Setting out the target for diversity

GUEST BLOG: As companies continue to face an enormous digital skills gap, Helen Wollaston, Chief Executive of WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), calls on industry leaders to set targets to increase representation of women in tech in this contributed blog post.

Targets for diversity are a controversial subject and there are positives and negatives on both sides of the argument. However, I believe that the time has come to take a fresh look at how we can use targets to fill the skills gaps in tech. Not only can women help to fill skills shortages, there is a strong business case for inclusion and diversity that shows increased creativity, productivity and profitability as key benefits.

People think setting a target is in conflict with appointing the best person for the job. This is a myth. What a target does is make clear a serious commitment to change. In the absence of targets, a vague desire to “hire more women” fails to deliver because it isn’t clear whose responsibility it is. How many women? In what roles? By when? Where will you find them? What is the plan? Setting a target and making people accountable for delivery focuses the mind; teams talk about it seriously and come up with creative ideas which start to make a difference.

One of the first targets I’d like to suggest is to give responsibility to a named director on every company board to drive sustainable change for inclusivity and diversity. They must be supported by the full board of directors who also take action and personal responsibility to deliver this culture. At our conference last month, some of the companies working with WISE reported linking diversity targets to bonuses – this really does focus the mind!

With a leader in place, you need to establish your baseline; the target has to make sense in the context of where you are now if you want people to take it seriously. Most larger sized businesses now report their gender pay gap and this provides a good insight to assess where particular issues lie and put in place action plans to tackle them.

There are many different ways targets can be employed to great effect.  One target would be that all longlists or all shortlists for roles have 50% women, or as one company I know has introduced, all promotions will have 2 women for every man on the shortlist until they achieve gender parity on the leadership team.

People will tell you it’s impossible – there simply aren’t enough women with IT qualifications around, or we would love to put women forward, but they never apply for developer roles. This is why you need a target and a plan to achieve it, for example, start by reviewing your recruitment strategy; do you really need someone who has five years’ experience in a set programming language if the right person has the aptitude and ability to quickly pick up the technical aspects? One company I know has taken an approach that divides their vacancies into three categories: ‘ready now, ready soon and ready later’. They negotiate with the hiring manager a proportion of the roles to be ‘ready soon and ready later’ and they build in time for training and development needed for those people, in order to futureproof those opportunities. They are working to gain long-term benefits of growing their own talented employees, creating sustainability, and developing a reputation as a company that women want to work for.

You also need to change the language you’re using in your recruitment. We know that the social-environmental purpose of a role is a stronger drive in women than men. What will inspire women to apply is being able to see the bigger picture to which they will contribute. So simply, without spending any money, just reframing the job description and presenting the bigger picture, for example, ‘you could be involved in generating the technology that will help people live longer independently’, you are more likely to attract applications from women.

Retention, retraining and returners are an additional way you can achieve your target. There is a massive opportunity for empoyers to step up their efforts to ensure they retain the women they already have, as well as opening doors for those who may want to retrain from other roles, switch careers entirely, or return after career breaks.

By adopting policies that support and help existing employees move roles, particularly into higher paid roles, through retraining, and or taking on women who want to return after a career break, companies are set to gain many benefits including retention and development of good employees who will support business growth, a positive impact on their gender pay gap, the ability to grow their own talented workforce by developing the specific skills they need and gain a reputation as an employer of choice.

So, maybe targets are not such a controversial thought after all. Different organisations will set them differently according to their needs. I personally think that setting a figure on the number of women you intend to have in your organisation and through the different management levels really focuses the attention on what you need to do to achieve greater gender balance. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a culture that is truly 100% committed to supporting greater inclusion and diversity.

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