Article by Alison Tierney, GVP, EMEA, Snowflake

female data scientist, woman leading teamTech companies have long enjoyed the reputation of being at the forefront of innovation, both in driving adoption of the latest technologies, and disrupting the way we work and live.

The tech industry has facilitated the modernisation and growth of many organisations.  In the past year alone it has helped the businesses adjust to a global pandemic by enabling employees to work remotely to keep organisations ticking and employees safe. For all the good that the tech industry has done and continues to do externally, there is one inward looking issue which the tech industry’s innovative spirit has fully yet to solve – diversity in senior roles.

Overcoming industry roadblocks

According to a recent research report from PwC, only 5% of senior leadership roles within the technology industry are held by women. The wider figures for the industry aren’t much better, with women comprising just 17% of the UK’s tech workers, a figure that has remained relatively stagnant for almost a decade. This being despite a concerted push from both private businesses and government organisations to introduce more women into the technology industry.

These measures have seen modest increases in the number of women entering the technology industry at a junior level. However, as my colleague Denise Persson, CMO, Snowflake said recently, “women in tech need to serve as role models for other women.” Role models need to be reflective of who you are and where you want to be in order to empower you to realise that ambition. The under-representation of women in senior tech roles hinders these ambitions and pushes young female talent away from tech. This is also reflected in the PwC research where only 22% of respondents were able to name a famous woman working in tech, while 66% were able to name a famous man.

There are also other roadblocks women face when entering the technology industry. A major issue facing the sector is the reputation that it is ‘always on’, requiring 24/7 work, which has traditionally been seen as incompatible for those who want to start a family, or have other personal commitments. This is not to paint every woman as aspiring for motherhood; the reality is that that decision is an incredibly personal one and every woman is different. There are however many who do, and the decision to work in technology should not be at odds with those that want to raise a family or have other priorities outside of their employment.

Making work more flexible would actually have knock-on benefits for the rest of the workforce with family commitments too. According to recent research from Working Families, 68% of companies polled have reported male parents and carers had shown more interest in flexible working since the pandemic hit.

Developing a supportive corporate culture

The circumstances of the past year have proven the viability of remote work. While forced into this working environment, employers have found that their people are perfectly capable of performing their duties without being based full-time in the office. When we’re able to safely return to the office, one way for tech companies to combat their ‘always on’ reputation is to continue to offer and advocate flexible working arrangements.

Advancements in cloud technology have played a key role in facilitating this transition, allowing disparate workforces remote access to key information securely and in a way which abides by data governance requirements. These new working arrangements have made it so that no matter their personal circumstances, women are able to perform to the best of their capabilities whether or not they are present in the office or working remotely.

Tech companies also need to address the issue of representation in senior leadership positions. As we’ve seen, role models play a key part in attracting talent to an industry. This concept of modelling progressive behaviour extends beyond just putting women in positions of authority. Simply hiring a woman into a senior leadership position will not fix this issue. That behaviour is ineffective at best and tokenism at worst. Instead, what is needed is active participation from diverse voices in the conversations that shape corporate culture.

While businesses have an important role to play in creating a more equal workplace, they shouldn’t feel that they have to do it alone. There are plenty of outstanding charitable foundations and independent organisations that businesses can partner with to increase the support network for women in tech and provide them with mentorship and training opportunities. One such organisation that we work with in EMEA is Women In Data. Specialising in fields relating to data science, they do truly pioneering work to promote greater representation of women in data professions and we are incredibly proud to be advocates for the work they do.

Diversity, equity and inclusivity (DE&I) programmes should not be seen as a progressive measure, they should be an absolute necessity in all organisations. By shaping corporate culture around principles of diversity, businesses can create an environment where they build and shape role models for young women. This point is again backed by research, as a recent “Women in Work” report found that 83% of British millennial women stated that they actively seek out employers with a strong record on diversity, equity and inclusion.

A final point here is the importance of unconscious bias training. With the rise of AI in tech we’ve all seen horror stories of what biases can do to an otherwise well-designed system. The concern around how bias affects programmes and systems needs to be reflected by the tech industry in how we combat our own biases. There needs to be multiple voices in the hiring process that not only challenge potential biases from individuals, but also structural biases that may be present throughout the process. Training on this subject is an absolute necessity for everyone in an organisation who could be involved in the hiring process from the CEO right through to managers. It’s unfeasible to expect organisations to support diversity when there are structural roadblocks built into how an organisation brings people in.

The future for women in tech

Technology companies do great things to better the everyday lives of people: from revolutionising the ways we work, to the ways we relax, through to how we connect and communicate with one another. However,  this same drive and innovative spirit that has facilitated these accomplishments must be harnessed to meet the challenge of gender diversity within the tech industry. DE&I programmes, unconscious bias training and flexible working are just three of the most impactive actions that tech companies can take right now to make a difference; and progress is indeed being made. True progress, however, will not happen overnight. Only through a concerted effort across the entire technology industry, with greater time, resources and care, will we see these challenges tackled.

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