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D&I push should come from the top, says panel

Panel of experts at Black Tech Fest spoke about how a push for diversity and inclusion should come with support from firms’ leaders

When it comes to pushing for diversity and inclusion (D&I) within an organisation, there should be support from the top, a panel of experts has said.

Speaking at the online Black Tech Fest event, representatives from various tech firms suggested ways that the industry can push for diverse and inclusive teams, including constant education at board level, and developing a “long-term” strategy for change.

“Action comes from board level because you can have a great D&I lead, but I’ve spoken to many who don’t feel empowered to shift the needle,” said Julian Hall, founder of Ultra Education.

Recent research from BCS found an ongoing lack of diversity in the UK tech sector, with women making up about 17% of the IT industry in 2019, a figure that has grown by only 1% over the last five years.

About 8% of IT specialists are of Indian ethnicity, 2% from a black, African, Caribbean or black British background, and 2% from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background.

Gaby Hersham, CEO and co-founder of Huckletree, said that when it comes to increasing the representation of black people and other under-represented groups in tech, “leadership behind any business needs to be participating” in conversations about topics such as attracting and retaining diverse talent, and anti-racism, both within the organisation and outside it with their peers, as well as making companies a “safe space” for employees to become activists.

After the murder of George Floyd in the US when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was catapulted into the public eye, many companies released statements of support, but Hersham said many had “touched on [the topic] loosely and didn’t really follow it through”.

She added: “There are a lot of companies that are genuinely trying, but there are also a lot of companies that [just] did what they needed to do.”

As explained by Computer Weekly’s 2020 Most Influential Woman in UK Tech, Stemettes CEO Anne-Marie Imafidon, allyship is about actually taking action to push for positive change – there is no use being all talk and no action.

Hersham gave several tips to attract and retain diverse talent, including changing the places and ways that a company recruits people, and other “basics” such as “make sure that your job descriptions don’t have any problematic language – you want to make sure your website shows a diverse workforce”.

To retain talent, Hersham urged transparency in the processes that decide promotion and advancement, to make sure “everybody knows that they have access to the same opportunity and the same process”, as well as looking into sponsorship and mentorship for minority groups in the business to ensure they “have somebody that will promote them behind closed doors, will invite them into closed rooms”.

Skills of the future

Diverse talent being “hard to find” is a commonly heard concept when it comes to trying to employ under-represented groups in the tech sector, with some firms claiming they want to recruit diverse employees, but the talent pool isn’t there.

“This concept that diverse talent is hard to find is not true – let’s flip that on its head,” said Hersham, pointing out diverse talent can also be “selective” about the companies they want to join, ensuring that they choose an employer with an inclusive culture where they will feel welcome.

“We can understand all of these mechanisms and we can go out there, but if we’re not genuinely showing that commitment internally, then it’s going to be hard to attract diverse talent,” she said.

Companies also often complain of a lack of skilled workers, despite computer science graduates having one of the highest unemployment rates six months after graduation.

Ultra Education’s Hall said skillsets flagged by the World Economic Forum as being important for the near future, such as critical thinking and data, have been “accelerated” by the coronavirus outbreak due to an increased reliance on technology.

But there can still be many barriers for certain groups of people trying to enter the tech sector, including a lack of appropriate networks, or feeling like they need to change their identity to fit into the workplace.

Hall said pursuing entrepreneurship can solve quite a lot of these problems, and that in some cases it can be more beneficial for an individual to “pivot” their skillset towards creating their own job.

“To do that successful actually reinforces who you are – you have to dial up your identity,” said Hall. “If you can’t find the job of your dreams, you should be able to create the job of your dreams.”

Read more about diversity in the tech sector

  • Not-for-profit Code First Girls has reached its original goal, set in 2017, of teaching 20,000 women to code and now aims to double its community.
  • For some, the coronavirus pandemic has meant furloughs and job losses; for others, it has meant expansion and hiring. What impact has the outbreak had on technology recruitment, and will this carry on into the future?

Digital skills are becoming a must as technology adoption increases, but Gori Yahaya, founder and CEO of Upskill Digital, said that the “rollercoaster of emotions” brought about by the pandemic has meant “employers are definitely looking for people with [soft] skills”.

Although digital skills are at “the heart” of the transformation most companies are undergoing to be successful in the future, Euan Blair, co-founder and CEO of Whitehat, said soft skills are also extremely important and will continue to be so going forward.

These include skills such as management, prioritisation and communication, but also empathy, which Blair said is especially important “in the moment we’re living with right now”.

Remote working also means “we’re all going to have to turn remote communication into a bit of a superpower”, he added, because it seems like the world will be like this for at least a little while longer.

Many have previously spoken about a shift towards life-long learning as people begin working more flexibly and for longer, and Blair pointed out that people need to be “constantly retraining and relearning” and that “everyone’s going to have to get comfortable that we’ll have multiple careers”.

Stating that opportunities to reskill should be equally distributed, Blair said companies “have the power” to change who has access to these opportunities, and to increase the sector’s diversity and inclusion.

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