Drawing from her own experience as well as research, in this guest blog, Toni Kent discusses how to stop IT from being a boys club.
When I was growing up there was a ‘Boys Club’ – a municipal building used by all members of the community for the benefit of educating, entertaining or occupying children.
It was also used for a 16th birthday party I attended that went terribly wrong. Raucousness, loud music and general bad behaviour that resulted in adults and police being called and one hell of a clean up operation the morning after.
Fast forward five years from that day and I found myself in what many would think of as a different kind of ‘boys club’ – the IT industry. A place where less than 20% of the workforce is female1 and client or teambuilding events were once geared around what are typically viewed as ‘masculine’ pursuits (golf days, motorsports and in ‘the good old days’ strip clubs).
Having worked in and for tech companies for more than 20 years now, my experience is that it is not a space where only men are welcome. So why is there such a low representation of women in the sector? And what can we do to address this? My belief is that there are a number of reasons and a combination of solutions that require the support of men and women if they are to be successful.
There is still a misconception that to work in IT you “have to be techy”. While I agree that we need to teach all children that ‘coding is cool’ (although, let’s bear in mind that low-code and no-code has already changed how people programme2) and highlight the contribution women have made to some of our biggest technological discoveries, we need more focus on outcomes. As a child whose family was dependent on benefits, the messages that would have made me want to consciously (rather than accidentally) join the sector were:
Few people begin their working lives understanding how businesses work – instead being presented with specific job roles that seem light years and a university degree away. If you don’t know how a business works you have no way of exploring the full range of career paths. And so, the IT industry gets discounted on an incorrect set of assumptions that only those with engineering or computing qualifications are welcome.
As we learn to live with the effects of a global pandemic, organisations are getting detailed insights into their employees’ lives – from the pressures of turning a home into a workplace to the mental strain of ill-health, homeschooling or fearing for your financial future. It’s a fact that women carry more of the emotional burden and caring responsibilities than men3 and are therefore more likely to leave the workplace – there is no excuse for companies not to know this. Therefore, policies that enable all employees to flex their time and/or working style will mean that women will feel less obliged to be the one who has to take a career break or step aside, and men will feel supported and encouraged in taking on roles beyond their professional commitments.
Research shows that in markets where gender diversity is accepted, organisations with a diverse workforce benefit from greater innovation. Investors see this as a signal that the company is competently run and that it’s more likely to have common experiences with its end user customers4 – which leads to stickier (more profitable) customer relationships. These should be founding principals for driving projects that increase the number of women working in the industry.
Rather than simply set targets to hire more women, organisations should be prepared to look at the precise reasons why women are either failing to join the ranks or are leaving at critical points in their career. Here’s a few examples:
With all industries looking to tech to help them optimise performance and improve their profitability via data insights, there is one final way in which tech businesses can show leadership and truly pave the way for the future – by using the tools it’s created to deliver a working environment that isn’t just a boys club, it’s a club where everyone is truly welcome.