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Are female diversity initiatives in tech an outdated way of pursuing equality?

26 September 2019 by Grant Brummer
Canva   Woman In Red Shirt Beside Woman In White Shirt (27 Sept 2019)

In the UK, and across the world, it’s widely acknowledged that the technology industry has a diversity problem. Time and again, facts and figures are released showing the huge gender disparity within the sector. With women making up just 16.8% of the UK tech workforce, change couldn’t come any sooner. However, the jury is out on the best method to achieve this. While many targeted programs claim to achieve success, they often trigger accusations of tokenism and discrimination. So, why are so many female diversity initiatives in tech viewed as outdated, and what really is the best method to get more women into tech?

Female diversity initiatives lead to tokenism

The one major accusation in tech that is leveled at female diversity initiatives is that they lead to tokenism, with women progressing on the basis of gender, and not ability – meaning that the issue is never truly addressed. This is especially the case regarding methods such as quotas. There are a number of examples indicating the ineffectiveness of these types of approaches. The largest instance of this is Norway. When the country introduced quotas for the number of women in boardrooms in 2006, it did not lead to an overall increase in female talent.

In fact, what happened was that the same group of very senior women began occupying numerous boardroom spots in non-executive roles. These women picked up position after position, eventually becoming known as the golden skirts. So, while companies technically achieved the quota of 40% female board members, they were all the same women – with no increase in actual numbers of female talent– clearly not a remedy for diversity.

Ignorance of wider diversity

Furthermore, initiatives solely targeted at women are often labelled as outdated due to their prioritisation over other forms of diversity. While it’s very easy to hold gender as the marker for progress within an organisation, it’s not the only form of diversity. Authentic diversity will embrace race, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, thought and experience.

Failure to create lasting change

Simply bringing a woman on to the board, or a certain number of women into a company is also not a guarantee of lasting change. Research shows that a critical mass of women at board level is needed to guarantee that their voices are heard and that they have an impact on the organisation as a whole.

Additionally, getting buy-in for diversity policies at the top is often easier than embedding them throughout the business. It’s not enough to have supporters sitting at the boardroom table, when a steady balance is needed throughout the organisation.

A better option, long term targets

In most cases, it’s clear that mandating change by quota or forcing diversity training on individuals tends to backfire. Consequently, a preferable option is to introduce long term targets.

In order to meet these, companies would be obliged to create longstanding, sustainable plans to create functioning pipelines. This would also push employers to invest more in developing female talent from the beginning of their career – a far more beneficial approach than arbitrary measures aimed at merely ticking boxes.

Making the business case

The reason many female diversity initiatives may hit an impasse, in tech and other industries, is due to heavily entrenched ideas that there is no true business value to boosting gender diversity.
Therefore, being more vocal about the business case for diversity – the fact that any workforce should mirror its customer or client base -  would have a much larger beneficial effect than enacting targeted programs – and perhaps remove the need for them in the first place.

There is a wealth of evidence to show that having more gender diversity is good for a company’s bottom line, with one McKinsey study in the USA finding that closing the wage gap could add $2.1 trillion to the country’s economy. Once this is ingrained in all levels of management, the disparity will be far easier to reduce.

Mentoring and early outreach

One of the main issues with current female diversity initiatives in tech is that they focus on the problem too late in the pipeline, ignoring the fact that boosting participation through mentoring and early outreach is arguably far more effective.

In fact, there’s plenty of research available to suggest that attitudes about what constitutes men and women’s work and areas of study start very early on. By going into schools, and showing girls the wide variety of paths available via a career in tech, there will be no need for added action to correct the imbalance later on. There are a number of organisations that do good work in this regard, such as BlackGirlsCode, an organisation going in to schools with the aim of teaching 1 million girls aged 7-17 how to code by 2040.

It’s the approach that counts

In an ideal world, hiring should be based on merit and equal opportunity. Forcing gender balance, or any sort of diversity balance through arbitrary measures may only lead to questions over the credibility and worth of female success – which may cause more harm than progress. When efforts are geared towards early outreach, and making the value of diversity clearly known throughout a company, there will be far less of a need to implement certain initiatives, and less resistance to the ones that are put in place. By focusing on boosting female inclusion from school age onward, and ensuring that there are mentoring programs and clear routes of progression for women in organisations, the tech sector can truly address gender disparity.

Looking for talent? At Skillfinder International we have a wealth of experience in sourcing highly skilled tech workers in across 22 countries globally. Diversity and inclusion lie at the heart of our business, and we’d be happy to assist your organisation in boosting gender equality.

Contact us today