Addressing the IT gender imbalance with courage and collaboration

Mortimer Spinks's managing director discusses the results of the Women in Technology survey 2012

Gender balance, equality, diversity – these all feel like themes that you have to discuss with some trepidation, the sort of subjects that it is far easier to avoid than to discuss, let alone action.

So where did all this come from? In October 2011, Mortimer Spinks ran its annual technology event in Soho, with 136 external guests, all technology professionals, of which 60% were CTO/CIOs and the rest in “head of” or “director of” roles – a great turnout and everyone enjoyed the evening. The next day, some of the guests decided to blog about the event – again a positive response, until…

Technology has a problem and it needs more women, not only to address the talent shortage, but also because FTSE 100 companies with more women board directors are proven to perform better. Some 97% of the [Mortimer Spinks technology event] attendees were male and white and 30 to 50 years old.”

One of the comments following the blog was: “There are not enough women in technology – the event was a sausage fest and it spells trouble for the sector in the next five years.”

Is it natural to feel responsible in some way for the fact that there was an imbalance at the event? To feel, in some way, that the event was actually compounding the problem? This sense of responsibility grew in all of us, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, we’re all glad it did.

Seeking tech talent

Mortimer Spinks helps pure tech businesses to find technology professionals – the best technology professionals in the world. We work with a mix of global e-commerce powerhouses, small tech start-ups and pure-tech SMEs, and they all demand the very best talent in the market. 

We did a quick bit of “data gathering” – asked all our consultants the number of women they have placed in the past six months – and their responses were either “none” or “hardly any”. When asked why, the response was, “there aren’t any”.

The technology skills gap is the next theme or point that has led us to where we are now – widely documented, backed up by data, and potentially a massive hindrance to our industry. It is true that not enough people are choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects for further education and, following that, related work. 

What is more pertinent, more worrying, but potentially the solution to the skills gap, is the fact that the figures around women pursuing computer science are even lower. So low, that maybe it is fair to say we are only tapping into 50% of the potential talent UK wide?

Women in IT

So where does all this take us? Well, as a business it takes us to a number of different destinations united under the bracket of “affect a change”. We’re working with female school students on projects that try to inspire 11-14-year-old girls to realise the possibilities that technology could offer them. We’re also working with Microsoft to get some “bullet-proof” data on the tech skills gap that we can use to influence a change in the education establishments across the country. 

So what is this survey we produced trying to achieve and how does it fit into our plans overall?

The survey started life as a quick, short, real-time piece of market research. We just wanted to get a few insights into what ratio the industry is currently running at, whether it is an issue people in the industry feel passionately about, what benefits would come from a more balanced industry, and why people who work in tech feel that the imbalance exists. When the responses started to come in – 200 in the first 24 hours, 300 in the first three days, and 500+ in two weeks – it began to dawn on me that the there was a lot here, a lot of data, a lot of insights, but more than anything, a lot of questions.

Questions such as, "If 71% of people working in the industry think women find working in technology jobs less attractive than men do, why then can’t they identify why?", and, "If the majority of people working in the industry feel that their business would benefit from having more women in their technology teams, then why is there such uncertainty as to the cause?"

Women identified the top two reasons technology jobs are less attractive to them than they are to men as “masculine/macho culture” and “being the only female in the team” puts them off. 

So what are people (predominantly male) doing to try to make their teams a welcoming and attractive place for women to work? What can they do? How high is “address the gender balance” on CIO/CTOs' agendas when they’re growing their teams? How high should it be? How are we marketing our industry to our school students? Who is marketing our industry? If there is constantly rising youth unemployment and a rising number of technology vacancies in the UK, who is working to match these two together?

So while the survey does not try to answer these questions, it certainly provokes them and many more. When approaching a subject like this, trepidation is wrong – what is right is courage and collaboration; with both, we can hope the answers will come.

James Hallahan the managing director of Mortimer Spinks


Read more on IT technical skills