Mark Soden, MD of the Technology, Media and Telecoms practice at Norman Broadbent, looks at what firms should be doing in the coming years to ensure there are more women in the tech sector.
Women in Business is a topic which has dominated the news for much of 2015, but as the year draws to a close, there is a particular focus on the female representation within the technology industry.
IBM’s recent #HackAHairdryer campaign has brought the topic into the spotlight, with the technology giant’s misjudged efforts to encourage more women into the profession. Despite the critical and sarcastic response this particular campaign has generated, it highlights the distinct lack of women in the industry and the proactive approach the technology sector is taking to address it.
Behind the screen
The updated Lord Davies report, released in October, reflected on the targets set for women on the boards of top UK companies. It noted that the underrepresentation of women in FTSE 100 C-Suite positions had been addressed, and called for more businesses to increase the number of women on the PLC board and reform the executive pipeline to be gender-equal.
However, unlike some sectors which may require encouragement for implementing equal representation and diversity & inclusion schemes, the technology industry faces a much more fundamental issue. There are simply not enough females pursuing technology as a career, and therefore not enough women at middle-management level to move up to C-level positions.
Understandably, the issue is not just prevalent at the management level, but runs throughout businesses to more junior and graduate roles. Just as some industries are typically female dominated, careers in technology are regularly chosen by men, creating an obvious gender inequality within technology companies.
Nature vs. nurture
Women are in high demand in the technology sector, and in many cases the board are strong advocates of the benefits that a more diverse line-up would bring. So how can businesses attract more females without suffering a #HackAHairdryer style backlash, when good intentions are misinterpreted?
Rather than searching for a quick-fix solution, the industry as a whole must appreciate that the problem is deep rooted and work to address it. As far back as primary school, girls and boys are pigeonholed into gender typical subjects, with a higher number of females encouraged into arts and humanities, and boys opting for sports, computers and sciences. Attitudes must be overhauled and efforts made to ensure stereotypes are broken and subjects are made attractive to both girls and boys. Already, large amounts of resources, energy and education are being channelled into changing this perception, but the action is long overdue. In the meantime, it has left a void which cannot be filled until the current primary school children enter the workforce.
Aside from proactive efforts, the environment that young children now live in means that technology plays a huge role in daily life, with children using devices such as mobiles and tablets from a young age. Technological tools have also impacted education and elements of the curriculum, with i-Pads helping children learn to spell, and subjects such as coding and digital design introduced within schools. With this in mind, it is likely that previously stereotyped subjects will be considered vital to a well rounded education, with stronger interest generated at a young age resulting in higher numbers of girls choosing to study them at university, and consequently boosting the gender equality in the technology graduate pipeline.
Watch and wait?
Aside from awaiting the graduation of today’s tech-savvy toddlers, businesses can significantly aid the mind-set change and take a direct approach to attracting females into the industry. Rather than targeting adults who are already working, technology experts and industry heavyweights need to begin proactively engaging students from a young age, especially once they reach senior school where critical decisions are made. Graduate campaigns should be advertised in schools at GCSE level, with businesses ensuring they work with colleges to interact with A-Level students and attract young talent – both male and female – into making relevant careers choices.
At the other end of the scale, employers should consider how existing women in the industry can be encouraged to take executive roles. There are many occasions where successful 40 – 50 year old senior female managers, destined to become part of the board, have opted for several non-executive roles rather than moving up to chief executive positions. This career choice, which in some cases is more flexible for working mothers, is impacting the pool of C-level candidates. In an industry where men have previously taken the vast majority of positions, businesses must ensure specific requirements are taken on board in order to attract and retain the top female talent.
Many other industries have adopted a new attitude towards women in business, where females have been supported in acquiring strong business acumen and are now occupying a higher percentage of senior positions. With this in mind, technology companies must ensure that business expertise and management skills are developed alongside niche skills and knowledge of the sector to strengthen the pipeline of women for senior management and executive roles.
Many marketing campaigns encouraging females to consider careers in technology are largely attempting to persuade women away from already successful careers in other industries. Instead, technology companies should be taking a more long-term approach, carefully considering how they can build up the pipeline of female talent, which begins in the initial stages of career choices. Primary education has a role to play in minimising the stereotyping of subjects, but following this, businesses can work with schools, colleges and universities to engage with students and encourage more females to study technology and the associated subjects.
In doing this, the industry will see a gradual but definitive overhaul, eventually resulting in a more equal gender representation from graduate to board level, and reaping the benefits that come from a diverse workforce.