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Inclusion for everyone, not just the under-represented, says Most Influential Woman in UK Tech 2019

People need to be more clued up on the benefits of inclusion, says Tech Talent Charter CEO Debbie Forster, the 2019 winner of Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Woman in UK Technology accolade

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People need to stop thinking of inclusion as something that takes away from some to give to others, says Debbie Forster, CEO of industry collective Tech Talent Charter.

Forster, who tops Computer Weekly’s list of the Most Influential Women in UK Technology 2019, has been developing the Tech Talent Charter (TTC) since 2015 and CEO since 2017, with the goal of making the tech sector more diverse and inclusive.

“This is not women taking men’s jobs,” she says. “The industry says we have too many jobs and not enough people. This is not taking things away from people – it’s making things better for everyone. If we want to build places that are inclusive, we have to lead and show what inclusion means.”

As an example, Forster says “family policy” should have a greater emphasis on equality, as taking time out of work to look after children can be “career suicide” for men as well as women. 

“Men need inclusion as well,” she says. “I can sit in a room with white, middle-class, middle-aged CIOs, and say, ‘If you’re talking to your team, and you think you have no reason to think about inclusion, that’s fine – if you’re never going to get old, have an injury, have a family member unwell, then no, you don’t need inclusion’. Inclusion is in their interest too.”

Working towards an inclusive future

While the lack of women in the technology industry has been a focus for more than a decade, there has been a noticeable shift in conversation over the past couple of years towards how creating an inclusive culture can help to attract and retain under-represented groups in the sector.

The idea for Tech Talent Charter was initially put into action by Sinead Bunting, then vice-president of marketing in Europe for recruitment firm Monster, and there were several things she and Forster agreed on in regards to the conversation around women and diversity in the technology sector.

“[This is about] making things better for everyone. If we want to build places that are inclusive, we have to lead and show what inclusion means”

Debbie Forster, Tech Talent Charter

The discussion around women in tech has taken a long time to develop – from no recognition about the importance of diverse teams, to talking about the lack of women in tech with no action behind these words, and then finally to firms trying to take steps towards diverse hiring.

“This is an exciting time to be in this space, because people are waking up and doing something about it,” says Forster.

She has spoken before about the dangers of “reinventing the wheel”, which is why the charter is focused on “connecting the dots” – finding out who is doing what and making sure people are aware of what’s out there and are able to take advantage of it.

Forster claims the industry’s focus on diversity is “so broken” that companies can’t implement the necessary changes alone. However, there are already a significant number of charities, firms and organisations that have something in place or are working on a solution.

“I don’t think I’m being ridiculously optimistic. I think I’m a pragmatic optimist, or cynical optimist,” she says. “I think all the pieces of the puzzle are out there. I’ve yet to come across something that makes you go, ‘Oh my god, no one’s ever done that before. Oh my god, no one’s ever thought of that.’ I think most of the great ideas around becoming diverse and getting inclusion right are out there – it’s just that while we do have all the pieces of the puzzle, we don’t bring them to the same table.”

Statistics show diversity benefits all

Another important focus of the Tech Talent Charter is data, so progress surrounding diversity in tech roles and firms can be measured to see what is working and what isn’t.

Forster claims that with more and more statistics showing the benefits of having diverse teams when it comes to technology development, employers are realising it’s a “stupid thing not to do”.

A lack of data sharing has also been the downfall of some of the charter’s past signatories. Those who sign the charter are committed to sharing anonymised data with TTC. Before signing, they have to ensure they have buy-in from senior company members and have a plan for diversity and inclusion – and be willing to share it.

Around 20% of TTC’s membership was cut in 2018 when it was discovered that some members weren’t as committed as they needed to be.

“It was a real searching your soul,” says Forster. “But we decided, if we don’t do that, what’s the point? It wasn’t just being vindictive, almost without fail when we dug into why they didn’t have the data, it showed they hadn’t fulfilled the rest. We have to stand for what we stand for, or what’s the point?”

Joining the dots for wider diversity

In the year ahead, Forster wants the charter to shift its focus away from just getting more women into tech and more towards creating wider diversity in the tech industry overall.

“In the first years, we were just about establishing things and building a kind of critical mass. We have just under 400 signatures at the moment,” she says.

“We absolutely made the right decision – that we would be about inclusion, starting with the lens of gender. Because at that time, we were small, and we had to start with something rather than boil the ocean.”

At the time of TTC’s launch, gender pay gap reporting was about to become compulsory for firms over a certain size, and many other female-focused movements were prominent in the media, such as #metoo, accusations against Harvey Weinstein and outrage over behaviour at the President’s Club charity dinner.

There were also a significant number of organisations, charities and initiatives already focused on getting women into tech which the charter could connect together.

Now, with a focus on wider diversity – which Forster emphasises is in no way about abandoning gender as a focus – the charter will use the same process, whereby it begins by mapping initiatives already taking place, then connecting existing companies and initiatives together, as well as helping those who have a plan but aren’t quite ready yet to achieve what they’re aiming to achieve.

“But what we’ve really agreed as directors, and as a team, is that this year has to be about impact,” says Forster.

