Workforce Diversity: Why Are We Where We Are?

Workforce diversity is a key element to success in business, however only in recent years has it been pushed to the forefront of many agendas. Since the 1990s, inclusion and diversity initiatives (I&D) have become more and more prominent in the workplace with big enterprises ever more acutely aware of their importance. Back in 2017 McKinsey released a report ‘Delivering growth through diversity in the workplace’, uncovering the fact that gender diversity is positively correlated with both profitability and value creation. We at YLD decided to look further into this, uncovering why we are where we are when it comes to the state of diversity, specifically around women, in tech.

Nowadays a company will struggle to progress in its growth and ability to outperform industry peers if they sideline certain people or genders; the more diverse the people employed, the more well rounded the company. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 the context shifted, with both social and economic burdens falling heavily on companies and their workers. Faced with the ‘new normal’, many are still now struggling to handle the unfolding consequences and women have been particularly negatively impacted by this. 

As we look back through history, tremendous strides have been made with women having greater professional opportunities and this in turn leading to their increased representation in the workplace. Whilst women now account for almost half of the global workforce, this statistic does not translate in a like manner to the tech industry. If we look at this sector specifically only 23% of tech experts are women, and only 5% hold leadership positions. For many it might not come as a surprise – a career in STEM fields has long been perceived as male-dominated, with women having little to no representation. Some of the main reasons for this are a glaring shortage of information related to women in tech and a lack of mentoring from a young age which continues on to a striking lack of support throughout their working lives. Contrastly from the very beginning of a man’s career they have the ability to look at their successful male predecessors, learn from them, and challenge them. Women are not given that luxury unfortunately, with very few female role models there to show them that success in STEM for women is an option. 

So why are women not entering into these careers even now? One of the main reasons for this is attributed to the deep-rooted education gender gap in STEM that starts as early as primary school. Several studies have shown that inherent perceptions in children are that STEM subjects are gendered as male pursuits. For instance, one particular piece of research disclosed that when children were asked to draw scientists, girls were twice as likely to draw them as men than as women. Within the given context, it might not come as a surprise that a PWC’s survey found that only 27% of their female respondents said they would consider a career in technology compared to 62% of males. Now, how can we take steps to change this?

Women’s underrepresentation in the tech industry needs to be addressed from an early age, and this includes tackling ingrained prejudices. Even though girls and boys have equal learning opportunities, and access to both STEM and non STEM-related subjects this is not enough. Girls are no longer physically unable to take these subjects, however society still tells girls ‘don’t do these things, that’s a boy’s hobby/subject/job’. If you don’t think this true and that girls are no longer being subjected to these ‘old fashioned’ pressures just take a browse of some children’s clothes. Boy’s one’s include ‘Boy Genius’ and ‘I am the future’ – the girls? ‘Future Trophy Wife’ and ‘I’m Too Pretty To Do Math.’ Girls and boys are still treated very differently and they can see it too – this needs to change.

It’s not just the messaging however, it’s also the representation we need to address; women need also to be equally spoken of in-school materials (books, presentations, and similar) as well as other related media (adverts, movies, TV shows, etc.). And that is just a small start to move towards stamping our gender bias in schools but there is so much more that can be done. Organising talks and workshops with female professionals in STEM and across the board at school can also be an important tipping point; there is nothing more inspiring than hearing real-life stories of success. Another step to make is to create opportunities like coding platforms and programmes available for girls in a more inclusive way thus cultivating their interest and progress in the area. The opportunity cannot endure only – it needs to exist in a way that welcomes young girls and women alike. According to the latest PwC’s report, only 16% of women have had a career in technology suggested to them compared to 33% of men. To change this we need to make a real difference in every area; from a young age girls need to know that they can also accomplish a successful career – and it is their right too. This is started with equal representation, not just equal opportunities.    

Although the opportunities to women are now more readily available the gender imbalance is evident from the very offset of their careers in STEM. Statistics reveal that 52% of male students are studying a STEM subject at university, and right now women account for just 15.8% of the UK’s current generation of engineering and IT undergraduates. Within this only 3% of female students say a career in technology is their first choice. We see from this that the gender imbalance will not be redressed anytime soon with the UK’s future pipeline of tech and STEM talent heavily skewed towards men. Change, at least without severe intervention, looks to be a long way off.

When it comes to the working field the situation is even more troubling as, according to the Anita B.Org Institute’s research, 56% of women technologists leave companies by mid-level listing working conditions which includes a lack of advancement and opportunities as one of the main reasons for them to quit. The research goes on to say that recruitment and retention are necessary, but insufficient; it is important to treat these aspects as linked and not separated elements. Companies need to recruit more women, retain them, and do this by supporting women throughout and not only at specific points in their career.

