Cath Holt, from Brighton based New World Tech discusses the stereotypes surrounding the types of roles within the tech industry and the impacts – good and bad – that COVID-19 is having on her mission to improve diversity and get more women into the sector.
“The number of women in important IT and technology roles has always been dramatically lower than that of men. Despite campaigns for equal opportunities for women in tech and the fact that many organisations claim to have diversity initiatives, only one in six tech specialists in the UK are women. Only 34.4% of the workforce in the five largest technology companies in the world (Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google) are women. Lack of visible female role models is one of the biggest contributing factors for the lack of women pursuing a career in tech.
Despite the fact that IT is an amazing place to be right now – we know for example, that for every person who is qualified, there are basically two open jobs. We are still not graduating enough people in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions to reverse that trend. This makes the labour shortage in IT a major priority for the industry today, and nowhere could this be more effectively addressed than by attracting more women to the profession.
Now, that may seem like a hopelessly old-fashioned argument, after all, women have been transforming the workplace across every industry for decades. Do we really need to still be having this conversation in IT?
The answer is yes. Because for all our hi-tech solutions to everyday problems, we are still failing to attract women, who make up a huge portion of the talent we could be tapping into to fill the gap and move our organisations forward.
The problem with attracting women to the industry begins in schools. I believe that schools are missing and opportunity to attract young women at an impressionable time, when they could start to think about IT as a viable career choice.
At the college and university level, women looking to pursue a career in STEM continue to see a male-dominated world on campus. And upon graduation, the women who are choosing IT jobs are still making less than men for doing the same work.
It’s this scenario as a whole that we have to change, because the IT profession just can’t afford not to. It’s really not about gender equality at all; it’s about the kind of power in numbers – and the kind of diversity – that IT businesses today need to propel themselves forward in a globally competitive market.
IT workers used to be isolated. They would sit in their offices, receiving work projects that were slipped under the door. They would write the code; they didn’t need to concern themselves with anything else. Today’s workplace couldn’t be more different, as employers today demand business acumen and a lot more collaboration.
With more women in IT available to fill critical jobs, we would have the kind of well-rounded talent pool that understands IT work no longer exists in a vacuum. We would have that diversity of talent in the workplace that can come up with 10 solutions instead of just two. And we would have a knowledgeable workforce in place to sustain us for critical projects that demand highly skilled workers – whether male or female.
From the start NWT has always offered an inclusive environment for women and our recruitment strategy and values reflect this. I believe that increasing the number of women in tech is essential to add diversity to our sector and help inspire the next generation. My role as COO includes ensuring that we continue to have important diversity and inclusion conversations.
Sadly, I believe that the drive to close the gender gap has potentially been derailed by the coronavirus outbreak. More women in tech are likely to feel the devastating effects Covid-19 is having on employment and recruitment than men.
Women in tech are more likely to be laid off or furloughed than their male colleagues. This is largely due to female employees still being more likely to hold entry-level or junior positions in companies. Women working in the tech field are at a further disadvantage, being 1.5 times more likely, than their male peers, to be struggling to manage childcare responsibilities during lockdown.
The focus right now is on surviving Covid-19, so I fear that improving diversity of the workforce will slip down the priority list. But there is a glimmer of hope. I predict we’ll see a surge in the tech industry because tech is at the forefront of businesses’ agendas in the age of coronavirus.
Companies are having to switch to digital incredibly quickly, artificial intelligence is growing and we’re not going to lose that momentum. Tech has never been more relevant, jobs will be created in the field and the new remote, flexible ways of working could really benefit women.
Since the outbreak, tech has gone from being nice to have to an absolute necessity and Covid-19 is forcing changes that will enable women to work in sectors they may have previously shunned. All sorts of businesses are moving to remote working and more people are beginning to understand that greater flexibility can mean you might work less conventional hours and still get the job done.
Those types of changes are more likely to benefit women than men because we all know the unpaid care burden falls more on women, whether for children or elderly relatives. A lot of tech roles in our field have traditionally involved time away from home, visiting customers on site. Those jobs are not so attractive to women with those kind of responsibilities at home, but greater use of tech and wider acceptance and adoption of remote working potentially opens up those roles to female candidates.
While there may be reasons to be optimistic about more women working flexibly in the future, the fact remains that many young female candidates who hoped to break into the tech industry in the last year currently find themselves unemployed.
If you are in that position, I strongly advise you to remain hopeful and use the extra time you have as a result of lockdown to polish your skills and make new contacts.
If you’re out of work, look at online courses and research how you might build up your professional skills and experience. If you can demonstrate that you have used your initiative and committed to online learning you will be more attractive to future employers. And don’t be afraid to try networking through sites such as LinkedIn. If you see someone who works in a role that you aspire to, get in touch, they may have advice or be able to connect you to others who can help. You are welcome to reach out to me on LinkedIn and follow my journey in the industry. Once the pandemic passes, the tech sector will be busier than ever. Contacts you make now could pay off.”