For the Tech Talent Charter to succeed, tech firms need to work together

The lack of gender diversity is, unfortunately, a major problem for technology companies all over the world. It's thought only 17% of the UK's technology workforce is female, and only one in ten women are currently studying computer science and other related subjects at A Level.

In the US it's estimated that women make up just 25% of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) roles in Silicon Valley. As for pay, a study published in February found that female technologists earn 29% less than male counterparts working in the same type of roles.

Despite the fact that these statistics paint an alarming picture of the technology industry, companies and governments are beginning to take action.

The Tech Talent Charter, which launched in November 2017, is a movement of like-minded organisations working to close the growing gender gap. Supported by the UK government, the coalition is on a mission to get more women into technology careers and courses.

The charter is working to implement positive action in the sector. For instance, it regularly holds events throughout the UK to inspire, share best practice and solve diversity-related problems. So far, more than 200 organisations have signed the charter, including Microsoft, HP, BT, Salesforce, Cisco, the BBC and Sky.

But the question remains - what practical things are they doing to meet the aims of the initiative and improve diversity in the industry?

Debbie Forster, CEO of Tech Talent Charter, believes companies that sign up to the charter are doing so because they want to do something that's more practical than their previous initiatives.

"Joining the Tech Talent is free and simple because we want companies to focus on the hard part improve diversity within their company and the sector," Forster tells IT Pro.

"A company commits to four things people, plan, practice and data. It commits to have a senior signatory who will champion the charter internally and externally, to have a concrete plan on how they will improve their diversity in the coming year.

She adds that companies are asked to be more transparent when it comes to hiring data, including a commitment to sharing internal data on the numbers of female employees, and disclose how often they've been able to shortlist women for tech roles.

"We also ask companies to be willing to share best practice and they are doing this via blogs and case studies on our website, by speaking and sharing at our events and by working together on solutions."

Success depends on collaboration

Nominet, which is is the official registry of British domain names, was among the first organisations to sign the charter. Its chief operating officer, Eleanor Bradley, says it's alarming that the number of females working in the technology industry is so low. She believes that the success of the charter will come down to the signatories working together to share experiences and solutions to eradicate the gender gap.

"To help combat this it's important that potential applicants can see themselves in a business if we want them to join it," says Bradley, speaking to IT Pro. "We have some great role models - men and women - who enjoy flexible working and are trusted with the autonomy to deliver their role in a way that suits - be it returning to work after a break or juggling existing commitments."

She believes that the industry needs to remove the social bias around certain roles that are often predesignated as 'male-orientated', and change hiring practices accordingly.

"In fact, aptitude will increasingly have to win over academia or experience in hiring processes. We want to hire people who can embrace change, learn new things and adapt to the needs of the business. Working with Tech Talent Charter signatories, we can share our experiences, learn from them and hopefully find the solutions needed to secure a vibrant digital future for all."

However, the charter's mission is not simply to encourage more women into tech, but aims to improve digital skills and diversity in the technology industry as a whole.

Susan Bowen, who is chair of techUK skills and diversity council and general manager of hosting business Cogeco Peer 1, sees the charter as a way of companies acknowledging that they need to have the right skills in place, regardless of identity, in order to survive.

"Platforms such as the Tech Talent Charter help spread these messages and bring about conditions for change," says Bowen. "I encourage every organisation not just to simply discuss diversity, but make an active commitment and sign up to the Tech Talent Charter today."

Proactive policies

It's not just technology companies that are backing the charter. Nationwide Building Society is one of a number of financial services firms that are supporting the initiative. The company's head of engineering, Ian Andrews, explains that Nationwide signed up to the charter to coincide with the commencement of a major internal IT overhaul.

"The [charter] for us was always more than being a token signatory," says Andrews. "Proud as we are to being the first high street financial provider to commit, being part of the steering committee has enabled us to help grow the charter from its inception into a movement which is genuinely making a difference in increasing diversity within the tech arena and beyond."

Caroline Moore, people director at enterprise software firm Sage, another signatory, says it's crucial that initiatives such as the Tech Talent Charter keep encouraging organisations to be proactive about issues around inclusion and diversity.

For Sage's part, she points to a number of schemes designed to make it easier to secure a diverse talent pool, including "unconscious bias training to ensure we are approaching recruitment with an open mind and that we aren't letting any preconceptions or personal preferences influence our hiring decisions."

"Our apprenticeship programme and work in schools also goes some way in helping to bridge this gap for the longer term by engaging with a wide range of young people from different backgrounds and ethnicities to help promote the benefits of a STEM career," she adds

Diversity is about more than just gender

It's important to remember that diversity doesn't just cover gender, and that strategies need to go beyond simply hiring more women.

Jon Topper, chief technology officer of hosting infrastructure firm The Scale Factory, says organisations must also consider factors such as race, age, sexuality, marital status, parental situation, mental and physical health. He says they are all "dimensions against which we could unintentionally discriminate", not only during the hiring process but also in the everyday workplace.

"Entrepreneurs need to be careful not to fall back on hiring people who are exactly like them - something that can feel natural and even sensible, but which logically leads to a lack of diversity," adds Topper, something that's particularly problematic among emerging startups.

The fact remains that the success of the global technology industry comes down to the blood, sweat and tears of people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Innovation is crucial in tech, and companies can only ever fully tap into it if society as a whole is represented in their workforce. The Charter is a positive step, but continued practical action will be needed to close down barriers and eradicate diversity challenges faced by women and other minority groups.

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Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.