Plugging the leak: how we can drive improved gender diversity in tech

Front view of diverse business people looking at camera while working together at conference room in a modern office

Article by Theresa Palmer, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

Over the past two years, global organisations have overcome unimaginable hurdles and cleared obstacles they never saw coming.

They deserve huge credit for doing so. But one challenge remains stubbornly persistent: tackling the underlying issues which continue to block greater equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in the technology industry. Particularly when it comes to women in tech, there is a critical “leaky valve” – a point at which organisations start to lose their female talent.

Finding and plugging this leak with tangible action and measurement will be crucial to getting more inspiring women into leadership positions.

A diversity crisis

There’s no debate that ED&I is still a serious problem for the tech sector. The WomenTechNetwork found that only 17% of ICT specialists globally and only a third (34%) of STEM graduates are women. A recent Tech Nation report revealed that more than three-quarters (77%) of tech director roles are filled by men. In the cybersecurity sector, there’s more bad news from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) whose latest reportrevealed that women and ethnic minority staff are more likely to experience career roadblocks.

The pandemic has been particularly damaging to gender equality in the workplace. Women were 1.8 times more likely than men to lose their jobs when the crisis began. And at the same time, unpaid work like childcare and domestic chores surged, further disadvantaging working women. It’s perhaps no surprise that a third (34%) of mothers have reported feeling frustrated at trying to combine their career with parental responsibilities.

Enhancing diversity in the workplace isn’t just a moral imperative for employers, it also drives some well recognised business benefits. Diversity of approaches and thinking contribute towards improved team performance, innovation and new ways of problem solving. In its 2019 analysis McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 % more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile – up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014. So why are there still so few women in senior tech roles?

Plugging the leak

In many organisations, this is the mid-point in women’s careers when their career progression begins to stall. This is sometimes linked to when they return to the workplace after welcoming a child. But that is just one link and not the only influence. The end result is fewer women progressing into senior roles and perhaps more individuals leaving the organisation altogether to find senior opportunities elsewhere. At BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, we spend a great deal of time looking for the leaky valve.

It’s not an easy problem to fix. It will take a committed effort to change the organisation’s underlying values, culture, policy and practice. And often the people that need to drive change are middle managers who are loaded with responsibility and short of time, compounded by being comfortable operating with what they know. That’s part of the reason why many fall into the trap of doing ED&I by numbers, simply following what they see other organisations doing. This fails to take account of the fact that every enterprise is different, with its own unique set of challenges.

Fixing ED&I is a business problem like any other. That means reviewing the key areas, identifying the problem, developing a solution and then implementing it. It’s essential during this process to engage closely with employees to ensure the scale of the problem is fully understood and the solution is fit-for-purpose. Once developed, it should be evaluated repeatedly to allow for adjustments to fix any deficiencies.

From words to action

The bottom line is that ED&I is slowly improving. Organisations have spent a great deal of time and effort on enhancing their recruitment process – by opening up to more universities, using gender bias decoders on job adverts, more diverse interview panels and much more besides. But it can’t stop there. Organisations must spend as much effort on preventing their female talent from leaving or ossifying.

That means paying equal attention to promotions, succession plans and training and development opportunities. Too many businesses are still rolling out senior leadership development programmes that are comprised of 99-100% men. It means identifying where the leak is and working at least two grade levels before the ‘leaky valve’ kicks in to fix things. If there aren’t any suitable female candidates to send on these programmes, there’s the leak. Go at least two steps back and start plugging it.  Leadership should be held accountable for any ED&I failings. They must act early, intervene with genuine, worthwhile development programmes and set diversity targets for leadership development initiatives.

The presence of female role models can create a powerful story of diversity in action, and a virtuous circle which could fill the talent pipeline and achieve greater representation at board level. So much is said these days about organisations needing to “do the right thing” in terms of driving greater ED&I. But the time for talking about doing the right thing has passed. It’s time to get on and do it.

About the author

Theresa PalmerTheresa Palmer is Head of Diversity & Inclusion at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. Theresa has worked with BAE since 2010 her career has concentrated on identification and execution of proactive customer satisfaction programmes which has lent to her success with the ultimate customer, employees.

Theresa’s career has spanned nearly 20 years in the technology industry having held posts in finance, HR, sales, account and relationship management and D&I. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, USA and an MBA with a focus in Finance and Organizational Behavior from the University of Massachusetts, USA.