The current pandemic has brought yet another major challenge for women; working at home during the COVID-19. This has had many repercussions affecting the work-life including but not limited to increased familial duties such as taking care of the household at all hours of the day, helping children with homeschooling or looking after elderly relatives. Recent research indicates that women can be seen doing almost a fifth more than men when it comes to picking up these tasks; here they are putting more strain on themselves than their male counterparts. This, in turn, creates new roadblocks for women to progress and succeed in their career. According to a Women in the Workplace 2020 report, ‘one in three mothers have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of COVID-19’. The effects of the pandemic however do not end with women doing more work at home; McKinsey suggests that right now a women’s career is 1.8 times more likely to be affected by the current crisis than those of men. Unemployment is increasing at a greater rate than it normally would, with women accounting for 54% of overall job losses. This pandemic is thus increasing an already striking gender gap in the workplace with this taking the toll on more female professionals than male.

The fear of a decrease in time, money and effort from companies in I&D became a reality for many with initiatives being cut down on, and some having theirs stopped completely as other areas of business’s needs became more and more acute. This in turn reflects especially negatively on recent graduates and women eager to return from maternity leave as the support that was once there may now have gone. However, one needs to remember that this crisis has also facilitated what before might have been seen as an obstacle to a woman’s career progression – remote work and flexi-hours. In a pre-pandemic world women were already great adopters and advocates of working from home as it allowed them to handle their work and private life in a more convenient way if, for example, they were parenting young children. For many companies though, flexible working hours or remote working was seen in a bad light; something that would disturb an employee’s workflow and thus reflect negatively on business outcomes. Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic levelled that playing field now that so many people are remote-first. COVID-19 has proved that despite all the difficulties working from home can bring we are more than capable of delivering successful results nonetheless. In many ways, as remote work relies heavily on written communication – through apps like Teams and Slack – we have actually provided a better opportunity for women to express themselves. It is, in one sense, easier to be heard – another aspect women had struggled with pre-pandemic. 

According to a report run by PWC only 22% of respondents can name a famous female working in technology – a biased circle that later prevents many would-be professionals from entering the tech field. How can this tendency be changed? Leaders, for instance, are in the position to be ‘agents of change’ by simply leading by example. At the same time companies need to take action, ensuring both their hiring and HR practices consider gender diversity. As a rule of thumb, women shy away from applying for roles if they don’t meet all the criteria in the job description, whereas men are more likely to brush this aside and still apply. As argued by the Office for Women paper, although women’s participation in employment is now seen not only as the right thing to do but a smart thing too, the recruitment process is still full of ‘unconscious bias’ with sexist attitudes underlying. Here, businesses need to do their best to support women – such things as levelling down their requirements listed as well as avoiding gender-biased wording in their job adverts (for instance male losing terms such as ‘ninja’ or ‘guru’) can make a drastic change. Excessive use of superlatives such as ‘expert’ or ‘superior’ can also turn off female candidates as they are more collaborative than competitive in nature – something companies should bear in mind. 

For this reason, using inclusive and respectful language in a job description, conducting job evaluations to research further on gender bias, looking for advice or feedback from your team members are just some of the important actions to make in order to put an end to women’s underrepresentation. Building a flexible ecosystem and supportive culture for your employees is yet another important step to make towards inclusion in the workplace. Attracting and retaining women, guiding and helping them progress will also increase your company’s productivity and its outcomes while including an important part of the workforce into projects. 

Last year showed us that flexible work is a must for all genders, as is ongoing training to keep confidence levels high. Supporting women at every step of their career will help to increase their representation in the tech world. As stated in a blog post written by YLD, ‘The low representation of women in tech and STEM as a whole is not only a social issue, but it is also a matter of business and development itself.’ Companies can no longer create products or services having only one half of the population in mind, and an increased representation of women can only bring value to businesses. The future is uncertain, but one thing we know is that companies that will succeed the most after this crisis lessens are those that will lean towards resilience, progress and innovation – qualities that go hand in hand with inclusion and diversity. Engaging in thought-provoking discussions, sharing knowledge and experience will contribute to the flourishing future of technology. 

This article was written by YLD – a software engineering and design consultancy that supports companies in creating successful digital solutions. Committed to the open source community, YLD builds long-lasting engineering cultures and creates digital capabilities with inclusion and diversity in its mind. Some of the previous clients include such companies as DAZNThe Economist and Trainline. To get in touch with YLD for more information follow this link

Robyn Foyster

  Robyn Foyster is an award-winning journalist and former Editor-In-Chief of The Australian Women’s Weekly. She is also the owner and publisher of Women Love Tech, Game Changers and The Carousel. Robyn’s tech company produced the augmented reality app for Sydney’s Vivid Festival in 2018 and the retail app Sweep. She is a speaker and a judge of the Telstra Business Awards and Mumbrella Awards. Robyn is passionate about supporting women in STEM.

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