How not to think about gender in tech

When I think about the tech industry today, I’m not entirely happy with what I see. It’s full of bright, talented individuals – salespeople, developers, researchers, data scientists and more. But the female faces are few and far between. I’ve been surrounded by the issue of gender diversity ever since I left university. So why are so many businesses still struggling to get equal representation in the workplace?

There is a lot of noise being made about diversity in tech, and for good reason. Only a couple of months ago, for example, we were confronted with the unpleasant sight of Google’s former head of diversity founding a museum celebrating Jack the Ripper (having originally applied to construct a memorial to East End women). Added to this are the diversity figures for some of the world’s biggest tech firms, which are improving but still not up to modern expectations.

Maybe the fact that employment figures within tech firms are being publicised at all represents a step forward. And certainly, it is commonly acknowledged that there are more opportunities for women in the sector than ever before, thanks to a variety of initiatives (increasing funds devoted to STEM education, the proliferation of friendly learning environments such as General Assembly). But this doesn’t necessarily translate into equality.

Instead of just compiling a list of strategies and tactics for improving gender balance, I thought I’d focus on some of the errors many tech companies have made – and continue to make – when addressing diversity. (I put our company, Signal, in this bracket too.) There are countless lessons that companies today can learn from analysing the mistakes of others. But perhaps the most important thing for people to recognise is that when it comes to diversity, misjudgments are much more far-reaching than other business decisions. They can impact lives, in a very real sense.

Perhaps the most important factor in improving gender balance is to move away from thinking that the issue is solved in its entirety by the hires themselves. This attitude can cause companies to rest on their laurels once they’ve hired a few female engineers, but beginning to bring women on board is hardly a sign of success. A company should only be classed as representative when women are an instrumental part of the organisation at every level – and that means the boardroom too.

Attaining true gender equality in the workplace is down to culture just as much as the number of female faces. This means paying women doing the same job as well as men; it also means that women should be a part of promotion discussions as often as is feasible. Organisations such as the 30% Club, which campaigns for 30% of FTSE 100 boards to be made up of women, are doing a good job of calling attention to this kind of inequality. But when we’re talking about the tech space, such bodies are rare.

Some might say that tech firms that are slack on diversity are victims of circumstance. And yes, bigger companies who were growing fast throughout the 1990s and 2000s – Microsoft is an excellent example, but it is by no means alone here – were, in some ways, victims of their own success. In the period just before diversity at work was pushed to the top of the agenda, rapid hiring meant taking on the tech talent which came your way: in that time period, that largely meant men.

Today, tech businesses (especially startups, that are building teams from scratch) have no excuse not to bring the right mix of employees on board. Rohan Silva, an integral part of London’s tech scene, recently wrote an evocative article celebrating women within the industry, and research backs up his arguments. As well as the legal and moral importance of equal representation, there is plentiful evidence to show that teams with an even gender balance actually demonstrate better performance.

Signal’s hiring policy, when it comes to female representation, could have been better, and our proportion of female employees is still a way off where we’d like it to be. This is partly a consequence of the sector we work in, yes, but it is on companies themselves not to take the easy route and just employ the first well-qualified bloke who walks through the door.

I suppose the fact that we’re consciously thinking about this issue at all is a good thing, but – paradoxically – we can’t call the job done until we’ve stopped talking about it, and equal representation has become completely unremarkable. Let’s hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

Lucy Power works at media monitoring startup Signal on marketing and new business development