The achilles heel of the tech industry

Diversity

Article by Stuart Arthur, CTO at Foundry4

We all know that tech has a real problem with diversity. It has been well recorded how underrepresented women are in the sector with just 19% of the tech workforce female according to Tech Nation. But the issue goes beyond gender too. 

Socio-economic background also plays a part in the lack of inclusivity in tech, with a report from Inclusive Tech alliance in 2018 finding that over one third (36%) of tech execs attended a private school, compared to just 7% of the overall population.  While we hope that inclusivity would have improved more recently, the pandemic is likely to have thrown any improvements off course.

While efforts have been made by the industry to be more inclusive and to develop programmes to attract people from more diverse backgrounds, there has been very little progress. As the industry continues to grow and provide an abundance of job opportunities in well paid roles, it is important that no one is left behind for a number of reasons.

Gender diverse companies perform better - according to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.  In addition, women come with a different set of experiences that can be developed into new ideas, solutions or products.

Diversity becomes even more crucial as applications of AI become more widespread. Software drives AI and Machine learning and these are things which will be coded to make decisions on our behalf. It's absolutely imperative that the people designing and building in those decisions have lived experience through many lenses and not just that of a middle class, able bodied white male.

Perhaps this was slightly less crucial when the main use of the internet was to surface cute cat videos, but when the tech is making decisions about welfare benefits or who gets a mortgage, the stakes become increasingly higher.

The reasons behind a lack of gender diversity are multifaceted. There is an issue of perception as well as lacklustre STEM education in schools. Many young women do not perceive the entry into the tech sector as a pathway that is accessible and open to them, lacking real guidance and role models.

The first great barrier to women developing a career in technology begins in the education system. Many of our schools don’t effectively showcase how exciting technology can be from a creative perspective, and how there are so many different elements involved, such as planning, design and coding.

People from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to get into tech careers because of a lack of opportunities to do so, which is where the government and some schools fail our children badly. Devoid of role models and a good education, those from underserved communities can struggle to get into tech. To me that is unacceptable in modern society and has to change.

With my own career, it really started serendipitously. A neighbour of mine was an old video game programmer, and that caught my attention. We really need to make sure that our schools and society give everyone the chances, opportunities, and support they deserve. It’s easier said than done, but everyone can make at least a small difference - it only takes one trailblazer to inspire someone’s career.

We need to take responsibility as an industry. There certainly used to be a reputation that tech was about middle aged men in suits and an incredibly bland career path. There’s no doubt that perception is changing, but I think there’s still a long way to go.

Many companies run coding initiatives for example, but the problems that lie around perception run right through from grassroots level all the way through to industry.

Ultimately, real change will require the government to invest more money and time into our education system. It is still based on the industrial age - outdated and cannot keep pace with the changing technology and digital landscape.

An example of this is how a Welsh Government Steering Group report I contributed to back in 2013 contained actions which have only recently been implemented by the government, remarkably a long ten years later.

A new operating model is required that embraces agility and responsiveness. History would tell us that waiting around for the government to step up and enact change has not always been reliable. The private sector must also get involved and engage with education providers to bring the tech industry into the classroom.

Industry can also be more generous in their apprenticeship offering and working more with schools to provide advice and role models. Apprenticeships and budget for digital skills initiatives should also be targeted towards under represented communities.

We are at a critical juncture. Today’s world is run on tech but yet there is a serious talent shortage. In part, this is because employers only have access to a small talent pool due to a lack of female candidates coming through the education system. We need this talent to fuel the growth of businesses and the economy and to sustain the demand for technical talent.

Technology can provide the opportunity to have an outstanding career. The average salary in the industry was £74,000 in 2019, and the industry has ballooned in prosperity and scale since then.

While the tech industry needs to do more, we also urge government, educators and business to lean in and do more to reset how we educate, influence and offer opportunities to young people, and build a long-term, gender diverse talent pipeline for the future.


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