GUEST BLOG: From baby to boardroom - breaking barriers

In this is contributed blog post from O2’s HR director Ann Pickering, she discusses the barriers women can face when trying to move up within an organisation – Breaking barriers for women in tech: From baby to boardroom

Much has been done in recent years to encourage more women to consider careers in tech. However, O2’s research has shown that gender stereotypes persist and continue to impact the career aspirations of young people.

Our research found that almost half of 11 to 18-year-olds think the tech sector is more suited to men. The sad truth is this kind of gender stereotyping continues to have dramatic repercussions on diversity within the science, technology engineering and maths (Stem) sector. In the digital industries alone just 26% of jobs are held by women – far below the overall workforce average of 47%.

Clearly, more needs to be done to break down the barriers preventing women from pursuing careers in tech, and to retain those who do enter the Stem sector. So what can businesses do to help achieve this?

Nurture the existing female talent within your organisation

Last year, research from O2 showed that nearly 50% of working women say all the decision-makers in their company are male, and nearly a fifth think it’s impossible to reach the top as a woman. It’s no surprise that many women feel dis-incentivised from pursuing the most senior roles in industries such as tech where female representation remains particularly low.

That’s why it’s vital that all businesses – especially those in the Stem sector – build a more robust and sustainable diversity plan that focuses on women at every level of their organisation. Only then will they be able to successfully support – and in so doing, retain – the talented women who are ready to fill the boardrooms of the future.

From my experience, a great way of providing such support is through dedicated internal initiatives. At O2, for example, we re-launched our Women in Leadership programme two years ago, with a view to better supporting the many talented and ambitious women in our organisation who want to climb the ladder. As part of this, we recently held a dedicated conference in central London, with guest speakers including Jo Swinson, former Minister for Women and Equalities. The event was designed to support those on the programme to think differently about how they can harness their talent and influence to reach their full potential.

But these programmes can’t exist in isolation. They need to be part of a wider cultural shift and be supported by a genuine commitment from the board. Without this, any positive results will be short-lived and fail to make any real impact.

Take immediate action to recruit more women into your organisation

Providing the right female role models and creating a supportive and inclusive culture within your organisation is vital for redressing the gender imbalance in Stem in the long-term. But there are also more tangible ways in which we can look to achieve this in the short term.

We’ve been working to redress the gender imbalance in our organisation by recruiting those women returning to work after maternity leave. We recently trialled a phased maternity return programme, designed to enable returners to manage their work and family responsibilities and to adjust back into the work place at their own pace. It’s something I’m actively looking to develop in the future.

Another  way I’ve looked to do this as HR Director at O2 is by insisting search firms have 50/50 gender balance shortlists for senior roles. I also choose not to work with head hunters that question or fail to honour that commitment. While I don’t personally believe in quotas, or in anyone being appointed because of their gender, I would argue that this kind of measure can help level the playing field. All with the aim of enabling us to reach our ultimate goal; a place where everyone is viewed based on talent alone.

Build a pipeline of talent from baby to boardroom

Ultimately, to ensure we tackle diversity in the tech sector, businesses have to widen their gaze beyond their current workforce to secure a diverse pipeline of talent for the future. That means working more closely with schools to open young people’s eyes to the variety of opportunities which exist. For instance, I recently joined over a hundred of O2’s top executives in pledging to dedicate time each year to go into schools and speak to pupils about the opportunities within the tech sector – and we’ve called for businesses countrywide to do the same.

At the end of the day, workplace diversity is key to doing good business. Our 25 million O2 customers aren’t one homogenous group; they reflect our increasingly diverse society. To serve them best, it’s vital that our workforce reflects this vibrant and diverse customer base – and this is true for all businesses, big and small – whether in tech or not. So it’s essential that businesses work together with government and educators to put in the programmes and measures necessary. Only then can we break down the barriers preventing women from pursuing careers in the tech sector once and for all.