Advocacy and allyship - Dame Stephanie Shirley

In this video from Computer Weekly’s annual diversity and inclusion in tech event, in partnership with Spinks, philanthropist and IT entrepreneur, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, talks about setting up a software business in the 60s where she employed only women, how the position of women in the tech space has changed since those times, and how to practice allyship for under-represented groups in the UK’s tech sector.

Research from BCS recently found an ongoing lack of diversity in the UK tech sector, with women making up around 17% of the UK’s IT industry in 2019, a figure which as grown by only 1% over the last five years.

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

Shirley points out companies are more profitable if they focus on diversity an inclusion. Ensuring a diverse workforce and inclusive culture is not just a feel good activity, says Shirley, it increases the depth of ideas within organisations, and more ideas that reflect the society a company serves may mean more people buying products and services from that company.

“Embracing diversity and fostering an environment of inclusion is good for business, everyone should be involved.” she says.

Shirley points out computing has “reshaped how society lives”, something the pandemic has exacerbated as people have been forced to work from home and carry out many day-to-day tasks online.

“With this in mind, the industry creating these ground-breaking solutions must represent the society which uses it so readily. Currently is does not.” Shirley says.

Talking a little bit about her own journey into tech, Shirley says she enjoyed maths as a child, something women were not traditionally encouraged to study.

“I always had to challenge the stereotype.” She says.

While sexism was more blatant when she set up her software business, where she flexibly employed only women until law meant she had to do otherwise, Shirley admits now the tech sector still faces gender challenges, but that sexism is “more subtle and cultural” now.

Advising female entrepreneurs to be “robust”, Shirley says: “Women should let sexism wash off them and get on with things.”

The theme of the 2020 Computer Weekly and Spinks diversity in tech event was around advocating for under-represented groups, and Shirley claimed allyship -  taking concerted action to push things forward and encourage change for those in a less privileged position - is the “key to unlocking the power of diversity”.

Making recommendations such as educating oneself, using gender neutral terms such as “partner” and calling out unacceptable behaviour as ways people can be allies, Shirley explains: “Allies know they are not members of the underinvested community they support, but make a concerted effort to better understand the struggle every single day.”

Shirley also claims making an effort to understand some of the struggles faced by others can be “daunting” and “uncomfortable” but learning more about “systemic and social issues that may have played in your favour” will help people use their privilege to lift others up.

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