support getting more girls interested in Technology and are currently in talks with The Stem People, which is a London based science, technology, engineering and maths focused organisation, founded to inspire and engage the next generation of young men and women into STEM fields. We work with Universities looking to grow their STEM presence regionally, and have strong relationships with MCR and Imperial College London, Huddersfield, York, Sheffield, Westminster.

ThoughtWorks is currently running a quarterly focus called Tech4Her, to raise awareness of increasing females in technology, showcase the positive impact diversity can have on a workforce, as well as strengthening the support available to existing ThoughtWorkers. As part of this, we are running the unofficial World’s biggest female hackathon on 18 June 2016, where the UK will join forces with North America, Germany, India and China in an event open to all ThoughtWorkers and females interested in getting into technology across all skill sets and levels. We will be focusing on ways to reunite families who have been separated by the refugee crisis, with childcare being provided so full time mums can also get involved.

In addition, Mums in Tech has grown from our London office and has received so much interest that they are expanding to Manchester too, and Code First Girls is now live in our office as well.

  1. How do you see the issue developing in 2016?

My hope for 2016 and beyond is that technology organisations take the opportunity to help change the perception of what it is like to work in our industry and also consider changing how we operationalise work. I think this could be a challenge but will ultimately move towards a more diverse and inclusive workforce in all areas of IT.

My hope for ThoughtWorks is that we continue to hire amazing women and maintain our level of 50 per cent female graduate hires. These new hires ultimately then flow through the rest of the organisation and create future role models.

I am optimistic about moving towards great gender balance and equality, and the fact that people are talking about different dimensions of gender diversity makes me hopeful that we can continue to make progress.

Image source: Shutterstock/Giulio_Fornasar