By Kate Daniels, Portfolio Director at NTT DATA UK

diverse group of people, international women's day 1International Women’s Day (IWD) is a time to commemorate the achievements of all women across the globe.

While the day provides an opportunity to celebrate the great successes of women in history, it is also a time to reflect on the challenges we have faced in the past and the work that we still have to do.

This year’s IWD theme of ‘break the bias’ involves challenging gender biases in both the community and the workplace. The theme is particularly important for the tech sector as it continues to address its own history of bias.

While NTT DATA UK’s recent research found the majority of men and women in tech believe the industry has become more welcoming to women over the last decade, there is still much work to be done. Our research found that 74% of women in tech have had a negative experience at work due to their gender, and only a quarter of women in the sector believe they have equal progression opportunities to their male colleagues.

The sector remains male-dominated, with only 19% of the UK tech workforce being women. To help address this imbalance, organisations have a responsibility both to ensure the sector is welcoming for women, and to provide opportunities and support for women to enter into tech careers, regardless of their background.

Provide opportunities for those who wish to enter tech

Tech organisations must be actively inclusive, promoting a culture that values all individuals, regardless of their background. Addressing underlying and unconscious bias is a key part of this, as is challenging misconceptions about the ‘type’ of person who works in tech. Even the language we use to describe tech careers can make a big difference. People assume that ‘maths brains’ make great engineering brains, and girls already tend to disproportionately think they aren’t good at maths. These layers of bias can lead young women to shy away from tech careers, so such misconceptions must be challenged.

When thinking about how we can best support women in the sector, we must be intersectional in our approach. Different women face different challenges, and the sector must be willing to address different forms of potential bias.

As well as developing an inclusive culture, we need to be recruiting from a diverse talent pool. This means providing and accepting alternative career pathways for prospective candidates. As a sector, we tend to recruit based on traditional criteria, often stipulating a university degree in a certain subject. Relying too heavily on one particular career pathway can exclude certain candidates, barring valuable talent from the industry.

To find the best talent, we must be willing to create opportunities for those who have not followed the expected educational path, or who have decided to enter tech later on in their careers. As the sector continues to navigate a shortage of tech talent, organisations have every incentive to reassess their recruitment practices to acknowledge the value of a wider variety of experiences and qualifications.

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Providing training opportunities

Making alternative training opportunities available often facilitates the recruitment of people from otherwise underrepresented groups. This has been our own experience at NTT DATA UK, through our sponsorship of the route2work digital skills academy programme. Last year, we sponsored women to take part in one of four Microsoft training programmes run by route2work. The women involved had otherwise lacked opportunities to enter tech, and the training gave them the chance to develop skills to kickstart their careers.

Similarly, NTT DATA UK’s Tech Academy, which provides training for people with a range of different qualifications and life experiences, gives participants the opportunity to break into tech regardless of their background. Those who have taken part in previous years include women returning to the workforce after having children. These women were seeking opportunities to train or retrain to enter tech. Without the right training opportunities, the industry would miss out on their talent.

Why is diversity so important? 

Diversity in any sector is not only morally important, it is also vital in terms of ensuring services and products cater for wider society. We know all too well that human-built technologies such as artificial intelligence adopt our discrimination and biases. In 2016, Microsoft’s AI chatbot Tay notoriously displayed misogynistic and racist remarks within 24 hours of interacting with people on Twitter, while Amazon’s automated recruitment bot was discovered to be biased against women in 2018.

If the teams of researchers, software engineers and data scientists that build these technologies are not diverse, how can we expect the technology itself to be unbiased? To mitigate against this risk, teams should reflect the diversity of the communities and societies they serve.

Besides the creation of better and fairer technology, there are other clear business benefits to having a diverse workforce. A combination of different life experiences and perspectives produces greater creativity and drives innovation, ultimately improving business performance.

The road ahead

Collectively, we all need to play our part in breaking the bias, on International Women’s Day and on every other day of the year. Organisations in the tech sector must continue their work to make the sector more inclusive, while also providing opportunities and alternative pathways for those from underrepresented backgrounds who wish to enter tech. Ultimately, success breeds success. We want to reach a point where organisations enter a virtuous circle with women already in the industry acting as role models for others who want to follow in their footsteps.

Kate DanielsAbout the author

Kate is a portfolio director with a breadth of delivery experience in both the public and private sectors. Kate has 25 years’ experience of project, programme and programme portfolio management including over 10 years of consulting experience – six of these in top global firms Arthur Andersen and Deloitte – and 15 years client-side. Kate is passionate about D&I and is currently Co-Chair of NTT DATA UK’s Women’s Business Network.