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Focus on diversity, not gender, says most influential woman in UK IT 2016

The winner of Computer Weekly’s most influential woman in UK IT award, Maggie Philbin, says the IT industry should focus on wider diversity as opposed to just gender equality

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Those who are aware of 1970s TV show Swap Shop, and more recently Tomorrow’s World, will know of Maggie Philbin, television personality, radio presenter and advocate for a more diverse technology industry.

Now, Philbin is the CEO of awards scheme TeenTech Awards. She uses her business to give young people the opportunity to develop technologies designed to solve real-world problems, with the hope that it will encourage them to consider science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers in the future.

The 2016 TeenTech Awards was entered by more girls than boys, but Philbin claims the focus in the tech industry should be on diversity and not solely gender.

“It’s really important to think about diversity as opposed to just gender, because if you look across an office, it’s very easy to say ‘we don’t have that many women here, it looks like we’ve got a lot of white middle aged men’, but what you can’t see is people’s social backgrounds,” she says.

TeenTech makes an effort to ensure its events are advertised and focused in areas of “greater social need” so children and parents of different backgrounds are aware of the opportunities children could have in the technology industry in the future.

The firm does this to avoid “preaching to the converted”, and instead focuses on giving children who may not have a well-connected or informed social background the opportunity to try something different.

”If we address all diversity, other things would start to fall in place as well, whereas if we simply focus on getting more women into companies, we’re not going to achieve what we really need to achieve. We still won’t have diversity, we’ll have gender diversity, but we won’t have real diversity,” says Philbin.

Sparking interest in Stem

Many firms already know that an increase in diversity will mean an increase in revenue as the firm’s products and services will better reflect its target audience.

Philbin has noticed some patterns in the behaviour of girls who take part in the TeenTech competitions, looking up to girls who have already participated and eventually becoming “evangelists” for tech once they understand its purpose in the wider world.

“It’s about igniting an interest, showing young girls the relevance of science and technology, showing them where they might fit in,” she says.

Although introducing coding into the curriculum will give children new digital skills and make them more aware of IT, Philbin says there may be too much focus on technical skills, and it is important to let young people know other roles are just as important.

“It’s very useful to have some technical knowledge, but there are a million and one opportunities for working in tech that don’t require you to be a brilliant programmer,” she adds.

These soft skills, such as the ability to communicate and work in teams, are labelled “core skills” by Philbin, and are “hard to teach” skills that a lot of girls naturally have.

The 2016 TeenTech finals took place in London on June 20, and saw 75 girls and 69 boys compete against each other in finalist teams. 

Philbin insists this gender split has not been “engineered” by the TeenTech team, but it as a result of the enthusiasm the children felt when attending previous events, and all TeenTech events are usually a 50/50 gender split.

Attracting and retaining talent

This gender balance at the TeenTech awards is down to how the children are approached, according to Philbin. She says an effort is made to ensure a focus is put on what can be achieved through technology, as opposed to an emphasis on technical skills and coding.

“Not everyone has to be a programmer or a coder. It’s also useful to have someone who can tell the story or who understands how to market that product and who will help provide and develop some of the presentation design,” says Philbin.

This approach dispels the attitude many girls have towards technology, no longer considering the subject “too difficult”, and many firms implementing these approaches in their recruitment processes are attracting more women.

Philbin claims firms should work harder to make sure they are visible to children and young people, as many have not had the opportunity to take part in a technology-focused event and may not be aware of the future careers available to them.

“They have no idea ‘X’ company exists or what it does. Companies need to do much more to get themselves on the radar,” she says.

“When you ask kids what companies they’re aware of, it’s a very narrow list of companies and it’s a narrow number of companies that their parents know about.”

A focus on the recruitment process in firms is also needed to attract talent, according to Philbin.

She says on the bottom of the advert for her first job, it was stated that they could teach all of the skills required for the job if someone was willing to learn, and she would not have applied for the job if it wasn’t for this small inclusion in the advert.

“Understand the skills that someone will need, but also understand what you’re willing to teach somebody,” says Philbin.

“Don’t put people off who would be brilliant, but perhaps don’t have the specific skills that you could teach them. Sometimes, without realising it, you do things in a certain way that means that you lose some of the talent, so perhaps look at those interviewing procedures.”

Read more about diversity in technology

To attract different types of people to organisations, Philbin claims firms should have the “intelligence” to understand that people are different and will need different things from the workplace.

“Once people have got talent into an organisation, I don’t think they’re always good at hanging on to it,” she says.

“It’s not just a problem of encouraging more women and people from diverse backgrounds, or people of all racial backgrounds into this industry, it’s also about putting certain things in place to keep them.”

Flexibility for all team members is an important step forward in encouraging different types of people into all teams, which might mean treating people differently depending on their personal needs.

Philbin says where there is an increase in diversity in teams, internal culture is often slow to change and the environment can still feel male-dominated.

“A lot of companies really want a diverse workforce but are not prepared to change things to achieve it, so they want the diverse workforce, but they want the diverse workforce to work the same way that they’re working at the moment,” she says.

“Those companies will be undermined because other companies will find a way of making it possible for that talent to work. And if they don’t, they will lose that talent, which will obviously be a real pity.”

Taking steps towards change

Philbin says she focused on careers she was aware of when she was a child, which included trapeze artist and show jumper.

According to her, visible role models in the industry are very important as a first step towards encouraging fresh talent into IT careers.

“If you’ve got role models, whether it’s your friends or girls in the year above you who have just had great success with something, you know it’s possible. You know that someone like you can do this stuff because you’ve just seen them,” she says.

How we make these role models visible to children has changed and, according to Philbin, the new way children consumer content means TV is no longer necessarily a viable channel for the job.

“In this multi-channel age, with all of the content students are looking at on YouTube, there aren’t that many role models of any gender who really cut through.”

Speaking of her project with Haringey Council to determine how to help children in under-privileged areas, Philbin states it is not only a case of offering teachers and parents information about careers, but also supporting children who are choosing to take those career paths.

“If students do choose subjects such as computing, physics or maths at university, it would be great if some of those students – particularly those who come from quite challenged background – had some kind of support,” she says.

Through her work on the TeenTech Awards, Philbin hopes to reach as many children, parents and teachers as possible to educate them about the possibilities the technology industry can offer through participating in the events.

“The whole point of the TeenTech Awards isn’t just for kids to win awards, but to make a real difference for kids who wouldn’t normally put themselves forward,” Philbin says.

“It’s one thing to tell kids something, but it’s something else for them to actually achieve it.”

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Yes, and diversity has broader meaning than just gender: age, ethnicity, people with disabilities. It's just that IT should be made attractive to everyone. Movements like "Code like a girl" certainly do help!
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