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Everyone involved – expert advice surrounding D&I in tech

At the 2023 Computer Weekly diversity in tech event, in partnership with Nash Squared, more than 100 experts from the tech and employment sectors shared their ideas for improving diversity in the technology industry

When it comes to increasing the representation of people from all walks of life in the technology sector, complacency is the enemy. Diversity and inclusion in the industry can only be achieved with everyone actively involved.

As one attendee at the 2023 Computer Weekly and Nash Squared diversity in technology event put it: “It’s everybody’s responsibility. We need to make it a part of everybody’s job.”

The need for speed

“The price is worth paying. And collectively, if we are all a little braver, we can help speed up the move to that more equitable world in tech” – Amali de Alwis, startup consultant and NED

Diversity in the sector is slowly improving – though summer of 2023 saw a dip in the number of women employed in the sector, the trend over the past 10 years has been generally upwards – but efforts are disjointed and it can be hard to tell what’s really making a difference.

A recent study from BCS claimed that if progress remains at its current pace, it could take almost 300 years for the number of women working in the tech sector to match the percentage of women in the wider workforce.

Breaking down BCS figures around diversity in tech, its 2022 Diversity report found that in the four years to 2022, the number of women in the UK tech sector increased by just 4% – from 16% in 2018 to 20% in 2022.

It also found that black women make up 0.7% of tech sector workers. While the number of people from ethnic minority groups has increased in tech since 2020, a closer look revealed the percentage of IT specialists of Indian ethnicity has remained unchanged at 8%. The number from a black, African, Caribbean or black British background has only increased to 3%, meaning BAME individuals only made up 20% of the IT workforce in 2022.

Sadly, recent research by Wiley Edge found that more than half of firms have actually lost talent from diverse backgrounds, so it’s clear organisations need to put more effort into practising what they preach.

At this year’s Computer Weekly and Nash Squared diversity in technology event – supported by NatWest – the theme was “Inclusion = everyone, with everyone involved”, sparking a discussion about the power of accountability around improving diversity and inclusion in the technology sector.

It’s clear everyone has to be involved in the push for a diverse tech landscape, especially if we want to speed up the pace of change, but how can everyone, both in and outside of organisations, and regardless of level, take on the challenge of driving forward the diversity agenda?

The audience, comprising IT leaders, HR directors and talent officers, alongside expert speakers, contributed a number of suggestions to answer this question. Here, we summarise their recommendations and encourage everyone in tech to take action.

Note that where quotes below are not attributed, these are comments from audience members who wished to remain anonymous.

Set appropriate diversity targets and goals

“On day one of when I joined our business, it was all about creating a culture and an environment where things are sustainably done, not done to tick a box, sign a policy, get something approved, but actually to make a difference over time” – Bev White, CEO of Nash Squared

If we want a more diverse tech workforce, it makes sense to turn towards the tech teams and companies themselves to be the drivers.

On the surface, every company appears to be talking about their work to improve diversity in their companies and within the tech sector more widely.

But while organisations are beginning to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in tech teams, it can sometimes be easy for D&I practices to become a “tick box exercise”, mainly aimed at appearing to be making an effort rather than genuinely shifting towards a more diverse workforce. To avoid this behaviour, the audience suggested setting targets.

One expert explained: “If we set targets on D&I the same way we did on financials and [other] things within an organisation, then would we get more focus on that?”

Since the beginning of the conversation surrounding diversity in the technology sector, targets have been widely discussed with varied opinions. Some believe they are helpful, others think they are harmful.

At this year’s Computer Weekly/Nash Squared diversity in tech event, the consensus was that targets could be helpful when it comes to encouraging managers and senior leaders to consider diversity and inclusion in their work practices, such as hiring.

As Bryan Glick, editor in chief of Computer Weekly, pointed out, it’s not just about having targets, but about implementing “the right targets, at the right levels”.

As an example, he said: “Don’t just say, ‘We want 50% of all our new recruits to be women’, say, ‘We want 50% of recruits to be women at our senior level, and this many of this level, and this many at this level’.”

Accountability through measuring

“Rather than [D&I] being a tick box exercise, we need to demonstrate externally that we’re doing certain activities, that actually every leader is owning accountability for delivering some actions”

Targets don’t mean anything unless companies and individuals are held accountable for making sure they are achieved. In many cases, attendees mentioned tying diversity targets into the salary or bonuses of mid-level hiring managers or higher-ups in the organisation as an incentive to make sure these things happen.

