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Diversity quotas in tech - good or bad? Expert panel divides

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 25, 2016
A high-powered all-woman panel debating a balanced workforce at last week's Salesforce World Tour in London rated voluntary versus mandated diversity quotas

Salesforce Diversity panel L-R Linda Aiello, Neelie Kroes, Brenda Trenowden, Jacqueline de Rojas
L-R Linda Aiello, Neelie Kroes, Brenda Trenowden, Jacqueline de Rojas

Does the tech industry have to start setting quotas to achieve faster progress towards gender equality? The answer from a group brought together to discuss diversity in the technology industry at the Salesforce World Tour London event was inconclusive. The expert panel disagreed over the notion of affirmative action to achieve a more balanced workforce.

The company brought together four highly successful and qualified women to sit on the panel:

  • Linda Aiello, head of HR EMEA at Uber
  • Neelie Kroes, Salesforce board member and ex-European Commissioner
  • Jacqueline de Rojas, area VP for Northern Europe at Citrix and the president TechUK
  • Brenda Trenowden, head of Financial Institutions Europe, head of Global Banks & DF Americas (ANZ) and global chair at the 30% Club

Diversity in technology is proving an ongoing challenge for organizations struggling to attract more female candidates to roles – the current male to female ratio stands at around 5:1. As part of the panel’s debate into the impact on the UK economy of a more balanced workforce, the issue of affirmative action came up, whether targets should be set to enforce a shift in the ratio.

Do we need quotas?

Trenowden said that the 30% Club doesn't believe in quotas in business. She explained:

I'd always rather see a voluntary target put in place first. In 2010, there were 21 all-males boards in the FTSE 100, there are no more all-male boards now. Is it fast enough and enough? Of course not, we'd like to see 50%. But it shows voluntary targets do work.

As soon as you impose something or force something on people, you open yourself up to tokenism and loss of credibility and people trying to tick a box. I think what's important for companies is to be very honest with themselves and ask themselves the question of why for each level of hiring, do we not have a diverse slate of people. Have we looked widely enough, and if not why not? Is it because we're biased?

Trenowden added that quotas would not be needed if firms took steps like avoiding just going to the usual suspects with programs for high-potential assignments or career-changing jobs. She said:

I don't advocate quotas per se, but I certainly do advocate setting targets and companies reporting on what they're doing. Unconscious bias is just that, it's unconscious. Anyone who says they don't have it, is probably wrong. There’s a lot of work to be done to unpack some of the bias and processes that are biased.

However, Kroes argued that quotas are needed to achieve real change:

I was against quotas until the 1980s, until I was aware that I need eternal life to get more balance when there isn't a quota system.

I couldn't agree more with what Brenda is saying but that's the same story I heard in the 80s. We were involved at that time [in diversity efforts], and it's still the same. I would never have gotten Commissioner for Competition if [José Manuel] Barroso at that time, as nominee for presidency for the European Commission, if he hadn’t mentioned he wanted a team that was a third female.

Trenowden conceded that there is sometimes a need to go to the extreme before you can relax the rules.

South Africa would have got nowhere without quotas and in government you might need some [quotas] in certain circumstances. If voluntary targets aren't working, then I think sometimes you do need quotas.

De Rojas said she was on the fence on the issue, but pointed out that programs and quotas do not work if organisations have an underlying cultural issue that will stop diversity from thriving.

If you have to bring women into the business that's great, but you've also probably got to have something like flexible working conditions so you can work hard anywhere. If you don't have that, then just putting women in will be a one-time thing and probably unsustainable. Anything we do has to be sustainable.

Economic benefits

The panel was quick to cite economical statistics to prove striving for a balanced workforce has concrete business benefits as well as being for the good of society.

Trenowden referenced a recent McKinsey global report, which concluded that if women were as engaged in the workforce as men currently are, by 2025 there would be an extra £26 trillion ($38tn) added to global GDP per annum, a significant economic impact. She explained:

It's not to say we need all women, and women are better or men are better. But research shows that heterogeneity leads to better decision-making. When you have more diversity in boards and senior leadership, you get better return on equity, better share price performance, all very strong reasons for the business case for more diversity.

De Rojas added a statistic of her own to back up the point. She noted that UK businesses with just one woman on the board reduce their risk of bankruptcy by at least 20%.

And the more women you add, the less risk there is to the business. So not only is it the right thing to do, but from a business perspective it makes a difference.

That wasn’t to downplay the importance of the societal element.

