Chris Varley, Head of Digital Strategy - Pensions at Hymans Robertson reflects on the importance of allyship in tech.
I must admit I was a little hesitant to write this article - the proverbial middle-class white man talking about how best to be an ally to women. Nevertheless, we men play a more important role in creating social equity than many of us realise, so I felt it was important to speak up.
I've been very fortunate in my life and career to have benefitted from a social structure that implicitly supports many of my personal attributes. As a British, white, well-educated, middle-class, and middle-aged man, why on earth should I be interested in allyship?
I've also been lucky enough to have worked with an almost endless list of very successful, hard-working, high achieving leaders. Jitske and Laura, my people managers at Hymans Robertson, have been hugely influential to me. My fellow board members at Firefish Software showed incredible leadership through the early days of the pandemic. My wife has also recently been recognised as a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. These are all inspirational people, champions of their causes, great team players and they have all given me a great deal of support and encouragement with my career so far.
They also all happen to be women.
Have they been in any way disadvantaged?
My first instinct would be to say "No, not at all." They've all gained their successes through having supportive networks, applying their raw intelligence with hard-work and ambition. They also share my resilient nature. If any one of those people has had a door shut on them, I know they'd find a way to smash through it! Do they really need allyship from me? No, of course they don't. All these people are the same as me regardless of gender. They are as motivated, intelligent and as professional as I am (possibly more so!) They've had exactly the same support and encouragement, and have overcome similar challenges.
But hang on a minute…maybe…wait…could it be…that's where I'm wrong?
A discussion on unconscious bias at work first highlighted to me that many of the ways in which women experience inequality are not immediately obvious to their male colleagues as we simply haven't had those experiences directly.
Essentially, the notion that women working alongside me have had very different experiences to mine had not even occurred to me. It's true that we tend to see ourselves in others but my natural empathy bias - to prefer to see our similarities over our differences - was blinding me to our different challenges. It's certainly not been deliberate and not even thoughtless, just invisible.
It's simply a matter of fact that…
- Only 24% of tech occupations are held by women
- Only 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector are held by women
- Less than 20% of the tech talent pipeline are girls or women
- Only 3% of females say a career in technology is their first choice
Sharla Alegria, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto has conducted research as to why this might be the case. Her research found that the systems that manage and promote people within tech are frequently gender biased.
Women were less likely to be promoted than men and specifically when white women were promoted it was more frequently into jobs that moved them further away from technical roles toward more stereotypically female "soft skills," and "people oriented," roles.
Within these systems it appears as though people can make empowered choices, but when you examine the data, those choices are often very heavily loaded. The technology industry still evidentially sees certain jobs as "male," (software architecture, product management and the visionary leader) and some as "female," (pastoral care of teams, communications and UX roles). If someone doesn't fit with those expectations, those systems of bias conspire to nudge us back toward them.
As I see it, technology teams - and software development teams in particular - are faced with some of the most important yet often abstract and complex problems in the modern world which requires a diverse set of perspectives to solve. One of the things I love about working with technology is that it's about working with intelligent, creative, professional, bright people. Diversity among those people is vital to how we learn and develop products, so the idea that some people are systematically discouraged from challenging and constructively engaging in the process, or that they are excluded from some of those roles, is abhorrent.
So how can men help change this?
Simple. Choose to become an ally.
Allyship is all about standing alongside or behind those communities you support, not about speaking on behalf of them or stepping in to lead them. Much like your sport of choice, you don't have to play the game or be a spokesperson for your team to be a fully qualified supporter. Acting as an ambassador for your club is perfectly acceptable and showing the positives that come from affiliation is always welcome.
So what steps can you take to become an ally?
There are many important female-oriented initiatives and groups promoting women, providing networking, and highlighting opportunities. Join in - go along and find out more!
If you don't feel comfortable doing that through organised groups you could do those things as an individual. Highlight opportunities, introduce women into your networks, promote the voice of your female colleagues, publicly praise them, think of them as quickly as you do anyone else.
I think it's also important to remember that you don't need to be an activist to be an ally. Where activists might proactively seek opportunities to educate, undertaking less-visible actions can be equally powerful in nudging us all towards equal treatment every day.
As an ally, I see my role as one of support for my colleagues regards of gender, race, sexual preference, social background, academic qualification or previous experience and making the team around me feel safe and inclusive.
Concretely you can make a start by recognising your own privilege and the benefits you've received and start to push against bias of all sorts. Think consciously about your own unconscious bias by taking an online test. Make an effort to talk to someone with a different background to you and ask them for their viewpoint. If you have several great applicants for a vacant role, hire one who's a bit different from yourself and those you already work with. If you mostly share things written by white men on social media, post something from someone different. If you are making a point that was inspired or informed by a woman, name the person and give her the credit. The list goes on.
If every one of us takes even just one of these actions, that would go a long way to making the world a much more inclusive, equitable place, and that would be great for all of us.