Britain’s technology industry is booming. Its tech firms attracted more than £6bn of venture capital funding in 2018, according to Tech Nation, more than any other European country. Around 80% of tech investment in the UK is in fast-growing businesses, creating new jobs, revolutionary products and innovative services. Yet, women are missing out on this entrepreneurial success, making up just 17% of of IT specialists in the UK. Worse still, a new survey shows that the number of women in the tech sector has barely moved over the past 10 years despite an industry-wide push. When tech has never had it so good, where are the women?
Much has been written about male domination of the tech world. Many tech companies are run by men, and female role models are few and far between. At its worst, the industry has cultivated a toxic “bro culture”, exemplified by Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick who was forced to step down as chief executive of the ride-sharing company, accused of creating a sexist work culture that discriminated against female employees.
Others point to the lack of girls taking Stem – science, technology, engineering and maths – subjects to an advanced level, weakening the pipeline of young women into tech-related industries. Just 9% of female graduates in 2018 studied a core Stem subject, according to education campaign WISE. But misconceptions about tech can also cause some women to overlook the opportunities available in the digital world.
Vanessa Vallely, founder of membership organisation WeAreTechWomen, believes the problems start at school, but points out that even those who break into the tech industry struggle. This view is borne out by past research by Harvard Business Review, which indicated that US women working in science, engineering and technology fields were 45% more likely than their male colleagues to quit within a year of taking a job. Vallely says: “Women just aren’t getting promoted into senior tech roles. There’s a real lack of sponsorship, people in senior positions – typically men – supporting women’s work and efforts. Companies recognise 17% isn’t good enough and say they’re looking for women to promote. But if they want the right balance in the room, they need to help women at the middle level to progress.”
More businesses are trying to address gender imbalance and hundreds have signed up to the Tech Talent Charter, a government-backed initiative that commits participants to adopt recruitment and retention practices to create a more diverse tech workforce, setting clear goals and being transparent about results. The charter is set to reach 600 signatories by the end of 2020, with big names including Capgemini, Vodafone and Lloyds Banking Group, as well as many medium-sized tech firms and startups.
Nicola Anderson is chief marketing officer at MyTutor, a London-based edtech firm that provides affordable tutoring for GCSE and A-level students online. Having worked in various tech businesses over the past 20 years, Anderson recognises the barriers her industry can pose to women. But she also believes many women’s lack of confidence is hindering their progression.
“As in other industries, women in tech often won’t apply for a job if they don’t feel they’re 100% qualified or have exactly the right experience,” she says. “As a result, women end up moving horizontally where their male peers progress.”
In recent years, Anderson took a qualification in coaching and mentoring and, on top of her day job, works with women encouraging them to overcome their professional fears. She explains: “There are perceptions of tech as involving long hours and, in some businesses, benefits have been more about having beers one day of the week or providing table tennis in the office than pensions provision, healthcare or flexible working for parents. Those can put women off, but the industry has changed and is growing up. Part-time roles and flexibility are commonplace. I also hear women say they can’t work in tech because they’re not technical. The majority of people aren’t engineers or coders. There are lots of different roles and many women have great transferable skills, if only they knew it.”
Anderson has also witnessed a strong push from job candidates and new recruits demanding change. She adds: “Hiring talent in tech is incredibly competitive and potential employees choose businesses based on the employer brand and how much they value culture, diversity and work-life balance. Companies not focusing on these things are missing out on hiring the best people.”
More than eight out of 10 female millennials in Britain say they seek out employers with a strong record on diversity, equality and inclusion, according to research. But while this push from the bottom is having an impact, Maddy Cross, talent director of venture capital firm Notion, which specialises in investing in tech businesses, thinks men in authority still have a huge role to play in changing attitudes and culture.
“Men at the top have to believe and support their female employees and peers when they highlight the micro-sexism happening in business every day,” Cross says. “I was the only woman at a tech event recently and one man came up to me to thank me for ordering his taxi. It’s a small example, but the very men who lament the shortage of women in leadership in tech can still be unwittingly dismissive. Attitudes are improving and I now work in a business where I always feel listened to.”
Cross’s role involves working with investee businesses to build experienced management teams. Many male founders say they want to hire women, but she is quick to ask what they really want to achieve: “Are you hiring a woman to check a box or is it because you genuinely want a different perspective?” she asks. “If it’s the former, then it’s not likely to go well. Equally, I’ve worked with some men who have the right attitude, but they just haven’t found the right candidate yet, so I tell them to keep looking and perhaps look somewhere different. Given there are so few women in tech to start with, if you want a female chief financial officer, don’t steal one from another business, hire a talented female CFO from another industry. Create new talent. The issues around female leadership aren’t likely to be fixed in the next 10 years, but the symptoms are being acknowledged, which is a good thing.”
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