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Women in tech – is retention currently more important than hiring?

Women make up a small proportion of the tech sector despite accounting for almost half of the UK workforce – but are efforts to attract more women into the sector a distraction from trying to keep the women the sector already has?

The number of women dropping out of the UK tech sector appears to be escalating. This situation would seem to imply that now is the time for employers to put less focus on hiring diverse talent and more on retaining it.

Some 17,000 female tech workers left the industry between Q4 2022 and Q1 2023, despite overall headcount increasing by 85,000. This drop was followed by a further 3,000 women leaving the profession between Q1 and Q2 this year.

So, why is this? Lily Haake, head of technology and digital executive search at recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, believes the situation is a complex one.

First, some companies – particularly the larger ones – have started mandating that employees return to the office for a set number of days. Although they are not necessarily requiring more time on-site, they are now enforcing policies more stringently.

“But it’s difficult for people with caring commitments, and women do 75% of the world’s unpaid caring and childcare, which means these kinds of mandates will hit them disproportionately,” Haake says. “So, reading between the lines, return-to-office mandates could be playing into this.”

Another factor is the increasingly prohibitive cost of childcare. “In London, full-time care is about £17,000 per year per child, so if you have two, you need to make £50,000 just to break even,” Haake points out. “Tech may be a highly paid career, but not everyone’s a CIO.”

To make matters worse, not all schools offer “wraparound care” beyond their 9am to 3pm standard hours.

“But which tech job is that flexible?” Haake asks. “Tech is all about transformation and it often requires long hours and travel. There may be tech roles that are less demanding, but even that’s often not tenable if you have children.”

Case study: Avanade

The complex challenges faced by women in tech mean there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to retention, according to Yvonne Kiely, head of advisory for Europe at Avanade.

As a result, the IT services company currently operates 11 formal programmes and a range of informal activities, each tackling different aspects of female retention. The aim here is to take a broad-based but iterative approach to tackling the underlying issues. Its current female attrition rate in the UK is 7.4%.

“Open dialogue is important if you want to be iterative in terms of content and feed input back into the programme to reflect changing circumstances,” Kiely points out. “Feedback also informs HR policies and the career progression conversation, so it’s really valuable.”

Formal programmes include the organisation’s Horizon programme to help high-potential female consultants progress into leadership roles, not least to act as role models for others. Here, participants take part in group projects and one-to-one mentoring sessions with senior leaders.

Informal initiatives include the organisation’s hosting a series of Pathway to Success speakers. These women talk about their own professional journeys to encourage others to discuss any thoughts and issues with their career advisers. 

But various benefits and policies have also been implemented, with the aim of embedding female-friendliness into the provider’s culture. These include fully paid parental leave, a menopause policy, and a fully flexible working approach.

Kiely explains: “It’s about being flexible at the individual level and taking individual circumstances into consideration. So, we offer things like part-time and job shares, four-days weeks or nine-day fortnights, seasonable flexibility where people take the summer off and leave of absence where employees take time out for further education.”

Another important approach is to intervene proactively before women get to the point where they want to quit.

“The reason why most women leave – and it’s not something we’ve been able to crack completely – is when they decide to have a family or become involved in caregiving, which is usually at about the eight- to 12-year mark,” Kiely says. “This is where our Realise Your Potential initiative comes in, which starts maybe two years into their careers.”

Realise Your Potential is a four-month learning and development scheme, which includes formal training sessions, group coaching, networking and mentoring opportunities.

“You don’t just want to address things at the crunch point,” Kiely explains. “You want to approach the issue holistically and build trust – by using many different lenses, you ensure that delivering on what you’re trying to achieve is top of mind and you can hold yourselves to account.”

Long-standing retention issues

A third consideration is the gender pay gap. Female tech workers experience the highest pay gap in Europe at 22% compared with a regional average of 19%. The figure compares with a UK national average across all industries of 14.9%.

But the issue here, Haake explains, is that: “If a family has to make a choice based on wages, they’ll go with whoever is paid the most – and the gender pay gap shows it’s the man.”

A final point is that growing numbers of companies are currently making at least some redundancies to cut costs. Others are rolling back big investments, which is leading to contracts not being renewed in some instances. “We’re seeing more people on our books in general terms, although the number of women isn’t disproportionate,” Haake says.

