women in tech, soft skills

Article by Natalie Billingham, Vice President Sales and EMEA Managing Director, Akamai Technologies

It goes without saying that the past eighteen months have presented new challenges to all of us, with particular pressure on women.

According to a study conducted by Women’s Budget Group, around 133,000 more women than men were furloughed across the UK during the first wave of COVID-19. In addition, research from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London revealed that women who were furloughed were more likely to be off work for longer periods of time than men. Several studies have also found that the demands of childcare and home-schooling have disproportionately fallen to women during this period.

We now have the opportunity to build back better from the pandemic and ensure that the “new normal” is an improved place for women in the workforce.

It’s imperative that women are well represented in the recovery from the pandemic, that their voices are heard, and that we support even more women to become leaders and decision makers both now and in the future.

So, how can this be achieved?

Overcoming unconscious presenteeism

By altering attitudes towards working from home (WFH), COVID-19 may have forever changed the way we work. As employers see for themselves that work can be achieved to a high-standard and productivity has even increased while WFH, a growing number of companies are embracing hybrid ways of working.

Although hybrid working certainly has its benefits, the danger is that some women will find it challenging to return back to the office due to caring responsibilities which have increased over the lockdowns.

In a recent conversation I had with Professor Emma Parry from Cranfield School of Management, she highlighted one of the problems that this can create. A culture of presenteeism means that those employees who are more visible in the workplace are often in a favourable position when it comes to career progression and promotion. In contrast, those who aren’t seen very often (i.e. employees who are working from home) have typically been more likely to be overlooked for new opportunities and ad-hoc, informal decision-making discussions that may happen in the office.

There is much research supporting the fact that we look more favourably on those whom we see more often, with Professor Parry and other academics referring to this phenomenon as ‘proximity bias’. Proximity bias is an unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. Like with any bias, it is a natural instinct that’s part of our cognitive decision-making process. With women more likely to work from home than men, proximity bias is a particularly worrying phenomenon.  We must be aware of these biases and directly challenge them to ensure we move forward for the better.

It’s important then that employers take the time to learn how to measure and evaluate output as well as reward people for what they actually contribute to the business, regardless of where they work from. We need to find ways to make hybrid working work for everyone – embracing new technologies and empowering managers in order to do so.

Fostering a fair and inclusive company culture

As we see a steady rollout of vaccines across the UK, how businesses plan to recover and build back from COVID-19 will undoubtedly impact their ability to attract and retain diverse talent.

Now is the time to review your organisation’s hiring practices to ensure they don’t unintentionally exclude applicants from a position based on a check box or job description. Even the language used in job adverts have a role to play. At Akamai by reviewing the wording of our job descriptions, we greatly increased the diversity of candidates applying for these roles. It’s also a good idea to include different personalities in the hiring process so candidates can get a better feel of what the workforce is like. Not only does this showcase your diverse workforce, but it allows room for diversity of thought and perspective in the hiring decision.

Partnering with community groups to attract diverse talent and target specific audiences like women, disabled, LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities, is also worth considering. Working with these partners can help yield strong candidates and enable your organisation to become more diverse.

Working to overcome proximity bias and striving to attract and retain diverse talent, are just two of the ways businesses can try to create a post-pandemic workplace that is both fairer and more equal, both for women and other under-represented groups. And at the same time we will be fostering more productive, engaged and loyal workforces.

Natalie BillinghamAbout the author

Natalie Billingham is the Vice President Sales and Managing Director for EMEA, leading a team of 782 people across 18 countries in her region. Natalie leads the growth, expansion and all go-to-market strategies, for Akamai’s business across EMEA. She directs an international team, serving customers in retail, broadcasting, financial services, gaming, gambling, video, and mobile verticals.

Alongside her day-to-day role, Natalie is involved with several programmes and initiatives. She is the co-founder of the Women’s Forum and an Executive Sponsor of the Next Generation Leaders programme (NGL) and Akamai’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Engagement. She is also a member of the Akamai Foundation and Executive Women’s Committee.