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How the pandemic has affected women in the tech sector

The coronavirus outbreak has created uncertainty across all sectors, but how specifically has it affected women working in the tech industry?

Although it is not entirely clear why, the latest data from BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, indicates that, in contrast with other industries, the number of women employed in the UK tech sector has risen slightly over the past year.

While across the wider economy, female workers are more likely to have been furloughed or made redundant than their male counterparts and are also having a tougher time getting hired, the percentage of women in the tech sector rose to 20% last year, from 17% in 2019.

But that doesn’t mean everything has been plain sailing. According to Rowena Knapp, chief operating officer at entrepreneur network Tech Nation, the Covid-19 pandemic has “exacerbated existing inequalities” for women in everything from taking on more unpaid work to receiving lower levels, and smaller amounts, of equity investment in their startups.

Research conducted by Patricia Gestoso, head of scientific support for a large European software firm, in collaboration with the Global Professional Women’s Network, on the impact of the pandemic in unpaid work terms on 1,312 professional women, mainly in the US, the UK and Europe, revealed that tech workers have been hit just as hard in this area as everyone else.

In terms of division of labour, 54% of the 203 IT professionals questioned said their household chores and caring activities had increased either “more” or “much more” than for their male partners, while only 9% indicated that their partners had disproportionately borne the brunt.

As a result, although the respondents had spent an average of eight hours per week on household chores in 2019, the figure nearly doubled to 14 during lockdown. Working mothers dedicated an average of 12 additional hours per week on providing their children with schooling and/or nursing care, while caregiving in a more general sense jumped from 11 hours per week in 2019 to 18 during lockdowns.

Put another way, the amount of time women in tech spent on unpaid tasks in 2019 amounted to an average of 41 hours per month, the equivalent of an average of 5,899 per year in unpaid work. In contrast, levels of unpaid work more than doubled to 92 hours per month in April and May 2020, the equivalent of 13,266 per year on average.

A lack of support

It is not surprising, then, that 56% of those surveyed said they had benefited from less leisure time during the pandemic than in the previous year, compared with 31% who said they had enjoyed more. This scenario has undoubtedly taken its toll.

Bev White, CEO of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash – whose own research indicates that the employment situation for women in tech has remained fairly static at 15% – explains: “There’s much anecdotal talk that women, more than any other aspect of diversity, have been looking at the nature of their careers due to the stresses and strains of the pandemic, and a number have decided that enough is enough, especially if they’re the primary carer, whether we’re talking about children or elder care.”

Charlotte Woodworth, gender equality director at Business in the Community, a charity promoting responsible business, agrees. “Research shows that women leave because they feel they don’t get the support they need from managers, the right opportunities or the work-life balance they need,” she says.

It is important that employers understand the difference between remote and flexible working, and enable the latter to happen, points out Merici Vinton, founder and CEO of Ada’s List, a global community for women in tech.

“It’s about the perception that people aren’t doing the work if they’re doing different hours, when really the important thing is outcomes and that the work gets done,” she says. “Enabling effective flexible working is about understanding the full picture of the employee experience while working at home.”

Another problem relates to the risk of unconscious bias being compounded if people operate remotely, which can have a negative impact on their chances of career progression. A key challenge here, according to Rebecca George, president of BCS, is that “it’s easier for discriminatory behaviour to go unnoticed, or unchecked”.

“Research has highlighted that managers often give ground to those who look like themselves, and with networking opportunities thin on the ground, it’s possible that without care and special attention, some people may have to work twice as hard to receive the opportunities and recognition they deserve,” she says.

Tackling deeper problems

To prevent this situation from taking place, Laura Baldwin, president of tech publishing house O’Reilly, believes promotion needs to be based on outcomes. 

“If promotion is based on hours spent in the office and productivity standards, it doesn’t work,” she says. “But if you base it on outcomes, you’ll always promote the right people, no matter where they are.”

But in Gestoso’s opinion, the problems women face go deeper than this, relating instead to key assumptions made about how the world of work is structured. The first assumption is that since car manufacturer Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour working week in 1914, it has become the default, unquestioned standard. Second, unpaid household and caring work is still not valued by society, despite the huge contribution it makes to the economy.

“If we don’t dismantle this outmoded way of thinking, we can’t move forward,” warns Gestoso. “Tech companies give people flexibility in the way they work, not elasticity, but if we don’t do some radical thinking and change the paradigm of what work looks like, we won’t just see women constrained in future, but men too.”

“Because these are exceptional times, it’s possible to rewire the business to make it more equitable as it gives you the excuse, and the freedom, to tackle some of the existing inequalities and barriers that have built up over the years”
Merici Vinton, Ada’s List

Flexible working options do not meet the needs of women who are working between 41 and 92 extra unpaid hours a week – especially as the population continues to age and the caring burden increases – as the number of hours in each day is not elastic.

As a result, Gestoso suggests employers set up unpaid work funds out of their corporate social responsibility budgets, backed by the creation of a government Commission for Unpaid Work, to provide women with fair remuneration.

And the time for action is now, believes Ada’s List’s Vinton. “Because these are exceptional times, it’s possible to rewire the business to make it more equitable as it gives you the excuse, and the freedom, to tackle some of the existing inequalities and barriers that have built up over the years,” she says. “It’s time to build a strategic approach to creating a more diverse workforce as it’ll pay off in the long run as the economy starts growing again.”

Case study: How Atos supported working parents through the pandemic

One organisation that has been working hard to ease the potentially disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women due to their role as majority carers is Atos.

While the economic situation may have affected some of the IT services and consultancy firm’s projects, the fact that the tech industry is still in growth mode and most personnel are able to work from home has meant the negative influence of the pandemic has been less marked than in other sectors, such as retail, particularly in terms of furloughing and job losses.

But this scenario has also meant that women on the tech side of the business, who make up about 28% of its workforce and 21% of its leadership team, have continued to work through the crisis, even when schools were closed during the first lockdown.

To try to help reduce the burden on working parents, the company doubled its paid time-off-for-emergencies allowance to 10 days and introduced a holiday donation and relief scheme.

The scheme enabled employees to donate some of their holiday allowance to overburdened colleagues on a voluntary basis. Doing so not only helped people to cope during a difficult time, but also helped to build a wider “feeling of community”, says Cheryl Allen, the firm’s HR director for transformation.

A further initiative involved providing working parents with a virtual summer camp for their children. Thirty hours of online entertainment and learning activities were provided over the course of three weeks to give parents a break. These sessions included everything from science and dinosaur parties to learning how to code or speak French.

But the organisation also placed a strong emphasis on employee well-being in a more general sense. To this end, it launched a dedicated well-being portal, which not only included toolkits, but also signposted people towards mental health first aiders, employee assistance programme support and a new policy to help women suffering from domestic abuse, which involved enabling them to work in a Covid-secure office if required.

To create a wider feeling of safety and support, Allen believes it is vital to set the “tone from the top very early”. For example, Atos CEO Elie Girard, who is “very passionate about diversity and inclusion”, made it plain that there was no problem in employees joining online calls with noise or distractions in the background.

Furthermore, the organisation also set up a moderation process to ensure that its twice-yearly performance reviews did not end up being skewed because of unconscious bias if an employee’s work routine had been disrupted or they had to take time off work unexpectedly.

Such activity appears to have paid off. “The trust index in our annual engagement survey has gone up by 6%, which is quite a jump, and our periodic pulse surveys were in the 80s and 90s in terms of people feeling supported,” says Allen. “So not only have we retained our women, but it’s also done great things for our culture.”

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