Addressing tech's diversity problem

Kurt Weideling, Director of Information Systems and Digital Services at Manchester Metropolitan University discussing diversity in technology

The tech sector is expanding almost 3 times faster than the rest of the UK economy, worth almost £184bn. With this being such an important sector for the UK economy, it is crucial that the industry is made up of a diverse range of opinions and perspectives.

However, according to advice portal Diversity in Tech, only 15% of the tech workforce are from BAME backgrounds and gender diversity is currently sitting at 19% compared to 49% for all other jobs.

Robert Walters – one of the leaders in tech recruitment – spoke with Kurt Weideling, Director of Information Systems and Digital Services at Manchester Metropolitan University (ManMet) to find out why these issues persist and what more can be done.

“Diversity is about attracting and retaining good people. There are of course ethical and moral issues surrounding the diversity debate but my interest in creating greater diversity in technology fundamentally stems from how I can attract and retain good people to join my team.”

The ‘Silicon Valley’ culture

I’ve been working in the technology industry for almost three decades now, and from my own observations during this time – there were more women in senior roles in the 90s than there are today.

I truly believe as a sector, we went backwards in terms of gender diversity in the lead up to the millennium. Why? I think at least part of the reason is that the industry became heavily influenced by the ‘Silicon Valley’ culture and the dot-com boom.

The general perception of the Silicon Valley workplace culture is that the hours are long and the work environment can be somewhat aggressive, with a lot of ‘alpha males’ fighting for dominance. The emergence of these personas created a ‘hard-core nerd’ stereotype, which I believe may have contributed to driving women away from the industry.  Whilst this perception may not be always entirely accurate, I think it played a part in setting the whole sector back in terms of diversity.

It doesn’t help that this stereotype is exasperated by the Hollywood depiction of Silicon Valley, in films such as The Social Network and Steve Jobs.

Addressing misconceptions

These developments contributed to a general lack of awareness about the career opportunities available in tech that accommodate family commitments and a positive work-life balance.

In addition to this, we need to stop making assumptions about what we think different demographics want and instead see what actually motivates our target candidate pool and create employment offers that are much more attractive to them. 

For example, at ManMet, we have a work benefit which allows you to take a 6-month sabbatical. Initially we were using this tactic to be a benefit for employees with kids. However, because of our own misconceptions we didn’t initially realise that this would also be of interest to young professionals that want to gain industry experience and undertake a period of travel.

We need to stop making assumptions about what we think different demographics want and instead see what actually motivates our target candidate pool and create employment offers that are much more attractive to them.

Another key misconception is that you need to be ‘techy’ to work in the field. There is a lack of awareness about the breadth of roles available within the technology umbrella, with some people thinking it’s very narrow, technical and not people-focussed. My background lies in the Social Sciences and I’ve never written a line of code in my life! There’s an abundance of technology roles that exist such as business analysts and portfolio managers that are much more collaborative and require strong planning and interpersonal skills.

Education missing the mark

Tech companies and education institutions within the field have a responsibility to generate awareness of the range of career options available in technology, and combat that narrow view of what a technology career actually entails.

Part of the way to resolving this is developing degree courses at university that equip students with the range of transferrable and technical skills that match the requirements of a large proportion of technology roles.

A lot of the emphasis academically currently is introducing and understanding technical IT concepts, but not necessarily about how to implement these concepts on a human level. Whilst kudos should be given to those that are IT proficient and tech savvy – the second part of that battle is communicating this within the workplace. The ability to get buy-in from senior management, and communicating difficult to understand processes or technology is a vastly under-taught skill.

Introducing joint courses, for example, Computer Science and Business Management, that effectively marry technology, communication and commercial understanding is the key to unlocking a higher grain of talent.

A stagnant recruitment market

As with any sector, fresh perspective and new ideas relies on new people entering an organisation. The flow of talent within the market rests on a multitude of factors, and without all of these factors working in our favour, the recruitment market and talent pool can come to a stalemate.

Firstly, companies rely on candidates wanting to move jobs as a way of them being able to scoop in and offer employment to experienced candidates. As tech companies do a better job of improving their packages – introducing a raft of wellbeing initiatives – employees may be less likely to move. Innovation is key here – I’m sure we’ve all heard of some of the biggest tech companies in the world create very quirky workplace environments as a way of attracting and retaining talent.

One of the best ways to increase diversity in the tech sector – in particular BAME  - is to look abroad. Some of the best IT talent comes from countries such as China and India. Whilst the UK and Western world were once top choices for such candidates, we are now in an environment where we are fighting to keep talent in the UK and not migrate to other areas.   

Look at your employment criteria

One strategy we’ve adopted at ManMet to facilitate the promotion of women into technology is by analysing the essential criteria we include in our job adverts. It shocked me that for some roles we were stating that applicants needed more than 10 years of experience to apply. Is that really essential? What we want are talented, enthusiastic individuals that – yes - do have relevant experience, but also have the intelligence and creativity to thrive in the role.

By taking such an archaic approach and focusing on number of decades of experience, you’re only going to recycle a small cohort of people. Removing these arbitrary requirements resulted in us making a number of more creative appointments. For example, we hired a young woman into a Portfolio Manager role, who would not have applied for the role if the original role spec had a numerical value to determine experience.

It’s important to stress that whilst we have made meritable progress with this issue, there is still plenty of work to be done by ManMet and tech employers alike to resolve the diversity problem.

Stop leading with salary

A common pitfall I’ve noticed with employers in the UK is asking candidates exactly how much they are paid in their current role to determine the incremental increase on their employment offer.

This automatically indicates that one candidate would earn more than the other for the same job and you’re feeding a legacy of discrimination. Women will be locked into being paid less than they deserve throughout their career if employers keep taking this approach to a salary offer.

What’s the role worth? This simply makes any unconscious discriminatory pay gap irrelevant Any salary negotiation can come after your initial offer.

 

The bottom line is, recruiting and retaining high-calibre professionals should be a priority for every business. It can be very difficult to do that when you’re only recruiting from a tight candidate pool. If your company has a certain culture, it’s likely that you’re only going to attract a very narrow pool of talent. Look at your employer brand. Do you like a mix of opinions and perspectives? Do people have a voice?  Are you championing diversity? If the answer is no, its likely your candidate pool will remain pretty stale and pale.

 

woman typing on phone looking up latest hiring advice

Hiring advice

Read more »
Blurry street lights

Are your salaries competitive? 

Read more »
Abstract blue building

The value of salary
benchmarking  

Read more »
Uploading a new job spec on an iPad

Submit a job
spec  

Read more »
Neon green lights on city bridge

Importance of
cultural fit  

Read more »