Diversity in tech: We'll keep bashing our heads on the brick wall until it crumbles

Six years after launching Computer Weekly’s annual search for the most influential women in UK technology – and perhaps 20 years since we started writing about the issue of diversity in IT – sometimes we feel like we’re bashing our heads against a brick wall.

After all, during that time the proportion of women in IT has remained stubbornly stuck around the 17% mark – our latest salary survey shows that’s still the figure today. And over the past six years, we’ve seen a huge growth in events, awards, networking groups and public profile for these issues – all of which is welcomed.

Yet still nothing seems to change. Let’s remind ourselves of why this is so important.

According to the latest official figures, there are 1,482,000 people working in technology in the UK. Job creation in IT is running at double the rate of the wider economy. But by 2020, it’s forecast there will be 800,000 unfilled tech jobs in the UK – and that’s without considering the potential impact of Brexit. Some 18% of UK IT professionals were born overseas – lose many of them and the expected skills shortage becomes even more acute.

The education system won’t fill the gap – this year, just 15,906 students took computing or ICT A-levels. According to 2015 figures, 13% of computer science graduates remain unemployed six months after leaving university – the highest rate for any degree course. Apprenticeships are growing – and of course, IT employers recruit extensively beyond the pool of IT-related qualifications – but it’s clear we’re not going to solve the shortages solely through young people entering the profession.

Therefore, we need to target areas where we are not making the most of the available wider workforce – and that mostly means more women, and also more BAME, LGBTQ and people with disabilities, as well as tackling the institutional ageism that’s all too frequent in the industry.

It’s not just about jobs, though – it’s also about having a workforce that reflects the diversity of the technology users the tech sector seeks to serve. It’s about avoiding any further situations such as voice recognition systems that don’t work with women’s voices because they were developed and tested by men. And it’s about avoiding situations like this video that recently went viral – of an electronic soap dispenser that doesn’t recognise black skin:

So why aren’t more women joining IT? For a start, our salary survey shows there is a 25% gender pay gap – that’s huge. The average wage for a man in UK IT is £78,599. For a woman, it’s £59,209. That’s shocking, and has to be addressed.

The issue of women in tech has gained much greater profile recently, featuring in national newspapers. But read those articles and you’ll see they are all about examples of misogyny and sexism – mostly in Silicon Valley – and as such, only serve to give women more reasons to avoid the industry.

Greater awareness of the issues is welcome, of course. But things will never change as a result of women or other tech employment minorities sitting around a room telling each other what the solution might be. The presence that’s typically lacking in that room are the men who still make the majority of recruitment, hiring and promotion decisions. They are the ones who need to change.

That’s not to have a go at men – many of whom genuinely wish to see change. But many men simply don’t realise their role in perpetuating the “male, pale and stale” image of IT. We need to educate men to change their behaviour, to bring diversity to the tech profession.

As British tech pioneer Karen Spärck Jones famously said, “Computing’s too important to be left to men”. We’ll keep bashing our heads until that brick wall crumbles.