Aspirational goals needed to turn the dial on gender in tech sector

everywoman roundtable attendees stress need for aspirational goals to turn the dial on gender in the tech sector

The IT sector needs to set aspirational goals if it is going to turn the dial on gender, industry experts said at a recent everywoman roundtable.

Despite the majority of attendees being against the introduction of quotas, they agreed that a benchmark needs to be set, or the issue of the declining number of females in technology will not be addressed.

Aspirational goals are different from quotas

Matt Piercy, vice-president of Europe at VMware, pointed out that there is an unrealistic expectation to have a 50/50 split of men and women overnight.

“It’s not going to happen – we need to keep our targets real. We need to set a goal so we can track success or failure, but we need to be realistic about what that goal should be,” he said.

“Sometimes we put ourselves under pressure to run too fast, but we should do this at a speed that is more realistic.”

Even if every tech company vowed to have a female on the shortlist for every role, Piercy said those female candidates may not have the experience needed.

“You still have that dilemma, so we have to be a bit more flexible. However, if it were a male interviewing, then generally only his experience is looked at – and that’s it for him if he doesn’t have enough.

Piercy pointed out that many people are frustrated that gender is even highlighted, but he believes it is necessary to put processes in place for females in the tech industry if it is going to move forwards in the diversity debate.

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“I’ve seen companies which are scared to put a female on a pedestal and say, 'yes, we are doing this'. There are companies and individuals entering awards to show how women are in successful roles, but we’re not moving the dial,” he said.

“Unless we do something for women specifically, it’s not going to change. Don’t be afraid to be bold and brazen, or to put a target or token on it, otherwise it won’t happen.”

Valerie Risk, client executive of Fujitsu, agreed that the industry needs clear and achievable goals, but said there is a need to set higher percentages.

“We have to have something to aim for, and we need to look at roles that are not just purely technical. You don’t want a job because you’re a girl, you want to get the job because once you’re in you can change the mindsets from within. It’s not about quota but aspiration,” she said.

Karen Gill, co-founder of everywoman, said there has been a lot of activity in the past, but a lack of focus. “If we don’t have an aspirational goal, then it doesn’t get done. This, however, is different from quotas. I would like to see us being more ambitious about it. There are only 7% of women on technology company boards at the moment,” she said.

Salesforce.com vice-president Melissa Di Donato cited research that claims there are more men called John, Robert, William and James on boards than all women combined.

Sparking aspirations in schoolchildren

Gill pointed out that the problem of aspiration stems from school, so it should be tackled from an early age.

“Some schools are miles apart in aspirations. In inner city schools, students want to be what’s around them, which sometimes is nothing,” she said.

Maxine Benson, co-founder of everywoman, mentioned the company’s soon-to-be-released app, which showcases women in the industry as role models.

“everywoman’s Modern Muse app will feature women in tech detailing what subjects they took at school, what they were good at, their interests, hobbies, passions, and where that can take you in the world of work. We need to make the connection that Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] can give you a career in every industry, everywhere in the world,” she said.

Sandra Ashmore, chief information officer, finance and tax, at BP, agreed that students in certain areas of the UK need their aspirations raised. “When I say I work at BP, I often get asked if I work at the petrol station, as there is no concept of corporate,” she said.

Creating an environment women dream of working in

Salesforce.com's Di Donato said creating a great place to work is the best way to attract women, without having to go down the path of quotas.

“If I don’t speak up, my daughter and others won’t know what is available to them. My daughter needs to see variety and opportunity, and we need to inspire her with a great place to work,” she said.

There are only 7% of women on technology company boards at the moment

Karen Gill, everywoman

“You need to inspire from the top. At Salesforce we say everyone should be able to run their business from their phone. There are very few roles now where you have to be handcuffed to the desk. I took two months out when I had my daughter, but Salesforce was flexible enough that I was able to go back to work. I do my daughter a better service by getting out there and being visible than by being at home.”

But Sheila Flavell, chief operating officer of FDM Group, said not all businesses can offer flexibility, giving sales roles as an example, which require staff to be available to entertain clients and to work long days. 

“You can’t change this role because you’re a woman, but you can go for a different role. It should be not what you want to do, but who you want to work for,” she said.

Paul Peplow, vice-president of talent at ARM, said the tech industry is in need of more female role models to inspire young girls. “My daughter wants to be a lawyer or a forensic scientist as she watches CSI. There are no tech role models apart from geeky nerds,” he said.

Antony Walker, deputy CEO of techUK, pointed out the need for “role models at every level as not everyone want to get to the board”.

Getting through the door

A quarter of FDM’s workforce is female, with Flavell explaining that the company has created new roles that are more attractive to females.

“We have created fresh roles for them, such as business analysis roles, as women are not necessarily attracted to the developer-type roles. Once they are in the door, we encourage them to move over to developer roles as they realise it is not too big a step for them,” she said.

Read more about women building successful careers in tech

“We have 37,000 applicants per year. Yes, we target women, but subtly. In 25 years, we have learnt how to hook them. We offer extra mentoring for women to bring them out of themselves, as they don’t shout from the rooftops about what they want to do.”

BP has “some rules of the road” it follows to encourage more females to apply for positions at the company, according to Ashmore.

“You have to have a diverse interview panel for any senior roles. When you present your first, second and third choices, if one is not a woman you have to say why, with an independent review from the next level up. We also offer 50/50 mentoring for male and female staff,” she said.

“If a member of staff wants to undertake flexible working, the onus is not just on them to show why they should be allowed to. We have a process whereby any refusals go through a secondary review, so the onus is on the manager to demonstrate why a request was turned down, and the review process ensures decisions are made in an equitable manner.  

“At BP, you can suggest job sharing roles. Not every role is suitable, but it’s moving in the right direction. When you have support at the top level, it changes right through the layers of management,” said Ashmore.

ARM's Peplow pointed out that the more senior you are the less operational you become, so why not split the role with someone and share it? “It’s hard to crack this now companies are global and travelling is required among other things,” he added.

Fujitsu's Risk agreed: “When you get those who say, 'I spend 12/14 hours a day in the office', I say, 'well I did eight, I got more achieved, and I got to read my daughter a bedtime story'.”


Around 600 women from 22 countries will be attending the everywoman Forum 2015: Advancing women in Technology today (17 March) followed by the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards

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