In some companies, D&I targets are “bonusable items” and “part of [manager’s] salary is linked to achieving diversity and inclusion targets”, one attendee explained.

Advice from the experts

  • Set appropriate diversity targets and goals.
  • Make yourself and the organisation accountable for achieving those goals by making sure results are measured.
  • Collect data and make it public.
  • Aim for senior stakeholder buy-in.
  • Ensure the organisation’s culture matches its diversity goals.
  • Make changes across the pipeline.
  • Don’t underestimate an individual’s influence – use yours to make a difference.
  • Work together.

Initiatives aimed at improving the business should not be a “side of the desk” task done outside of work hours, but instead everyone should have the opportunity, with support from leaders, to work on building a more inclusive environment as part of their key performance indicators (KPIs).

Increasing diversity in an organisation’s tech teams should be part of people’s salary or role, should be measurable, should have budget behind it, and should influence people’s bonuses.

This also means organisations need to understand the benefit of diversity and inclusion, which is often clearer when improvements are measurable.

Collect data and make it public 

“Let’s use the data. We had examples of taking data into organisations where people didn’t understand the lack of diversity in their organisation until they looked at the data. So, how do we use the data to change that?”

One of the best ways to measure change is to set targets and collect data. Collecting and sharing data surrounding these goals and targets is not only a way to measure progress, but has been proven to bring about improvement in some cases.

In her presentation at the event, Tech Talent Charter (TTC) CEO Debbie Forster explained how collecting and sharing data can create that accountability.

Taking women in tech as an example, the percentage of women in tech in TTC signatories is about 28% – 6% more than in the tech workforce as a whole, suggesting that measuring and sharing data related to a defined diversity strategy is a successful approach.

The Tech Talent Charter also doesn’t hesitate to boot out members if they are not sharing data or staying true to their apparent values.

Using targets and data to measure and make everyone in an organisation accountable for improving diversity in their tech teams could look like regular reviews of hiring statistics, publishing diversity data, and celebrating any successes.

Aim for senior stakeholder buy-in

“If leadership doesn’t make a commitment, this is all [just] nice words. If you don’t make a commitment to be there and be present, but also be the voice about what we do [for] diversity and inclusion, we’re still going to have the same issue” – Flavilla Fongang, founder of 3 Colours Rule and GTA Black Women in Tech

In many cases, firms have left the drive for diversity and inclusion in the hands of those from underrepresented groups who, although may understand what people like them may want from a workplace, have less power to drive change and are expected to do so in their spare time.

Some attendees claimed middle management could be a barrier to change because while a firm’s CEO or CIO may be on board with the idea of a more diverse workforce, it falls to managers to then implement and enforce changes, which are often overshadowed by other responsibilities deemed “more important”.

Both of these approaches suffer from the same problem – if pushing for diversity and inclusion isn’t seen as equally important as other projects, it is always going to fall by the wayside.

When senior leadership is seen to care about something and take action on it, others are more likely to care too, and it starts to become an important part of the business.

One attendee said: “We talked about the role of leadership, but we specifically talked about the role of managers and setting the day-to-day standard for folks in their organisation.”

When it comes to recruitment in particular, it’s most often managers who make hiring decisions, and while sometimes it’s not possible to make the most diverse hire – after all, the people being brought into the tech team need to be the best people for the job – in these instances, diversity and inclusion practices should still be considered, and decisions should be made in line with the overall D&I goals of the business.

Managers should also give their teams dedicated time to take part in enterprise resource groups (ERGs) or to educate themselves on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. One attendee mentioned a large tech firm where people get 20% of their time to pursue these matters.

It’s also important that managers are supported in providing the best working environment for women, those who are neurodivergent, or those who are from an underrepresented group – managers should not be expected to know everything or muddle through without training and help.

Ensure culture matches goals

“Being a diverse business means that we have to reflect the diversities of the customers and communities that we serve” – Jen Tippin, group chief people and transformation officer at NatWest Group

It was pointed out several times by event attendees that the push for D&I needs to be part of an organisation’s core if it is going to stick, and that involves buy-in from every level of the business – some even said diversity should be taken out of the hands of HR and become everyone’s responsibility.

