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TTC benchmark shifts focus from women to diversity in tech sector

Latest instalment of Tech Talent Charter benchmarking report signals move away from solely gender and towards diversity in tech more widely

The Tech Talent Charter (TTC) is to focus its efforts on improving wider diversity in the technology sector, it has announced alongside its second annual benchmark report.

The charter has grown over the past year from 200-plus to more than 300 signatory companies, accounting for about 700,000 employees across the UK.

Debbie Forster, CEO of the charter, who has always emphasised the importance of “connecting the dots” rather than “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to upping diversity in tech, said the time for talking is over, and the time for affirmative action has begun for shifting the dial on diversity in tech.

“Looking to the year ahead, we are going to be growing the scope of the Tech Talent Charter beyond gender diversity to building an inclusive culture for all,” she said. “This time next year, we hope to have insight into best practice on ethnicity, age, disability, social inclusion, mental health and neurodiversity, as well as wider forms of intersectional diversity.”

The industry collaborative’s annual report on the state of diversity in the technology sector found that in its signatory companies, more than a quarter of technical roles were held by women, compared with just 16% in the industry as a whole.

When split by job role, it was found there are still very few women in roles such as engineers or programmers, whereas some roles, such as quality assurance (QA) and testing, have a large number of female recruits.

Across the industry as a whole, about 48% of QA and testing jobs are held by women; data-based roles and user-centred design roles each comprise 31% females; 29% of product and development roles are held by women; a quarter of IT operations roles are held by women; and female employees make up only 17% of the engineering and programmer workforce.

But when asked why they were working in QA and testing, more than 80% of women in these roles said they ended up there by accident, with 13% saying they took the role to advance their career in the light of “blockers to progression in other technical areas” of the sector.

There are many reasons why women avoid roles in the technology sector, such as misconceptions about what is involved in tech roles, people already in the industry hiring the same type of people because of unconscious bias, and a lack of visible role models.

Similar barriers exist for other under-represented groups, such as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals, those from the LGBTQIA+ community, or those who are neurodiverse.

In view of this, Forster said the TTC initiative had always planned to start by fighting for gender equality in tech, eventually moving on to shifting the dial for wider diversity.

Broadening the discussion

At the charter’s report launch, Forster said: “We are broadening this discussion on diversity. It is no longer just enough to say ‘women’, because we have said all along that if all we did was bring in more white middle class women [to the sector], that’s not more diversity. That’s not the answer.”

The UK government was an early backer of the TTC, contributing £350,000 to the initiative to increase diversity in the tech sector and boost digital skills.

It has been said that closing the UK’s technology skills gap could be helped by increasing diversity in the sector, because widening the variety of people in the sector creates a bigger pool of talent to choose from.

Digital secretary Nicky Morgan said: “The tech sector is making progress in tackling diversity, but there is still more work to do.

“A diverse workforce is not only good for society, but it also makes good business sense. I encourage companies employing technology staff to sign the charter.”

When signatories to the charter were asked what initiatives they had implemented to improve diversity in their organisations and which had worked, the top five actions were: training and education; gender-neutral branding; attending or holding events aimed at women in tech; flexible working; and “sponsorship” by appointing a diversity and inclusion lead or team to address issues.

When it comes to training and education, signatories cited mentorship programmes, returners’ programmes, unconscious bias training, and approaching schools and colleges to educate them about the industry as helpful.

When a culture in an organisation is inclusive, people feel they are more able to bring their whole selves to work, which helps them perform better.

The TTC’s Forster emphasised the importance of implementing an inclusive culture to attract and retain diverse talent. “From here on, don’t say diversity and inclusion – that drives the wrong behaviour,” she said. “It’s inclusion and diversity – the focus is on that inclusion.”

The TTC also said it would be launching a “regional ecosystem” in Leeds focused on people who want to return to the tech workforce after a break, in an effort to grow the talent pool in the local area.

Importance of collaboration

Forster added: “In our inaugural report, we stressed the importance of collaboration. This year, alongside our toolkits and open source playbook, we’ll be launching our first regional ecosystem, working with companies in Leeds to find jobs for those who wish to return from a work break to a career in tech. We hope to show that business coming together to drive diversity can be a winning solution for both businesses and communities across the UK.”

The new “ecosystem” in Leeds puts an emphasis on collaboration between local businesses, training initiatives and government, which the charter previously highlighted as an important way to drive forward change quickly when it comes to getting more under-represented people into the sector.

The TTC report found that 13% of the signatory organisations have a return-to-work scheme, and 75% of those who do so have a higher-than-average number of women in tech roles.

But about half of the firms in the charter do not plan to implement a returners’ programme in 2020, to which Forster said: “Those that are doing it are getting ahead.”

As well as collaboration, the initiative’s Leeds ecosystem will focus on helping people who have had a career break to return to work in tech – taking a leave of absence from work can put people on the back foot when it comes to returning to the workplace.

As part of the Leeds ecosystem, larger charter signatories, such as Sky, Accenture and Lloyds Banking Group, will work together to train people in the Leeds area from under-represented groups to help them take up tech roles.

In some cases, this may even mean larger firms training more people than they need to take on, to give smaller firms in the region access to newly trained talent.

Jennifer Standish, software engineering academy manager for Sky in Leeds, said: “We are looking at women who perhaps didn’t choose science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at school or university and don’t see technology as an option, but are actually very passionate about it.”

Candidates are taught to code, and have the opportunity to apply for a position at Sky once the programme is done, but Standish pointed out that being more collaborative and sharing best practice in this area “makes sense”. She cited instances where someone may take part in a Sky training programme, leave to work for another organisation, but return to Sky in a more senior position later on.

The TTC’s Forster also said being a small or medium-sized company can be “frustrating” when it comes to increasing diversity or widening the talent pool, because many are not big enough to have a diversity and inclusion department or set up a training academy.

Read more about diversity and inclusion

When it comes to gender representation in firms, the size of a company makes a difference, with women making up about 30% of technical roles in smaller TTC signatory companies, compared with about a quarter in medium to large companies.

Startup companies with one to nine people – also known as “micro companies” – had the most equal gender split, with about 42% of technical roles in such companies held by women, which the TTC said is probably because smaller companies tend to have a flatter structure, and can implement changes to improve diversity more quickly.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said that although larger companies can help smaller firms when it comes to the gaps in initiatives such as training and returnerships, small and medium-sized businesses should still “make that investment” in diversity and talent.

“Virtually every company I meet has growth as its number one priority,” said Shaw. “I think what we can do is say a key way to get there is through inclusion and diversity.

“We know that companies that are more diverse, more inclusive, have better products, better services and are more profitable. So you have a pretty amazing solution for your company CEO, your company board, if you can say: ‘Growth is our top priority. Inclusion and diversity needs to be an integral part of that.’”

So what can firms do easily to increase diversity? The TTC emphasises creating an inclusive culture in an organisation, as well as creating and measuring goals.

It can also be helpful to engage in non-traditional training that does not necessarily involve traditional routes from school to university.

Ask suppliers or partners about their diversity and inclusion initiatives, work with minority groups, and use partnerships to drive more diverse talent into the pipeline.

Finally, having a diversity and inclusion strategy in place can help to improve diversity. Of the 205 companies on the list that have more women in tech roles than the national average, 38% of them have a diversity and inclusion strategy, compared with only 26% of those below the average.

Forster said: “The key, in our opinion, is to measure – because what gets measured, gets done. And to continue learning from each other’s efforts. No company can fix things alone.”

The Tech Talent Charter has a number of resources to help firms improve their approach to diversity and inclusion in its three-part toolkit.

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