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Is the dial shifting for underrepresented groups in the UK’s tech sector?

George Floyd’s death and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness about the disparity in many areas of society, including the tech sector. Many firms claim to be headed for change, but will this change be sustained into the future?

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While the UK tech sector may employ more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people than most industries, IT professionals of colour are still less likely to hold management positions than their white counterparts – despite being better qualified.

These are the findings of the BCS Diversity report 2020, which, on the plus side, revealed that the number of BAME workers has risen by 2% (twice the national average) to 18% of the total tech workforce over the past five years. This figure compares with BAME representation of about 12% across the national working population as a whole.

In real terms, this means there are now 268,000 people of colour working in the IT industry, with little evidence of any pay gap between them and their white colleagues. Median hourly rates for individuals from all ethnic backgrounds stands at around £21 per hour.

On the downside, however, BAME people in technology are much less likely to find themselves in positions of power than their white counterparts. A mere 9% currently have roles at director-level, while only 32% are supervisors or managers compared with 43% of their white workmates.

This is despite the fact that they tend to be better qualified. Some 85% of BAME professionals have earned a degree or higher education qualification compared with only 66% of their white colleagues.

To make matters worse, Nicholas Kelly, chair and co-founder of healthcare technology group Axela Ltd, points out that the true reality of the situation is being masked because people characterised as BAME are currently shoehorned into a single grouping, despite having very different experiences.

“The IT industry is made up predominantly of white and Asian men, but lumping everyone into one category means the statistics are always skewed,” says Kelly. “It makes the figures look better, but it’s not representative of the reality on the ground.”

According to the BCS report, the most prevalent race/ethnicity in the tech sector, apart from white people, is those of Indian-ethnic origin, who make up 8% of the total, compared to 3% of the overall working population.

People from Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities are also relatively highly represented in that they account for 2% of tech workers but only 0.7% of the wider UK workforce.

But the opposite is true of people with a black, African, Caribbean or black British background. While they also make up 2% of the technology workforce, they account for 3.2% of the wider working population.

Another discrepancy can be found in the types of jobs that people do. For example, the most popular technical job for BAME IT professionals is that of business analyst, architect and system designer (26%), while the least common is that of web designer or developer (9%), which tends to be more of a white preserve.

Lack of level playing field

Something else to note, says Sandra Kerr, race director at Business in the Community, a charity that promotes responsible business, is that people of colour are often more highly represented in support functions, such as HR and marketing, rather than in technical areas.

The most worrying situation of all though relates to the lack of level playing field that the IT industry appears to be offering BAME workers. On the one hand, they account for a huge 30% of all unemployed people in the tech sector.

On the other, even if they do manage to get a job, they are considerably less likely to be promoted. Key issues here, says Sam De Silva, a technology partner at law firm CMS and member of the BCS Society board, include conscious and unconscious bias from leaders and line managers, inadequate diversity training and a failure to embed adequate diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies into the organisation’s processes and procedures.

But such a situation can manifest itself in everything from tokenism to a lack of support in terms of career progression. “You’ll hear things like, ‘We only have one team leader, so you’ll have to wait for that person to leave’,” Kelly says. “But when they do, it’s, ‘We don’t have anyone who’s right for the role so we need to hire from outside’.”

During these times of crisis, it’s even more important for companies to adapt to survive what many believe will be a very severe recession – so diversity makes even more sense
Sam De Silva, CMS

In other words, people end up in the chicken-and-egg scenario of being unable to obtain the necessary experience as they are not given the chance to do so. Another problem is leaders and managers hiring and promoting people “who look like them in the mirror”, which generates systemic bias. Put another way, says Kelly: “The system’s stacked.”

But the results of this kind of scenario can be disastrous, not just at an individual level, but at a company level too. De Silva says: “Lack of career progression usually means greater attrition of staff, and it can mean that talented staff are not developed and nurtured. The UK could, therefore, be missing out on a significant amount of talent to fill senior positions.”

Employers could likewise be missing out in business performance terms too. According to a recent report by McKinsey & Company entitled Diversity wins: how inclusion matters, there is a clear connection between D&I and profitability. The top 25% of companies surveyed in 2019 that had a good mix of ethnicity and race at executive level were 36% more likely than their peers to demonstrate above-average profits.

This means that, while some leaders may be inclined to let D&I concerns slip off the agenda in a time of recession when they have many competing priorities, in reality, this is likely to prove short-sighted stance.

De Silva says: “Increased diversity brings a wider range of perspectives and greater innovation, and this is good for the bottom line. During these times of crisis, it’s even more important for companies to adapt to survive what many believe will be a very severe recession – so diversity makes even more sense.”

Russ Shaw, founder of the Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates networking groups, agrees. “The digital economy in Britain is only growing and it’s going to be absolutely vital for national prosperity that it continues to expand,” he says. “To continue on this trajectory, it must bring everyone in society on that journey and ensure it delivers for all communities across the country.”

How to create change

As to the action that leaders and managers can take to do just that, there are a number of things, believes Kerr. Before the hiring process even begins, she recommends that employers work with outreach organisations to put in place “pre-application support”.

The aim here is to provide people with a better understanding of, and access to, an industry that their family and friendship groups are often not familiar with either and so are unable to offer suitable help and information.

“It’s about levelling the playing field to ensure people can get the inside know-how and insights they need,” Kerr says. This “levelling” likewise includes appointing as diverse an interview panel as possible in a bid to neutralise unconscious bias during the recruitment process.

Once an individual has been taken on, however, it is just as vital to provide them with “access to fabulous projects and the opportunity to be part of the dream team”, Kerr says. The idea here is that while qualifications may help people to get a foot in the door, having access to prime assignments and initiatives is key to their career progression.

“It’s about sponsorship, especially in the rooms that people aren’t in, which means it’s important for white leaders to diversify those rooms,” Kerr says. “But there also has to be an attribution piece, so giving people credit when they come up with an idea as that helps them get in through the gate too.”

Just showing someone that you’re supporting their development and championing them can make all the difference
Nicholas Kelly, Alexa Ltd

A further helpful – and simple – approach for leaders and managers to adopt to support their BAME employees includes allowing the “bright sparks” to shadow them and discuss their experiences, but to “do it earlier rather than later” in their career when it is likely to make most impact, Kerr recommends.

Another suggestion involves offering workers development opportunities, even if management positions are thin on the ground, says Kelly. “Think about other things they could do, such as having free rein to do online classes or asking them to host a company webinar,” he says. “Just showing someone that you’re supporting their development and championing them can make all the difference.”

As to whether the killing of George Floyd in the US and the resultant resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement will have a lasting impact, meanwhile, views are mixed.

On the one hand, Kerr is “optimistic” that “no one has the appetite to go back to how things were”, while Shaw believes that many organisations and their workforces are taking the situation “very seriously” – although he acknowledges that the “rhetoric has to translate into action”.

Kelly, on the other hand, is not so sure, especially because “this is not the first time we’ve had a movement like this – although it is the biggest for a long while”, he says.

One positive thing to come out of the situation that Kelly has not seen before though is an increase in the number of people of colour starting to realise “they can do it for themselves” and set up their own businesses.

“Rather than just get frustrated and leave their employer to end up doing something they don’t want to do, people are now taking a risk – and it does tend to have a positive, snowball effect,” Kelly adds.

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