GUEST BLOG: Why tech needs to think seriously about targets and quotas

In this guest blog Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls and winner of the Women in IT Awards -Skills Initiative of the Year award, explains why the technology industry needs to consider targets and quotas for diversity more carefully. 

Targets  and quotas. There I said it. The dreaded T’s and Q’s, that stand for ‘giving people an unfair advantage that they don’t deserve’ and ‘allowing less qualified individuals to get a one-up on the more qualified individuals that would be able to do the job’. Don’t they?

I have had many conversations about this with individuals across the tech industry about why we as tech employers should or shouldn’t use quotas and targets. It’s not an easy topic. Partially because people don’t always understand what these concepts really mean, sometimes it’s because of confusion about the legal status around deploying them, but often it’s because people are worried it will set an unfair precedent for hiring individuals who are not up for the job.

So, what is this really about and should it be something that we should be considering as a company?

What’s the difference between Quotas and Targets?

Targets are specific measurable objectives, usually voluntarily set by an organisation at their own discretion. These targets are often created with a specific timeframe in which they are to be achieved, and the organisation sets its own repercussions for what happens if a target isn’t met.

Quotas are a little different. They are usually mandatory, non-negotiable, and set by an external body (e.g. government), and enforced by an external body to the company.

Should we consider either of these mechanisms, and if so why?

Quotas are a bigger question to address than targets, as they do usually require legal standing and third party monitoring to be implemented. So, if we start with the (somewhat) simpler topic of targets, the simple answer is yes, I think we should be using them in our companies, and this is why – They work.

In the UK, we’ve been trying to tackle women’s equality and participation in the workplace for a couple of hundred years now, and the reality is most of this change hasn’t happened naturally without pressure and the setting of goals.

And it’s not like we’re uncomfortable setting targets other parts of our businesses. We set targets on revenue and employee churn, so why are we so uncomfortable setting targets for our people? Surely if we’re saying that diversity is important to the success for our businesses, we should be brave and set ourselves some targets to achieve this?

One reason I hear cited most often is that we feel that we would be giving people an unfair advantage. I don’t believe this has to be the case, and here are the reasons why.

1. The tech industry already has historic bias

We need to come to terms with the fact that the tech industry has historic biases (for many reasons) towards recruiting men from a certain background.

These are often competent individuals who are indeed able to do the job, but they aren’t the only individuals capable of doing the job. If we want fully staff our growing tech talent needs and tackle gender (and other) diversity in our tech workforce, we will need to put more time, effort and focus on talent from underrepresented groups. And communicating this extra focus will require conviction to speak about why you as a company are taking this approach, and at times, answer some challenging questions because – to anonymously quote a man I met recently who runs an amazing boy’s development organisation – ‘to those in privilege, equality can sometimes feel like oppression’.

2. Just because you set targets, it doesn’t mean you have to hire people who are substandard.

It may however mean you need to look harder to find diverse talent, and in some cases, re-evaluate what your selection criteria are and if they truly represent what someone needs to be successful in a role. There is amazing female technical talent out there, and if you cannot find someone to even be considered for a role, this should be a flag to you that your current talent approach needs a rethink. Remember that setting targets isn’t about saying ‘this is something we can easily do’.

It is rather about saying ‘this is where we want to be’. You can then use your targets as a way to trigger an honest evaluation of how your talent processes work, and work backward to implement the changes that will help you find those qualified people and achieve those targets.

So, do targets work?

Targets if set well can be incredibly effective. We’ve seen examples in politics such as the Labour party employed a few years ago, as well as those used in Norway and Sweden to increase the numbers of women in parliament.

But it’s not only in politics that organisations have successfully used targets to drive diversity. In 2010, Agile focused software consultancy ‘Thoughtworks’ introduced targets for the company’s US head office which mandated that its graduate intake be at least 50% women, and that the gender balance in senior appointments be improved.

In 2012, the company hired 200 graduates worldwide. Sixty per cent of those graduates were women, and Thoughtworks now has over 33% women in its workforce, with roughly a third of their global leadership team also women (including their CTO).

The legal bits
An important question – are targets legal? The specific legal standing ultimately comes down to whether you’re employing ‘positive discrimination’ (which is illegal) or ‘positive (or affirmative) action (which is legal).

You can read the full definition of differences here, but my (non-legal professional) take on this is as follows:
• Once you have set your employment selection criteria for a role, you cannot hire someone solely based on the fact that they are a minority (and do so against more qualified individuals who are also being considered).

• You can set selection criteria that permits you to recruit qualified and diverse candidates, as well as run different activities to support the recruitment of minorities, as long as when they are considered for the role, they are done so to the same criteria as other non-minority candidates.

And this is where setting targets such as applying the Rooney Rule come into play. You should not select a female candidate only because she is a woman, but you can set yourself targets such as to employ the Rooney rule to ensure that you include diverse and qualified talent during the selection process, and so increase the probability of hiring diversely.

What next?

If you embark on this, I can promise you this will be an at times challenging, but ultimately incredibly rewarding journey to take your company on. Targets aren’t the only mechanisms you can employ, and there are organisations such as the industry group Tech Talent Charter which has published some helpful starting points with case studies on the various ways you can go about doing this.

Beyond that, do have a chat with your peers. There are very few companies who do this perfectly, but there are many who do bits of this well. Share your own challenges and successes, and learn from each other. Be brave and be honest with yourself, and have faith in your ability to change. Not only will you transform your business for the better, but you’ll be enabling bright and talented individuals to have rewarding and stimulating careers. Make diversity a part of your corporate legacy – you won’t regret it.