Tackling the gender imbalance — why tech must lead the way

tech

UKTN regular columnist Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, discusses the gender pay gap and how the tech industry can lead the way to eradicate it. 

The #MeToo movement, Sir Philip Green, Brett Kavanaugh’s US Supreme Court nomination hearing — the global conversation on gender equality is reaching an all-time high. In the midst of it all, one number stands above the rest in the UK— 18.4%. As of June 2018, that is where the gender pay gap stands in this country.

This year, Equal Pay Day — the day women effectively stop earning relative to men until the end of the year — fell on 10th November. It is the strongest representation of the substantial gender pay gap that exists, and is symbolic of the wider gender inequality that remains deeply-engrained.

Each year the day helps to raise awareness of this lingering issue in society, but one thing more worrying than the inequality itself — UK’s Equal Pay Day has remained the same for the past two years.

Despite starting our journey and being spurred on by the consistent presence of the #MeToo movement in the headlines, we as a society are still very much at the bottom of the equality mountain.

One field in particular can lead the charge — the tech sector has the capacity and responsibility to enact real, lasting change, and one can argue it is to be expected.

Tech companies like Google and Uber have been at the heart of the gender equality conversation for years. The recent Google walkout saw over 20,000 employees protesting the company’s lack of diversity, and its poor handling of sensitive issues.

Today’s digital giants carry a great societal role as trailblazers and innovators — this needs to be matched by their social and ethical responsibility. Not only that, they ought to act as an inspiration and role model to companies who are the tech giants of tomorrow.

The fact that a diverse and inclusive workforce brings substantial benefits to a company is overlooked all too often. Research from McKinsey has shown that balanced and diverse teams boost revenues, productivity, and creativity, not to mention the ethical standing of a company.

Just last week at Web Summit, the co-founder of communications giant Slack, Cal Henderson, praised the value of diversity and showed the growing awareness of up-and-coming companies to address the imbalance.

Whilst the private sector has a responsibility to ensure that steps are taken to improve gender equality in the workplace, the problem remains systemic. We need to inspire more women to join the industry, and this work starts from the ground up. It is disappointing that, while two out of three girls aspire to study STEM subjects in primary school, only 20 per cent take computer science at GCSE, and that drops to 10 per cent for A-level.

Much work can and must be done in shifting those statistics, with profiling role models as perhaps the most important element for young girls. Organisations like Code First: Girls, led by Amali de Alwis, are making a great contribution to this field — they need to be supported, and their lead should be followed.

This is part of the reason that Tech London Advocates founded the Women In Tech Working Group led by Sarah Luxford and the Road to One Million campaign to create one million tech jobs in the capital by 2023, which aims to boost gender diversity in the industry as a core pillar. The private sector must first understand the scale of the diversity problem and then create an environment where tech jobs are more accessible to everyone, tapping into a wider pool of talent.

While the focus is often on large companies and cultural changes in their systems, we must ensure that smaller businesses are part of the conversation as well. A company’s culture must be developed early on, as it becomes increasingly difficult to build a diverse and inclusive workforce as a business scales.

Fast growth businesses are the big corporates of tomorrow, and we need to see emerging companies taking real steps to improve diversity.

While we still lack a designated official body that regulates and oversees diversity and inclusion issues in the tech sector, The Tech Talent Charter, led by Debbie Forster and Sinead Bunting, is a step in the right direction — setting guidelines around diverse tech hiring and creating balanced workforces.

Every year, Equal Pay Day acts as a stark reminder of just how far we have left to go, and the tech industry in particular must take responsibility to bring about change.

Tech companies are synonymous with innovation and disruption, and we cannot accept old-fashioned prejudice — now is the time to act and step by step we can erase Equal Pay Day from our calendars.