Innovation

How tech companies can boost gender diversity

Sexism within tech has long been an unpleasant aspect of the industry. However in 2017, anger about it seems to have reached a tipping point.

September 27, 2017

Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler started a lot of soul searching within Silicon Valley when she wrote a blog post in February criticising sexist practices within the taxi-hailing firm. During the summer a number of prominent venture capitalists in Silicon Valley were exposed as having used their status to sexually harass and assault women seeking funding for their startup.

It’s easy to dismiss these examples as extreme, but evidently a lack of diversity is becoming a big problem for the tech industry.

Just one in five of Facebook and Google’s technical staff are women. The number of women in tech has actually dropped from 1990, when 35 percent of computing jobs were held by women

Just one in five of Facebook and Google’s technical staff are women. The number of women in tech has actually dropped from 1990, when 35 percent of computing jobs were held by women, according to the American Association of University Women. This statistic must have an impact society as a whole, given the tech sector is literally building our future.  

It’s also bad for the bottom line: the better a tech company’s gender diversity, the greater its returns, according to research by Morgan Stanley.

So what is to be done?

Events

If tech companies are serious about boosting diversity, they can start with events – after all, this is where we see their public face. All of the tech giants should pledge to never actively support a paid event or panel. This ‘Minimum Viable Diversity Pledge’ was invented by Zoe Cunningham, managing director of a company called Softwire. This concept of a diversity pledge for events has been adopted by a number of organisations, including the Government Digital Service.

“This won’t solve diversity overnight, but does make life far more difficult for those who totally ignore it, and provides steady pressure on every event to actively put in at least a little effort towards this issue,” Cunningham says.

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Hiring

Beyond events, firms need to look at how they go about hiring new staff. Unconscious bias can often come in to play within organisations, and it’s important that managers are aware of this so they can judge candidates on clear, defined criteria, and avoid accidentally discriminating against coworkers. Word job adverts carefully, and try to avoid overly gendered language. Commit to include women in the recruitment process, and prove that you offer an inclusive culture. Don’t be afraid to proactively seek women and under-represented groups to apply.

It might also be worth focusing on hiring for potential, and not purely for proven experience. Plenty of people more than make up for a lack of experience in their ability and willingness to learn. Set even just a little time aside to train top female candidates, and you’ll reap the benefit.  

Pay transparency

As the BBC fiasco this year has shown, the gender pay gap is still pervasive. If your organisation is serious about addressing this, why not demonstrate your commitment by publishing salaries of different job roles? It’s something Whole Foods has done since 1986, and has more recently been adopted by Crowdfunder and Buffer.

If full pay transparency seems like a step too far, it’s worth at least looking at your company to see how seriously diversity is taken. This means diverse workforce across class, race, sexuality, ability or disability as well as gender, and promoting on ability in a fair and unbiased way.

Retention

There is a lot of evidence that the tech sector has an issue with not just hiring but actually retaining women. A study by the Kapor Center for Social Impact released in April found 37 percent of employees had left tech jobs because they had experienced unfair behaviour or treatment.

The tech industry likes to blame the ‘pipeline’ and claim there aren’t enough experienced women available, but it looks like the industry is also failing to keep these candidates after they’ve been hired. According to Susan Fowler, the number of women on her team at Uber fell from 25% to just 6% in one year. As USA Today put it, ‘the tech industry is like a sieve for underrepresented groups’.

Intel made diversity and retention of staff a big priority a couple of years ago, and regularly releases retention data. Let’s see other companies follow suit.

Culture

So often, a toxic culture is cited as a reason why tech companies struggle to hire and retain non-white, female candidates. Overbearing or even bullying management, pressure to deliver to unrealistic deadlines and a long hours culture are all too often cited as unpleasant aspects of working within tech. Ensure your organisation isn’t one of the ‘bad guys’.

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No one should have to work in these conditions, but they can be especially unpleasant if groups are being singled out for poor treatment, or stereotypical, offensive jokes are tolerated as part of the workplace.

You should be able to point to senior women who have been promoted internally and people who have taken paternal leave and returned. If you can’t, you’ll need to show potential candidates and internal staff that you have decided to take diversity more seriously, and provide proof of this.

It’s worth providing clarity around culture, parental leave flexible working hours and encouraging employees to make use of these policies. It’s 2017 – you shouldn’t have to be chained to your desk every day to prove your worth to your employer. Men increasingly appreciate these sorts of policies as well as women, so if you want to attract good candidates, it’s a no brainer.

Finally, if you are going to make diversity a priority, make sure you get everyone on board. Build a case for it. Show how it will benefit the organisation, and shout about it. Diversity makes for better companies, and you’ll reap the benefits.