Women in GovTechHow can the UK government support women in tech?

How can the UK government support women in tech?

Why is there a continuing shortage of women working in tech and where should the government be channeling its efforts to close the gender gap?

From Silicon Valley to The IT Crowd, innumerable lazy sitcoms have cast the tech company as a place for boys, and geeky boys at that. Unfortunately, the statistics show there is truth behind the stereotype, in the UK as much as anywhere. Women still constitute only 17% of the UK’s tech workforce overall – and hold just 5% of leadership roles. In fact, only six European countries have a lower percentage of women working in tech than the UK – a damning indictment of the Government’s failure to encourage diversity in one of its key target industries.

At school level, the picture is even more worrying. Figures from the Department for Education show that only 0.4% of females taking A-levels chose computer science in 2017, and there is a vast disparity between boys and girls taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Ministers may talk of emulating California’s Silicon Valley, but instead they have allowed a chasm to open up on gender lines, meaning a huge pool of talent continues to go to waste.

Tech talent charter

What is the Government doing to improve diversity in tech? Well it certainly hasn’t announced any headline policy, such as a programme of UK women in STEM investment. But it has thrown its weight behind the Tech Talent Charter, providing early-stage funding and telling its departments to sign up.  The Charter, which asks members to provide data on gender pay and female representation, share best practice and include women on interview shortlists, provides a beacon of hope; its list of signatories has risen from 17 last March, when the Government came on board, to a roster of 265 which includes major companies such as Shell and the BBC.

The Charter’s CEO Debbie Forster is full of praise for the Government, telling us “it was great that they gave us some seed funding and got on board. The Government was happy to listen to us, they saw we were connecting employers and working with other players in the market. That’s a big part of the reason we’ve grown so much.” Yet she adds that “there’s a lot more the Government can do”, adding that “the whole pipeline [of the tech industry] is broken. It’s about looking at all levels of the chain, from schools to boardrooms.”

When asked to highlight specific issues limiting women role in IT, Forster says the lack of mentors available to young women is a “crucial” barrier. It’s a common refrain; commentators often complain of a lack of role models, British equivalents of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, before adding that the few that we do have aren’t being utilised effectively. A recent survey by PWC, sampling over 2,000 A-level students, found that 78% of girls couldn’t name a famous women working in technology.

How do we provide effective mentoring with so few high-profile female tech entrepreneurs out there? Well plenty of people are trying. A number of companies, including Microsoft and KPMG have set up their own UK-based mentoring organisations, as have enterprises such as EveryWoman, Modern Muse and DevelopHer UK. The Government Digital Service (GDS) women’s group also rolled out its own mentoring initiative to leverage its in-house expertise.

Yet there is no overarching national body, coordinating all the mentoring schemes and signposting them, so women and girls can find initiatives in their local area. Jacqueline de Rojas, president of Tech UK and arguably the most influential women in the British tech community, believes that needs to change. De Rojas has worked extensively on Camp CEO, an initiative to connect girl guides with female CEOs, and she is effusive about the benefits mentoring can play in improving women role in IT.

“The government role, for me, would be in terms of joining the dots,” she says. “I co-chair the Institute of Coding [established earlier this year to provide basic coding tuition for those outside the tech community] and its role is to do exactly that. Not to duplicate, but to join the dots. The Government should be co-ordinating the mentoring and other initiatives, and signposting them.

“A national framework for mentoring campaigns would be a great idea. Women could ask ‘what are my options and where can I access them?’”

Fresh faces

A government-backed mentoring framework could also encourage women below the C-Suite to come forward. With so few women holding leadership roles in the tech sector, mentoring bodies can deepen their pool of experts by looking beyond the boardroom and scanning the coding and design desks.

Zara Farrar has first-hand experience of the difficulties of finding mentors. She ran the GDS’s mentoring campaign for women in tech, but says the programme “varied in usefulness”, partly because many mentors were unable to convey their experience in a relatable way, as they similar hadn’t experienced what the mentees were going through.

To address this problem, Farrar suggests, everyday coders and designers can be invaluable. “Someone doesn’t need to be management or a senior leader to be a good mentor,” she says. “Often it’s the people who are early or in the middle of their careers who make the best mentors. They’re the ones living it. They’ll have gone through the same thing you [the industry entrant] have. To find these people you need to attend events and talk to people.”

GovTech role models

The GovTech sector provides a particularly good source of female role models. Indeed several members of Computer Weekly’s ‘50 most powerful people in tech’ list, published in December, are women working in the public sector. They include Sarah Wilkinson, CEO of NHS Digital (second place), Jackie Wright, digital chief at HMRC (11th) and the UK’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham (15th). GovTech Leader’s own Female Leaders Ranking also spotlighted influential women who are leaders, trailblazers and transformers in digital technology.