But there are other more long-standing issues behind the tech industry’s currently low female retention rates. According to career advice site’s 2023 survey, for instance, a huge 56% of women leave the sector when they are between 10 and 20 years into their career. This is double the rate of men.

For many women, this 10- to 20-year mark coincides with motherhood. Such a significant life change is a key point at which women tend to either leave the profession entirely or adopt more flexible working arrangements, such as contracting.

Another often overlooked dynamic is a feeling of not belonging. Nathalie Richards is chief executive of SEO London, a charity that provides education, training and mentoring to young people from underrepresented communities.

“If you do DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] really well, you’ll get a valued professional who feels a sense of belonging to an organisation,” she says. “But many women in tech aren’t seeing themselves represented at a senior level, there’s often a lack of mentoring, coaching and support, and they don’t feel a sense of camaraderie and support from their peers.”

Case study: Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric expects its returnship programme not only to help it meet its diversity targets but to boost retention rates over time.

The digital automation and energy management company first kicked off its pilot scheme in 2022 and has just finished working with a second cohort. In the first batch, it hired five out of seven participants; in the second, 13 of the 17. This amounts to a conversion rate of 76%. The majority were women who have taken a career break, although some men took part too.

Christie Lee, the company’s HR business partner, explains why it decided to go down this route: “We weren’t progressing as much as we’d like against our diversity ambitions, and we saw there were succession planning gaps in filling mid- to senior-level roles. So, the basis of our business case was to trial the initiative as a possible way of helping.”

As part of its wider sustainability strategy, the organisation’s goals in diversity terms are to ensure that, by 2025, 50% of all new hires, 40% of frontline managers and 30% of leaders are women.

As to how its six-month returnship scheme works, each participant is assigned to a particular contract to give them hands-on experience of working again in the real world. At the same time, partner ReacHIRE provides them with coaching and mentoring support, plus a range of skills-based training.

“Confidence is one of the biggest barriers, so ReacHIRE works closely with individuals on that to help instil the mindset that they are capable,” Lee says. “They help polish up their skills so they can integrate back into the workforce effectively – it’s an immersive experience.”

Creating a strong foundation of support

Schneider Electric also runs an onboarding week itself and trains appropriate line managers to coach, mentor and guide participants. It likewise assigns each returner a buddy to ensure they have all the in-house support they need.

“You need a strong foundation of support to run this kind of programme, which includes a dedicated programme manager,” Lee advises. “I’d recommend working with a partner at first, even you’d like to bring it in-house later, as they can prove a valuable resource.”

But certain positions lend themselves more to returnship programmes than others simply due to skills availability, she believes. Such posts include project managers, software and quality engineers and marketing analysts.

The company is already experiencing the benefits of going down this route, Lee says. It has succeeded in converting “qualified, diverse tech talent to fill some critical roles”. The move has also strengthened its brand “as an employer of choice” in a competitive market and helped it meet its diversity goals.

Although it will take a couple of years to understand just how much returnship programmes help to boost retention, Lee does “expect it to make a difference”. So much so that 2024 will see the initiative “operationalised” and expanded to comprise two cohorts of 25.

An internal returnship alumni employee resource network has now been set up to continue offering support and accelerate career development – and “that will help with retention too”, Lee concludes.

How employers can boost retention

As a result, Richards advocates working on the company culture rather than simply focusing on hiring from diverse groups. This includes providing access to “relatable role models”, particularly if they can act as coaches and mentors.

Another consideration is including DEI-based key performance indicators into the employee assessment process to help enable a more psychologically safe and collaborative environment.

“Embedding DEI in the performance review cycle indicates a more serious commitment, but I’d tend to steer away from financial incentives as they tend to be too rigid and can produce undesirable outcomes,” Richards warns.

Other generally less thought-about approaches for boosting engagement, loyalty and retention are returnship and apprenticeship programmes. A report by professional services company PwC found that three out of five women go back to lower skilled or lower paid jobs after a career break, resulting in an earnings drop of up to a third.

But according to the womenintech survey: “The more companies can offer initiatives like returnships, the more women will feel supported in tech and stay in the industry.”

Haake also recommends simply asking people what it is they want and what they would value. “If you talk to women, they say, ‘Mentoring and the like is great, but we need help with the practical things’,” she says. “So what about a creche on site or paid carer’s leave? It’s benefits like that which can make a real difference.”

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