Creating a tech sector that reflects its consumers is a big focus for so many companies, with many often forgetting that retaining a diverse workforce, or a workforce in general, doesn’t happen without an internal culture that suits its employees’ needs.

There have been many suggestions in the debate about how to make sure a firm is inclusive, with that being the main focus of the previous diversity event. In 2022, attendees mentioned benefits such as flexibility – which not only encourages more women into the technology sector, but also allows all employees better work-life balance, much like many of the benefits that help to attract diverse talent.

The values of a company are a big decider for many, and companies will unravel quickly if people join a firm that appears to align with their values only to discover it is nothing more than lip service. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to be heard, that processes are representative of your values as a company, that people in and outside the organisation know what these values are and that there are actions to match the words.

As one attendee pointed out: “As we’re going around the room, we heard a lot about targets. I’d like to point out that targets only measure diversity and not inclusion, and without inclusion it doesn’t really matter.”

Make changes across the pipeline

“If there is one thing in the world that I think is needing to be done, it’s education from very early, and it’s reinforcement of that education. Because the gap within technology exists because there was a lack of education” – Suki Fuller, intelligence adviser and fellow at Miribure and the 2023 Computer Weekly most influential woman in UK tech

Firms often complain that those leaving education don’t have the skills needed to fill technology roles – the more people with the right skills, the more potential tech employees there are.

The tech and science curriculums are also lacking in role models, with many of the examples used being white men, so telling more of the stories of people involved in the development of the sector who are from underrepresented groups could help encourage more people from different backgrounds to consider a tech career.

The socialisation of children can also often determine what kind of careers they consider – girls have claimed to avoid science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in the past because they consider them “too hard”, despite girls outperforming boys in these subjects at GCSE and A-Level.

One attendee said their daughter was told not to study physics because “that’s what boys do”, so it’s clear that without change this will continue to happen.

An audience member explained: “We need to start from early, early life. The social impact and our schools are having an impact on our children and the way they are brought up. And how gender is defined at school is not great.”

This goes deeper than just schools – attendees agreed that families and communities as a whole need to be made aware of what the technology sector involves, that anyone can be capable of working within it, and why it’s important that they should.

One idea presented by event attendees was to lobby the government to improve technology education, which could help improve diversity in tech in several ways.

Don’t underestimate an individual’s influence

“The definition of being influential is the capacity to have an effect on the character development or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself. What are we doing individually? What are we doing to tackle unacceptable behaviour?” – Debbie Forster, CEO of Tech Talent Charter

While the behaviour of leaders and the values of a company are important, individuals also have a hand to play in developing an inclusive culture and increasing the number of women and underrepresented groups in the industry.

There have also been instances where companies have implemented a “yellow card” system to allow employees to call out poor behaviour in a constructive and safe way.

One attendee said: “As leaders or as individuals, it is our duty that we should call [bad practice] out, and should not feel that we might be reprimanded in any kind of way [for doing so].”

Those in the industry can play a role in encouraging others to join by making themselves visible and actively talking about the industry, which may also involve active outreach to make sure they are seen and heard by the people it may influence most.

There is also a benefit in pulling others up the ladder behind you, and everyone has the ability to talk positively about their colleagues, as an attendee put it: “Everyone can be a role model, and everyone can be a storyteller.”

Another said: “Creating opportunities for others. You can speak positively about your colleague, someone at a lower grade than you, and create that positivity and visibility within your organisation.”

Allies also play an important part in developing a more diverse and inclusive tech sector, and can be helpful by supporting those in the minority – for example, it has been widely discussed how men, who have the overwhelming majority in the technology sector and therefore the power to implement changes, are vitally important in supporting and advocating for underrepresented groups.

Work together

“This is too big a problem for one company, one organisation to solve” – Debbie Forster, CEO of Tech Talent Charter

When individuals in a company create an ERG to support others like them, this does not mean others in the company can take their foot off of the peddle.

If a teacher has taken it upon themselves to teach students about Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Hedy Lamarr or Katherine Johnson to encourage more girls into the sector, that does not mean the curriculum as a whole no longer needs to be reformed.

Just because a charity is working to train and find employment for women or career returners, that does not mean the government can pause any investigation or action into why there’s such a diversity gap in STEM.

The dial is slowly turning, but the only way it will continue to turn and pick up pace is with everyone involved.

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