At local government level, the picture is equally promising. A number of women are driving digital change in local authorities, notably Alison McKenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive of Wigan Council. McKenzie-Folan’s ‘digital by default’ strategy, coupled with her ardent support for AI and robotics, helped Wigan win the Digital Council of the Year award from the Local Government Chronicle in 2016.

She says the key to encouraging women in tech is “building an open and listening culture. You’ll find sometimes in corporate meetings that people don’t have the courage to speak. But the culture we’ve created [at the council], has allowed women to shine. We haven’t done it as a directive or through targets, it’s been done in a co-created way. Some of that stems from the way we work both internally and externally. It’s been much more of a conversational place.”

Cultural shift

Yet this sort of open, welcoming culture is a far cry from the atmosphere witnessed in many tech firms. The industry has been blighted by a string of sexism scandals, notably the infamous email from a Google employee which suggested women were biologically unsuitable for working in tech, and a survey last year which revealed that over 50% of female tech employees face harassment. Although most  studies on tech sexism have focused on Silicon Valley, several high-profile British women have said the problem’s just as serious over here.

How can the Government catalyse a culture shift? All-female shortlists are often touted, but McKenzie-Folan says that trying to enforce cultural change isn’t a good idea; besides, the Equality Commission ruled that such discrimination was illegal as recently in 2014. Flexible working is another oft-cited suggestion, with proponents arguing that this would benefit women returning from career breaks and unlock a major new talent pool for the tech sector. But the Government introduced universal flexible working rights back in David Cameron’s day, and recently rolled out a nationwide returner initiative, so it’s hard to see what more can be done in this area.

A more feasible alternative might be the introduction of best-practice guidelines, suggesting ways tech companies can make their job adverts more inclusive. The number of women applying to Vodafone shot up by 7% after the company rephrased its job ads in a three-month trial last year, and Farrar says recruiters’ machismo is a major barrier to improving diversity in tech.

“When you see adverts for rock stars or coding ninjas, you’re attracting a certain type of person – regardless of their gender,” Farrar says. “The company might be run that way, they might want that sort of extrovert character, but how diverse are they? You might want that sort of person, but you can get them without saying you need a rock star. How many rock stars do you actually need anyway? Rock stars bring drama – you need people to get things done!”

Changing the foundations

Yet surely the issue runs deeper than this. It’s all very well writing inclusive job adverts and encouraging shifts in corporate culture, but it’ll count for nothing if girls aren’t pursuing tech qualifications in the first place, and the negative stereotypes surrounding technology aren’t remoulded.

This issue provided a common thread among all the female tech leaders we interviewed. De Rojas was particularly effusive, suggesting that gender barriers are being erected before girls have even started school. She points to the toddlers’ t-shirts which proclaim boys as “geniuses” and girls as “princesses”, suggesting that they pollute girls’ belief systems with misguided visions of an unshakable patriarchy.

How can the UK government support women in tech?

To correct these faulty belief systems, De Rojas says the quality of ICT teaching at school must vastly improve. Specifically, she recommends that the Government upskills Britain’s ICT teachers, pushing them towards courses such as the Open University’s FutureLearn programme and encouraging them to take secondments for ‘just in time’ learning injections. Yet more than that, the role of the teacher should fundamentally change.

“Maybe the teachers’ job is to curate interventions from people in business who come and visit the students,” De Rojas told us, adding that the Founders4Schools network, run by serial tech entrepreneur Sherry Coutu, provides a fantastic resource connecting schools with business leaders. Inviting inspirational experts, De Rojas believes, “would make sure the teacher’s job is around curation rather than knowing the context. How is a teacher going to be an expert in the latest developments in AI and subjects like that? It’s really difficult.”

To back up the lessons girls learn in school, ministers could push more initiatives to get girls working with technology in their free time. The National Cyber Security Centre, run by GCHQ, has shown what can be achieved through its CyberFirst Girls programme, which runs a national infosec competition for Year 8 Girls and received over 1,200 entrants in its first year. The Government could also push teenagers and young women towards social enterprises like Stemettes and Code First:Girls, which offer numerous training courses.

Yet perhaps the most fundamental priority for the Government is messaging. Amid all the talk of sexism, all those corrosive clichés about tech companies, the Government has the power and the reach to recast the message, pointing to the possibilities the tech sector holds for women – and vice versa.

“Diversity and inclusion matters not because it is a ‘nice to have’ it is a MUST have,” De Rojas says. It is increasingly common knowledge that diverse workplaces are better, not just for the people that work in them but for businesses as well.

“Diversity is the only way we will be able to govern the new world of AI and machine learning. By having everyone’s voice represented at the table when we are designing and developing our digital future, we will by default ensure that we are inclusive, and positive agendas will be served.”

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