A couple of weeks ago I was asked to give a keynote at a conference for IT professionals. I was the only female speaker out of six. One speaker was a person of colour (male). A few days later I attended a conference about AI in the public sector. Out of eleven speakers, three were female. One was a person of colour (male). There was a particular dark comical moment when a female attendee asked a two-man panel moderated by another man (all Caucasian) about their strategies for improving diversity in their respective tech-led government departments. One answered that they don’t support conferences or panels if they are not balanced. Clearly, they’re not serious about that strategy because there he was attending a conference and sitting on a panel that obviously was not balanced. A few days later I logged onto LinkedIn only to see a woman in my network posting a photograph with a caption that read, “Another day, another all-white, all-male tech panel.”
As a woman working in tech, I wish I could tell you that moments like these are outliers. But they’re not. Despite more than a decade of diversity conversations, programmes and initiatives, moments like these remain the undesired norm. There’s even a Tumblr dedicated to sarcastically congratulating men on their all-male panel achievements. Started by Dr Saara Särmä, a researcher in International Relations at the University of Tampere in Finland, images are submitted from around the world and shows how this isn’t just a problem in the UK and the US but rather around the globe. There is even a term to describe the social phenomenon of an all-male panel, manel.
For those who don’t know the current status quo, let me paint a picture for you using statistics from Tech Nation’s 2018 report. Let’s start with something that can give us a solid baseline from which to work.
of all UK workers are women. Great.
of tech directors are women. Oh dear.
of tech workers are women. That’s embarrassing.
The percentage of female tech directors has remained almost exactly the same since 2000 and when compared to the percentage of directorships held by women in non-tech companies, 28%, it becomes clear that tech is really lagging behind. When it comes to Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities (BAME), the numbers are more hopeful. BAME account for 15% of tech workers, higher than the 10% across all UK jobs, however, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of those are not in positions of influence; and that does matter. According to 2017 UK employment figures, BAME comprise of 15% of the UK workforce.
Across the ocean, the numbers are even more jaw-dropping. In the US, women account for 46.8% of the workforce. Amongst the tech titans (Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft), women account for an average of 16.7% of their workforce. Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting, conducted an analysis of the 177 largest San Francisco Bay Area tech firms, essentially what we could call the heartland of technology, and found that ten large technology companies in Silicon Valley did not employ a single black woman in 2016. Three had no black employees at all. Six did not have a single female executive.
It’s 2019 people. 20 actual 19.
How has this happened? I cannot think of a greater quote to share with you at this point other than one from Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has led the call for tech firms to make their diversity data and inclusion plans transparent and advocated for accountability.
“These are the greatest planners in the world,” he said. “They plan global markets. They plan technologies. They have not planned inclusion.”
Yes, in world plagued by inequality, inclusion doesn’t just happen, you have to plan for it. As more and more companies become technology companies as a result of the latest innovations that are being created and implemented, there is even greater urgency for a holistic and concrete plan. Once you have a plan, assuming it’s a good one, then unlike aforementioned man earlier you have to commit to it, measure the impact and amend where needed.
The argument for a diverse and inclusive workforce is not nuanced, nor is it complicated or difficult to grasp. It simply goes like this. It is not fair, just or logical for the ideas, values and biases of a few, to become the lived experiences of the many. However, excuses abound.
For those who complain that there is a ‘pipeline’ problem, work with parents, teachers and the greater education system to tackle bias in STEMM and support low-income areas so that they too can have access to quality education and tools required to put learning into practice.
For those who complain that they struggle to find talent with digital skills, I find this difficult to believe but here are some thoughts. Implement a graduate recruitment scheme or apprenticeship programme and train young talent in digital skills. Assess your employees for digital skills and collaborate with them on a learning and development plan that will see them, and your business, prosper. In addition, look beyond the universities that you hire from time and time again before you throw your hands in the air and say, “There’s no talent!”
For those who say they can’t hold onto women and minority talent, find out why and fix the problem. Are your working hours insane and unsupportive of families? Are male staff sexist? Is your culture not inclusive? Figure it out.
For those who say there just aren’t enough female and BAME data scientists and AI researchers, please watch my TEDx talk to hear a new perspective on this. These titles don’t just belong to individuals with ‘technical’ talents. Technology, data and AI have as much to do with human life as they do with code. Let go of the limiting job titles and their associated desired skills; start seeing data and AI as process and not just a product.
Last and certainly not least, recognise and reward successful women as much as possible. Give them the stage, hand them the mic, engrave their name on an award. Don’t just do this for those living in the capitals, talent is everywhere! For those who say awards don’t matter, I say to you that you’ve won too many. Awards help to boost confidence and moral, provide other women with role models and bust the myth that tech is a business for blokes. Technology was meant to be the great equaliser but that will never happen until we all show up and prove that we are equals.