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The skills shortage is an opportunity to make tech more diverse

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison)

It is no secret that women are still significantly underrepresented in the technology sector. Worse still—and this often comes as a disappointing shock to young workers in our industry—we now have fewer women than we did when I started out in tech in the early 1980s. 

Forty years ago, women studying computer science degrees represented 37 per cent of all students on those courses—that is double what it has been in recent years. Today, in the UK, women account for only 17 per cent of IT specialists and this is a trend that has persisted over the course of the past decade. 

These statistics are exasperating. It is a sad reality, not only for women in tech but the entire workforce and wider economy as well, with research demonstrating that more diverse companies are also more successful. 

At Red Hat, we're committed to becoming a more diverse and inclusive company. We believe the more diverse we are, the better we can innovate, serve our customers, and contribute to the open source communities in which we participate.

This International Women’s Day, the sector must face up to just how much work there is still to do to increase diversity in the industry. We have a collective responsibility to demonstrate how much we need people from all under-represented groups in tech, and that we’re committed to supporting them.  

Recruit for “culture add”

Tech is desperate for more talent. On current estimates, by 2030 we will need 85.2 million people to fill vacancies all around the world. 

This presents tech companies with an opportunity that we must grasp with both hands. To make up the talent shortfall, we must start putting our faith in a more diverse group of people.

The existing challenge of recruiting technical workers for roles in emerging technologies is what actually makes me hopeful. This provides both an opportunity and a necessity to look beyond the traditional worker in tech and look for people who are different. It is imperative that our companies are more diverse at a time when we are working with rapidly-evolving technologies, like AI—that need to reflect the diversity within society. 

In order to create a more diverse organisation, we need to recruit for “culture add” instead of “culture fit”. That is to say that we must bring in new talent who don’t necessarily slot into a team but actually add something different.

Intuition shouldn’t be relied upon in the recruitment process. It results in unconscious bias as the individuals hiring are likely to favour the type of candidates they are most familiar and comfortable with. It’s time for a new approach.

Support every community

We are social animals and we need to feel that we are somewhere we belong. Being able to share your experiences is a big part of that and this is something we wanted to address at Red Hat, and prompted us to create affinity groups.

The Women's Leadership Community is a thriving, global network in which community members come together to share ideas, engage in discussions, and attend leadership and educational events. We also have communities for LGBTQ+, black, native and indigenous, Latin and Hispanic groups, along with those with neurological differences.

We have seen what has been achieved by open source communities over the years, so we have a great appreciation of what can be accomplished when people come together in this way.

Creating strong bonds throughout an organisation is crucial to staff retention. Recruiting people and getting them up to speed is time consuming and expensive, so mentoring initiatives that successfully ensure that people are happy in their roles are immensely valuable and can play an important role in making a business more diverse.

Mentoring helps new talent understand the culture and navigate the workplace—this can help make new hires feel so much more comfortable if they’re a minority in an organisation. It shows staff that you believe that they are worth investing in. And it helps companies see who is willing to learn and when people are ready to be promoted, which also makes them feel valued.

A particularly effective element of the mentoring process is offering junior colleagues “stretch assignments” that can provide opportunities to develop new skills and demonstrate their leadership credentials. This can prove to be a successful tactic for retaining star performers from under-represented groups and creating a pathway for them to progress to the top of an organisation.      

We also need to keep the door open for people who would like to return to jobs in tech after a hiatus. If, for example, someone leaves to start a family or try out a new career, they should be able to enter programmes within organisations that get them back up to speed in a matter of months.

Introduce open management practices

It’s not just about employing different kinds of people though. You need to create an environment where under-represented groups are comfortable making themselves heard and implementing positive changes within an organisation.

Successful businesses need to be open to a range of perspectives and need people who will challenge assumptions, in order to inspire innovation. At Red Hat, we’ve created a team dynamics resource - a role we call ‘inclusion champion’ - that talks teams through how to make sure 2-3 people out of 8-person work groups don’t monopolise conversations. Someone is always given the task of ensuring everyone contributes within each session, with leaders encouraged not to speak first during meetings. This helps to ensure that a number of different perspectives are listened to in meetings.

The “command and control” approach to management must be consigned to the past. Open leadership is required instead. Executives and managers must invite contrary views and be willing to move in a different direction based on what they learn from their teams.

Measure what matters

Lastly, organisations need to ensure that they’re effective and transparent when measuring their progress towards becoming more diverse. Organisations are data-driven these days and we all understand the importance of relevant and high-quality data, but there must also be a well-defined strategy and objectives in place across all the initiatives designed to ensure that a diverse range of people are recruited and retained.  

We need to make sure that we’re measuring the right things, and also rewarding the right behaviour. Our Red Hat Reward Zone doesn’t work like a conventional, top-down recognition and rewards programme. Every Red Hatter is given an equal number of points each quarter that can be used for rewarding colleagues for positive actions. Points can then be redeemed for gift cards or a variety of treats.

Businesses must try to understand what diversity looks like today, and what you want it to look like next year and the year after that. Understand the steps that can be taken, try out initiatives and evaluate them based on what you learn. It will make a big difference in helping to build a more diverse and equal organisation in a way that’s sustainable.

Denise Dumas, VP Engineering Diversity, Red Hat