Trenowden remarked that based on research as well as anecdotal evidence, once firms have a better balance at the top, this creates a more inclusive and a better culture, which encourages more people to join the organization and be more engaged. She said:

We saw it with the Millennials, and we’re now seeing it with the Generation Zs. They're all really focused on that culture aspect. Those things have an immediate impact on the economy and tapping a wider talent pool.

Aiello also made the obvious yet often overlooked point that if firms are not representing their entire customer base accurately in their workforce and at board level, they are not properly servicing them or making decisions that keeps their best interests in mind.

Diversity of talent

Coming from a background in national and European government, Kroes was keen to convey that firms should not give up on diversity programs due to a lack of obvious talent. There are many women looking for work across Europe, who might not fit into current roles on offer but could be ideal candidates with the right training, she argued:

Sometimes you need to propose a special program they can fit in. We took an initiative in Brussels with a number of corporates that were badly looking for qualified technical people. Together we offered a year-long program, and at the end you were a programmer or a robotics worker. After that year, if you were successful and didn't give up, you were certain to get a job. The company paid the cost of the program and it was a big success.

Sometimes you should try to reach different backgrounds and those who aren't thinking of such a job.

De Rojas also called for change in the way that organizations write their job descriptions to help attract less traditional candidates. She said:

We don't really write them with diversity in mind. You could easily change the word engineer or coder to problem-solver, and it would be much more open to a much wider group of people. We need to spend some time doing some very quick and easy things in that regard.

But as the panel agreed, job descriptions are often written by males, and those who spend a lot of time playing video games with language like ‘command center’ and ‘mission control’, not necessarily with broad appeal for job-seekers.

And even if the job description doesn’t put off a woman from applying, they can often be put off at the next hurdle – the interview. Aiello explained:

Do the candidates see someone in the organization reflecting themselves? If hiring panels are male, stale and pale, how can you be sure the women coming in sees herself fitting in there? It's important we have diverse candidates and diverse hiring panels.

Gender stereotypes

The panel was keen for a shift in language use around gender norms and stereotypes, which assumes women take the role of mother over employee. For example, men at work rarely get asked "Are you a working father?" or if there’s a late night event, men will not get asked "Who's looking after your kids?".

Trenowden would also like to see a shift away from the term flexible working:

Even the term flexible working implies women are part time, whereas agile implies a positive thing. Lots of men work in an agile way, they just don't say it. We need to introduce agile working for women and men.

Aiello felt that men also have their part to play in this area. She gave the example of Uber’s head of operations Ryan Graves, who just took his second paternity leave, and ahead of this, sent an email to the organization letting all staff know he would be off for the next four weeks.

But it’s not just down to businesses, governments, men and hiring managers to effect a change. Some of this needs to come down to women themselves, and their attitudes to risk, confidence and support for each other. Kroes said:

We shouldn't think and expect that because you're not ready for the job today that the job will still be there a year from now. I never met a male who'll say it's not for now but a year after I should take the risk. Also failure needs to be included in addressing what your career can be.

Also we should be more collegial to other women. I always thought, I did it and I was fighting and working like hell, so why shouldn't others? That was a mistake. I should have done that differently. You need a couple of females in boards or teams; if you're the only one it's a hell of a job to change things.

Aiello agreed that women need to have more belief in themselves to help shift the gender imbalance in technology and business in general:

Within our own organizations, we need to make sure we're tapping women on the shoulder and trying to bridge the confidence gap that exists. When I was up for my role at Uber, I called my brother and said I wasn't sure about this. He said guys who think they're 30% qualified for a role will go for it, women have to think they're 8%. [He told me] Go for it! I needed that.

But sadly the prospect of reaching a totally balanced workforce seems unlikely any time soon, according to the panel. Although they agreed the number will shift upwards from the current 18% over the next 10 years, Kroes concluded:

I’m planning to be quite old but I won’t be alive [to see] 50%.

My take

As a female who has worked as a technology journalist for over 15 years, I have to side with Neelie Kroes when it comes to the need for affirmative action. Since I started covering the tech industry back in 2000, the proportion of females has actually decreased, from 25% to 20%.

This is despite years of efforts and initiatives from governments and groups such as E-Skills UK to shift the gender balance – whether coding clubs for girls or mentoring programs for women working in IT companies.

The stats are clear. More needs to be done, and it needs to be done now - for all the reasons outlined above by the expert panel. Voluntary initiatives and the 'softly softly' approach clearly haven’t worked. Quotas are needed across the technology industry to ensure more women are swiftly employed within the sector, at all levels.

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