Why aren't there more women in the channel?

Artificial intelligence visualisation with woman, globe, cityscape and network lines superimposed

The lack of women in tech continues to be one of the biggest talking points within our industry. There has been much debate about the need for diversity and inclusion from all sides - and yet women in IT positions in the UK still only make up around 16% of the overall workforce.

Current efforts to encourage and enable women and girls' participation in the traditionally-male dominated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are well-documented. But what about the shortfall of women specifically in the IT channel?

The channel is an environment that relies, in many instances, on customer-facing, 'soft' skills such as account management, sales and marketing - often a world away from the bells and whistles of the technology itself. So why are women still so outnumbered by men?

A boys' club?

As a woman in the channel myself, one of the first things that springs to mind is its reputation, historically, as a bit of a boys' club with salesmen often found at the bar doing business.

However, Sarah Shields, VP of Dell EMC enterprise channel in Europe describes the channel as rightfully salesy: "We are a sales channel after all and I love the fact it is off-the-scale salesy - it's exciting, dynamic, interesting, innovative and never ever dull," she tells Channel Pro. "Being one of the few or sometimes the only girl in the room doesn't bother me in the slightest! I am always made to feel welcome and treated as an equal," she says.

However, Ghazal Asif, SVP of worldwide channels at security vendor Cybereason, notes that "when you're the only woman in a room, it's often harder to speak up and make a stance if it feels like you can't fully relate to the room".

There's certainly some evidence to support this view, as a recent CWJobs survey revealed that 43% of IT decision makers feel that women are put off from working in IT and technology roles due to the male-dominated culture.

However, Krishna Subramanian, COO at data management start-up Komprise, believes today's channel has in fact evolved beyond its salesy reputation, with the focus instead being on value-added services.

"It's becoming easier and easier for customers to research and buy IT products on their own, without relying on an intermediary - as a result, the channel has to differentiate itself and show demonstrable value to customers. This has caused a shift in the mindset of channel partners to focus less on 'salesy' approaches and more on creating tangible differentiation and value," she tells Channel Pro.

Getting back to work

It's clear then that the "salesy" nature of the channel is evolving, and therefore can't be completely to blame for the lack of female representation. In fact, there could be several other reasons why women are put off from working, or coming back to work.

One of the biggest challenges for women across the industry is being able to return to work after having children or taking a career break.

Edinburgh-based financial services company Computershare recently recruited three new tech workers as part of a drive to get more women to return to work after taking breaks. Lucy Newcombe, global head of people and corporate communications at the company believes that having children should no longer be a barrier to a building a long-term career in the industry that you love.

"Women who take time out after having a baby or who take another kind of career sabbatical can understandably have concerns about going back to work. In technology particularly, women can often worry that the industry may have moved on. As a result, they can suffer with confidence issues, and can even end up in roles with less responsibility and lower pay.

"It is therefore crucial that employers recognise these concerns and provide high-quality support to women returning to work. This should include training, but also the offer of flexible and remote working to accommodate their change in circumstances where possible."

Sending the lift back down

Michael Drew is partner & global head of technology & IT services practice at Odgers Berndtson, an executive search firm that is rolling out a mentoring initiative to fast-track senior women in tech. He also says it's important that firms create a flexible working environment that does not discriminate against working mums.

"We talk about 'sending the lift back down' so that females earlier in their careers are sponsored and directly influenced by female executives that have progressed into senior roles," he tells Channel Pro.

Elsewhere, Sandra Dempster, director of technical learning at Getronics, thinks that women who enlist a mentor will benefit them at every stage of their career. "This can provide you with a much wider perspective on your role and the company itself. Having a trusted mentor to support you will build confidence, advocate for you, help you build relationships, and identify areas for personal development, helping you learn beyond the remit of your current role. The supportive feedback will motivate you...the list of benefits goes on."

What can the channel do?

Without stereotyping an entire gender - and (mis)quoting Liam Neeson in Taken - women do have 'a very particular set of skills' that could benefit the channel.

Subramanian believes that by excluding women from the table, businesses risk eliminating potential money-making ideas, adding that she's found women "leverage strong listening and interpersonal skills which allow them to understand their customer's unique needs and craft a solution set that is differentiated".

Asif also notes that "many women bring emotional intelligence, great energy and a true sense of collaboration to the workplace".

So aside from flagging the lack of any queue (ever) for the ladies' toilets at conferences, how can the channel find a way to encouraging more women into our industry?

Firstly, talent needs to be built on with development programmes, employee resource groups and aided by fair maternity policies, flexible working practices. In addition, companies need to create a culture that is respectful and makes women feel comfortable.

In the short term, Asif advises assessing the male to female ratio in your organisation and establishing a baseline for your channel organisation. She says firms should look at benchmark data and decide a goal of what 'success' looks like, and have a six-month engagement survey to find out if women feel a sense of inclusion. The exec also says hirers must look at data on attrition, which will reveal if there is a retention issue.

Asif adds that firms need to a way to bring earlier-in-career talent into the organisation with a path for development, as "this is critical to build a pipeline of future rock stars". She adds that businesses also need a consistent hiring process which helps overcome bias, and focus on their existing women having the most incredible employee experience - "this spreads the word quickly".

"The channel needs to be a destination for women as it is an amazing environment to work in," argues Shields. "We need women to want to join the channel and then to stay here. It's an incredible industry."

Christine Horton

Christine has been a tech journalist for over 20 years, 10 of which she spent exclusively covering the IT Channel. From 2006-2009 she worked as the editor of Channel Business, before moving on to ChannelPro where she was editor and, latterly, senior editor.

Since 2016, she has been a freelance writer, editor, and copywriter and continues to cover the channel in addition to broader IT themes. Additionally, she provides media training explaining what the channel is and why it’s important to businesses.