Panel at Women in Tech Festival discusses how diversity quotas can be used to usher in positive and sustainable change in the composition of the tech workforce
Opening a panel discussion at yesterday's Women in Tech Festival on the desirability and effectiveness of quotas to increase the representation of women in technology, Computing's John Leonard presented the audience with some sobering data. A recent survey by the Fawcett Society and Virgin Media O2, saw around one fifth of the male tech workers surveyed agree that "women are naturally less well suited to tech roles than men." 42% didn't think the sector would benefit from any sort of gender rebalancing and a similar proportion claimed it would have no reduction in biases in tech goods and services.
Dr Roxane Heaton, CIO at Macmillan Cancer Support spoke of her experience in implementing a quota for female representation when she took over as CIO two years ago. It looks successful. The tech leadership team is currently 50% female, and across the whole technology organisation, 40% of positions are held by women.
"It was a shock to the system," Dr Heaton acknowledged, "but we needed that shock and now we're over the hurdle. We also have more than 30% of staff from different ethnicities. I can see that in the outputs of services we deliver and we're seeing the benefits and showing the benefits to the wider team. But you have to hold your nerve because it is going to be bumpy."
Jane Deal is Operational Director, Technlogy & Change at The Law Society, where no targets or quotas are in place. Nonetheless, in Deal's leadership team and in the operational director team, 50% are women. Deal expressed the concern about quotas that if people are made to believe that they have been offered a role for any reason other than merit, it encourages imposter syndrome.
"We face very different challenges, said Kavita Reddi, co-founder of AI start-up Voxta. "Start ups are far less secure than established companies and it's a challenge to encourage women and girls to apply for roles in start-ups, particularly in tech."
"We've had to be very proactive and twinned with colleges, recruited at engineering colleges and tried to show not just a way in, but a pathway to stay, particularly at the crunch point of having children. You have to make individual flexible arrangements that cater to personal circumstances to encourage women not to drop out after five or six years of experience. Retention is important for all companies but critical for start-ups."
The challenge of change
Challenging gender ratios is not an easy path to travel. Those in groups which have historically been well represented can feel threatened, and as if their experiences and views no longer matter. However, strong leadership should be able to communicate the benefits to everyone of greater workforce diversity.
"It's about helping everyone realise that they all have a future within an organisation, and showing them the evidence about the benefits of more diverse service offerings," said Dr Heaton.
Kavita Reddi raised another pitfall.
"To some degree setting targets and goals at leadership level can mean it becomes a tick box exercise that the rest of the organisation can ignore. What we need is root and branch reform in hiring practices and knowledge of unconscious bias," she said.
Jane Deal agreed that commitment to diversity as a whole organisation and an understanding of the values behind it were crucial for positve change. Quotas or targets should be accompanied by other measures.
"At The Law Society we do reverse mentoring," she explained. "Anyone from an ethnic minority can mentor one of us at a senior level to help both themselves and us to understand challenges we may not have experienced. Most of the mentors are female, which is interesting. We're also doing a piece around the menopause. Technology loses a lot of women at the top of the profession because they aren't properly supported through menopause. We want to retain that talent as much as possible."
Change has to be sustainable
Kavita Reddi underlined the importance of female representation, particularly with regards to AI development.
"Addressing algorithmic bias in LLMs is only possible if you're able to recognise that bias. Now more than ever we need women in tech in building teams and at the board table."
Usability also matters.
"As generative becomes more ubiquitous in every area of life you need diversity of socio-economic background, of ethnic background as well as gender so you have the people in teams that reflect those who will be using the product or we will build products that don't work."
The trouble is, that progress has been considerably slower than the pace of development. Does the experience of organisations like Macmillan, illustrate that diversity quotas or targets are the only way to speed up the process?
Jane Deal remains cautious.
"I'd be less concerned about a quota if I really had confidence that the upper echelons really understood why the quota was there and the value of it and how to make the most of it. I'm not entirely convinced that's there yet so I think targets are more realistic but the critical thing for me is being given a fair shot at it. Measures such as blind recruitment are important so you can be sure people aren't being judged on names or addresses. Also, look at the way roles are advertised. I still see so many adverts that will attract the same candidates and not the more diverse applicants that would be so good for the organisation."
"Quotas are necessary but not sufficient. We need an attitude that is much more proactive, tools like blind recruitment and a clearer recognition of the value that diversity brings in testing, in adding value to companies and building sustainable technologies."
As Dr Heaton also emphasised, "It's not about the quota, it's about the sustainable change around it."