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Inclusion = everyone: Advice from experts for improving tech diversity

At October’s Computer Weekly diversity in tech event, in partnership with Nash Squared, almost 100 experts from the tech and employment sectors shared their ideas for improving diversity in the technology industry

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“After quite a long time, there has been a little bit of change in gender diversity in IT,” said Bev White, CEO of recruitment specialist Nash Squared. 

“In the past year, the government’s figures have shown that even more women than ever are entering a career in tech – which is amazing,” she told guests at last year’s Computer Weekly diversity in tech event.

Nash Squared’s Digital leadership report showed similar figures, with White pointing out that women now make up 15% of digital leaderships positions, compared with 13% the year before.

Even with this news, the reality still remains that the number of women in technology has been relatively unchanged in the past 10 years, and other areas of diversity are also lacking.

Despite the work being done to increase diversity in the tech sector, White said that, at current rates of change, it will take until 2060 for gender participation in tech to reach 50-50.

With the theme of the event, hosted jointly by Computer Weekly and Nash Squared – with support from sponsor Tyl by NatWest – being “Inclusion = everyone”, the audience, made up of IT leaders, HR directors and talent officers, contributed a number of suggestions for working towards adopting this mindset in the technology sector. 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.

Focus on the early pipeline

“We’re not going to be able to develop at the pace necessary to have an impact in the teams we’ve got now.”

The UK has been focused on trying to encourage young people into the technology sector in many different ways over the past 10 years – without a supply of new people coming into tech roles, the skills and diversity gap will only widen.

Rather than focus on increasing diversity in already-existing tech roles, one suggestion was to focus on diversity and inclusion earlier in the talent pipeline.

By helping young people understand what is involved in technology careers while they’re still in education, a more mixed group of people may end up being interested in the technology sector later on.

Focusing only on hiring in the currently available talent pool will mean the pace of change stays slow, and the same talent circulates around the sector without adding any new minds.

Demystify the tech sector

“We want to do something to rebrand the sector to create a level of belonging for those that work in it and those we want to attract into it. Demystify the sector so that people understand what it is.”

There are lots of reasons people choose not to go into technology, one of which is not having a full understanding of tech careers, what they involve, and what skills are needed.

While people are already aware the technology industry spans most sectors and organisations, people who don’t work in tech often struggle to understand what tech jobs involve and how many different types of roles fall under the tech banner – a large number of people who contribute to the sector do so in non-technical support roles.

Many at Computer Weekly’s event said the technology sector needs to be made more accessible if we want more people to consider technology careers.

Educating people at all points along the pipeline, including non-tech people already in the workplace, about what a tech role looks like may encourage more people to expand their skillset and make the jump into a tech-related role.

Focus on tech culture – reduce competitive nature

“Traditionally we actually have a very competitive landscape. We give extra-hard things at interviews, and the ones who struggle with the work environment get pit against each other.”

Culture in tech teams is not only putting people off joining the technology sector, but is also causing young people to leave the sector early on.

Admitting there are things the technology industry has done wrong in the past, one of the recommendations was to focus on reducing the competitive nature of the technology industry and instead develop the skills the industry will need more of in the future, such as collaboration, communication and teamwork.

Rather than an “aggressive, survival-of-the-fittest” work environment, firms should instead focus on helping people to work together and bring the best of themselves to work.

This might take some level of education, both for teams and for employing managers, around how to change their way of working and interviewing for candidates, to eventually develop a nurturing environment rather than a competitive one, which will in turn develop a more inclusive culture among tech teams, which would be better-suited to more diverse candidates.

Job adverts matter

“Being sensitive to the fact that some people find interviews quite intimidating, maybe starting with verbal-only telephone interviews to start with.”

A job advert can be very reflective of the culture in an organisation, often using biased language which may not be appealing to people who aren’t like those already in a company.

More than half of those involved in tech hiring say there is bias in the process.

A job advert can perpetuate the misconceptions a candidate may have about a role, making attracting diverse candidates extremely unlikely – girls especially are put off technology because they don’t feel they have the right skills.

There are lots of ways organisations can change to attract diverse talent and benefit employees already in the organisation, such as removing core working hours to promote flexibility, focusing on soft skills and personality rather than rigid technical skills, and using a mix of interview styles when looking for new candidates.

Focusing on people rather than exact skillsets, and making this clear in how you fish for and hire new employees, will contribute towards a more inclusive workplace.

Don’t start to push for diversity without laying the groundwork

“Before the organisation gets ready to become inclusive and attract outside talent, we’ve got to get the house in order.”

Having a vision for a diverse workplace is one thing, but implementing it is another. Before aiming to recruit talent from outside of the organisation, make sure they’re coming into a workplace that genuinely does have that culture you’re advertising, and that you don’t hire the people first and think about inclusion later.

In some cases, for example, young people claim not to have had a positive experience in the tech sector, despite so many companies working on making their culture more inclusive.

Work together towards the vision of what employees think inclusion really is – it might take communication, time, and lots of different phases and developments, but make sure that foundation is there before you start.

A holistic approach

“We need a holistic, not a siloed, approach to inclusion, where explicit values are embedded in culture.”

Not every intervention is appropriate for every organisation, situation or person – as explained by Kerensa Jennings, group director of data platforms at BT, in her speech at the event. People are layered, and therefore the approach to inclusion should be, too.

Organisations need to take intersectionality into account, as well as individual and organisational behaviours, when developing an inclusion drive to make sure it works for as many people as possible and fits in with how the company operates.