Much like when the Tech Talent Charter started, the technology industry was finally aware of the lack of women in the sector and willing to do something about it, Forster says the sector is now ready to focus on and embrace inclusion as a way to attract and retain diverse talent.

“To take it to the next level, you’ve got to dig in, and you’ve got to start with inclusion first,” she says. “Actually, it is that inclusive culture that then becomes what they call the multiplier effect. And that’s really powerful.”

Forster likens not taking inclusion seriously in a firm to a takeaway order. “I joke about it like a takeaway – you know, I need two people who are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), three women and a disabled person with an order of chips,” she says. “But the companies that are doing the takeaway order, no surprises, they can appoint someone who is BAME, or disabled or a woman, but they don’t stay committed – they get into a firm and realise that there’s no place for them. I want this space to be more consciously inclusive.”

As well as a focus on inclusion, Forster says the next year for the charter will look at mapping more initiatives, as well as ensuring those it has mapped can be accessed by employers, commissioners and people looking for jobs in the sector.

Making the initiative user-friendly, continuing to develop best practice and ensuring the focus isn’t just on London are all also on the cards for the next year or more.

From English teacher to tech partner 

While Forster’s career may look as though it has taken a strategic path, she admits it was not planned, and much of her move into tech has been driven by the direction in which society and the industry were moving at that time.

Forster started her career as an English teacher, first in the US and then in the UK, driven by her desire to travel.

In hindsight, she admits technology would have appealed to her as a career, but when she was in education herself, tech was just a “computer class” filled mostly with boys.

As a teacher in London in the 1990s, it quickly became apparent that technology and computing were important things to teach kids, and as Forster moved up in the teaching sphere, she also ended up teaching different subjects, including ICT.

At one point during her time at a girls’ school in London, she became the head of the school network, helping the school to overcome the threat of the Millennium Bug.

While she found technology personally satisfying, gaining pleasure from tackling and fixing tech problems, what she liked most about it was how engaged it made kids.

“Whether it was teaching English using tech or teaching ICT, it’s just the lights went on and kids got it. It was exciting and interesting. And as I worked in more challenging schools, with kids from different backgrounds, I could see how tech would give them opportunities and jobs they might not think about,” she says.

Many believe technology can be used to help level the playing field for those who don’t respond to other educational methods, or those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Forster says tech allows people to think outside the box when it comes to their career, rather than “go for what we know”.

After coming across an organisation called Computer Club for Girls and implementing it in her school, Forster was asked to help the organisation, using her experience as a teacher who “speaks fluent educationese” – an example of the connection between government, educators and industry that so many agree the IT sector needs to grow its talent pool.  

While working with what was Tech Partnership on education policy, she was approached by the founder of Apps for Good, Iris Lapinski, to use her mixture of skills to help grow the charity. When she joined, the project had only been implemented in one school. By the time she left in 2017, it had amassed some 130,000 students across more than 1,100 schools. It is still growing.

“[Apps for Good] was about getting young people to learn coding, not for its own sake, but by choosing a problem they cared about, then doing the whole entrepreneurial design piece from problem to prototype to market,” she says. “So it was learning to code, but it was all of the bundle. And when we did it, it grew very fast. And we had great success with those under-represented groups.”

Getting the timing just right

But Forster highlights again that both the technology sector and the education system were ripe for change at the time, with the new computing curriculum introduced in schools in 2014, halfway through Forster’s time at Apps for Good.

“Schools were really looking for different ways of trying to do tech and entrepreneurialism. And apps had just hit. And also, social media was just starting, and Twitter was just starting,” she says.

“So social media was really big, because it also helped me to connect with teachers I hadn’t heard of. And whereas teachers weren’t on Facebook, the really innovative ones were getting on Twitter. So it was bringing together companies that were helping to finance it, people who would make it work, and then finding enthusiastic teachers.”

“Tech Talent Charter couldn’t have taken off seven years ago, because we were still having to fight to get firms to even notice that tech was not diverse”
Debbie Forster, Tech Talent Charter

Forster even admits the Tech Talent Charter, where she holds her current role as CEO, wouldn’t have been able to take off seven years ago – hence the original focus on women in tech, which has now evolved into wider diversity and inclusion.

“Tech Talent Charter couldn’t have taken off seven years ago, because we were still having to fight to get firms to even notice that tech was not diverse. And then you had to try to get them to see that this wasn’t just a moral obligation, a nice to do. It was really good business.”

So, much like each of the projects Forster has taken on has come along by chance at an opportune time, her seemingly well-planned career path was also, in part, serendipity.

In her role as a career coach, she tells people career paths don’t have to be perfect, and in many cases people will have several different careers in their lifetime.  

Some advice she gained from a mentor before making the shift into tech was “where is Kansas for you?” – which Forster explains as having an idea of where you want to end up, and also what your “must haves” are for a role.

Forster’s own “must haves” include having a “for good” angle to her role or the company she works with, having a job that involves people, and seeing people grow.

“It’s always about the journey,” she jokes. “It becomes easier, and then, when you look over your shoulder, you can tell the story that makes it sound strategic.”

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