What do employees want?

“Although ‘inclusion = everyone’, there are very specific things that need to be addressed with different groups of people.”

Keeping with the “one size does not fit all” topic, employees need to be consulted when developing company culture to make sure changes are actually helpful.

It might be impossible for inclusive practices to suit everyone, so flexibility between individuals is important, too.

Experts expressed concerns over organisations creating diversity initiatives as a “checkbox exercise” without considering the people these changes are aimed at.

Make sure the culture comes from the top down

Many organisations understand the importance of having a diverse workforce; implementing initiatives to try to encourage more diverse talent into tech roles.

But these efforts are pointless if newly recruited talent does not want to stay in the organisation.

For example, according to data from Tech Returners, 56% of mid-level women in tech who take a break from their career choose not to come back, and research by Mthree found that 59% of young people in tech roles said their company’s culture has made them so uncomfortable that they have either quit or thought about doing so.

Bryan Glick, editor in chief of Computer Weekly, pointed the finger at those higher up in organisations needing to do more to push forward diversity in the workplace – who more often than not are men.

“Men can and should do more in the workplace for diversity, because all too often men are the ones who are in hiring, promotion and recruitment positions,” he said.

Unless effort has been put into encouraging an inclusive culture in an organisation, any effort to recruit diverse talent will end up being in vain.

This should come from the top of the workforce leading by example, and making decisions to shift businesses as a whole in a more inclusive direction.

Acknowledge people’s challenges, hidden or otherwise

“No one really knows what’s happening under the surface of anyone that you meet, whether that’s an invisible illness, or a broader set of challenges that a person has to deal with.”

Part of having a culture where you can bring your whole self to work is knowing you will not be discriminated against for doing so, either by your peers or the organisation.

Everyone is facing a different set of challenges, and as Joel Gujral, founder and CEO of Myndup, shared in his talk, employers should have solutions available for employees that need them.

This leads to the suggestion that employers offer their workers a toolbox of options where employees can choose from what works best for them.

Networks are powerful

“Networks are very, very powerful, especially for junior members of staff.”

An inclusive tech sector is not necessarily just down to the internal workings of organisations – external networks aimed at helping particular groups of people are also a useful tool in making the tech industry more inclusive.

Whether inside or outside of the organisation, it can be helpful to make sure you have a network of people you can connect with for support or advice.

Going to events and connecting with people outside of the organisation can be very helpful for junior staff new to the sector, to help them find their tribe and develop their sense of belonging.

Ability is more important than qualifications

“Focus on ability rather than credentials. We need to look at the person as a whole when they’re coming into the organisation, get to know them, understand their abilities, and then nurture them through that.”

Sometimes scrapping the need for exact levels of education or particular qualifications can open up the opportunity for someone who has the right skillset and temperament for a role, but who may need a little more attention and on-the-job training at the beginning of their career.

“All labels are barriers in one way, shape or form at some point in our lives,” said one expert. “When it comes to hiring, some CVs are ruled out because of a lack of degree or due to gender, whether that bias is unconscious or conscious.

Some of these barriers to consideration can be removed during the hiring process to give a wider pool of people the chance at the job.

Active allyship

“Taking a stand, being that voice, being someone to advocate for the group.”

Lots of people should be involved in the development of inclusive culture, but this should not fall solely on underrepresented people in the tech space – especially when they don’t have a presence in the spaces where decisions are made.

Because minorities in tech are less likely to be in leadership positions, all people across the business at all different levels need to advocate for each other and act as supports for one another to make the workplace welcome for everyone.

This includes speaking up for others when they aren’t able to.

A diversity treaty

“We would need to make sure that any companies or any people who sign up to this agreement would be held to account.”

Targets have been debated in the diversity in tech space for a while, with some saying they lead to tokenism, while others think they lead to organisations being made more accountable for their decisions and outcomes.

The experts at Computer Weekly’s event said there should be an agreement that firms sign up to with particular diversity targets which they are then held accountable for, much like the IT industry’s Tech Talent Charter.

Described as a “Paris Agreement for diversity” – inspired by the Paris climate change agreement – this treaty would not only involve the recruitment of diverse talent, but also training the next generation of tech workers, whether through school or job movers.

Making sure those who sign up to the treaty are held accountable for not meeting targets will make them more likely to do the work needed to shift the dial for diversity and inclusion in the sector, participants said.

Collaboration is key

“It’s down to relationships.”

It has been said countless times that to truly push for the right skills in the technology sector, collaboration between industry, the education sector and the government is needed to ensure young people are given the skills the future industry needs.

The same could be said about diversity in the sector – there are so many interventions working to improve diversity in the sector, but the dial is not shifting.

Building relationships between firms, school, communities and the government could lead to more success when it comes to pushing forward positive change in the technology space.  

Time is ticking

“Urgency is a problem – how are we thinking ahead?”

Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are spurring forward at a fast pace, but advancing diversity in the technology sector is moving at a glacial speed.

Experts explained we need to be moving faster to solve these problems, keeping up with the pace of change in the sector itself.

Much like AI and automation, the result is only as good as what is fed in, so more needs to be done to train and retain people in the tech sector.

The consensus between all of those in attendance was that there is no magic bullet for the situation – people are different, firms are different and therefore no single thing is going to work.

These suggestions focus on getting people into the sector and keeping them there, especially those currently underrepresented in the sector who could solve many of the problems the industry is currently facing.

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