Highlighting our worst fears - shocking lack of equality and fairness in tech

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett November 30, 2017
Women and people with a disability are treated particularly badly, a BCS diversity report reveals. Men need to help drive the change from the top.

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Diversity has become a popular buzzword across the tech industry in recent years, but a new report out today from the British Computer Society (BCS) highlights how it remains just that – a buzzword, rather than a tangible goal we’re getting closer to.

The Diversity in IT 2017 report reveals some truly shocking statistics about the state of the UK IT workforce. Here is a small selection of ones that I found particularly depressing:

  • In 2016, 51% of the UK population aged 16-plus were women, yet only 17% of IT specialists were female
  • 23% of over-16s had a disability, compared to only eight percent of IT workers
  • 45% were aged 50-plus, versus 21% in the IT industry
  • Women earned 15% less respectively than their non-minority counterparts
  • People with a disability were paid 16% less respectively

Surprisingly, the UK tech sector over-represents one minority group, as 12%  of the total population were non-white compared to 17% of IT workers from ethnic minorities. However, those individuals were more than twice as likely to be in part-time employment compared to their white counterparts, as they were unable to find full-time work.

Having covered diversity in technology for almost two decades, I am both surprised and not surprised by the findings, as for too long now there has been too much discussion and strategising, and too little actual change or real improvement.

As Dr Sue Black notes in her opening letter for the report:

Computing is too important to be left to men...– but it still mostly is. Black takes the opportunity to remind the tech industry of a few home truths, and clearly it’s a message worth repeating as the imbalance highlighted by the stats above proves:

Diversity is important for everyone. Only when we have diverse teams, diverse workforces, diverse experiences contributing to creating diverse products and services will we be creating products and services that are fit for all of us. Diversity brings strength.

Take the example of the automated point of sale machines in supermarkets. I’m sure we have all experienced the ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ moment of frustration. Do you think the team that developed those automated POS machines was diverse? Do you think there were people on the team that shopped regularly in a supermarket? I’m guessing not.

Dr Black has a less pessimistic attitude to the diversity battle than my initial response on reading the report findings.

You could say that this report paints a dismal picture in terms of diversity and women in tech, we are nowhere near 50/50 male to female in the industry. But I believe that we are at a tipping point of a revolution in technology and also in awareness of the importance of diversity.

I’ve seen massive change over the last few years in attitudes towards diversity in tech, from being asked when setting up BCSWomen in 1997: ‘Why are you ghettoising yourself?’; I now regularly get asked: ‘How can we encourage more women to work in our tech department?’

Next generation skills

The fact that the BCS launched its report the same day the UK government was hosting its first DfE Skills Summit may be a coincidence, but there is a definite link between the two.

The aim of the Skills Summit is to get businesses involved in helping to train the next generation of highly skilled British workers, so sorely needed to future-proof the UK economy. As part of the push, the government plans to launch new Institutes of Technology, collaborations by employers, colleges and universities specialising in science, technology, engineering and maths, which will focus on filling skills gaps.

The Diversity in IT 2017 report lays bare how big a challenge this will be for the tech sector. The number of IT workers has grown rapidly since the start of the decade, from 1.043 million in 2011, accounting for 3.55% of the UK workforce; to 1.293 million in 2016, accounting for 4.1% of all jobs. The growth will continue as the UK pushes its ambitions to be a world leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but unfortunately this will likely lead to more skills shortages. In 2016, over one-third of IT recruiters had tech vacancies that were hard-to-fill, according to the ONS.

What should be clear to the government and UK businesses is, if we don’t tackle the diversity problem in tech and get more minority groups enthused about working in the sector, and treated fairly and equally once they do embark on an IT career, then our chances of having enough skilled IT specialists to support the 4IR will fail miserably.

Rebecca George OBE, Vice Chair, Public Sector Lead at Deloitte and Vice-President, BCS Organisation and Employers Board, said that to tackle the diversity issue head on, we need to start at the top:

Men run most of the organisations in our sector, so we have to start there. As they are four times more likely than women to say that they are don’t see discrimination happening, we clearly need to change the entire way that they think.

We need to point out to them why they need to change the way that they encourage, recruit, promote, recognise and reward people from our identified minority groups is vitally important. They need to do it in their role as business leaders, but also in their roles as fathers, grandparents, uncles and cousins.

I had the chance to have a very brief catch-up over email with Dr Black – she went straight from participating in the BCS launch event via video-link to hosting a Python coding workshop for women – to hear her advice for next steps. She shared these top tips for organisations that truly want to get a more diverse IT workforce:

  • Look at your culture – is it female/diversity friendly?
  • Put a plan together to start making change happen
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Tell everyone what you are doing

My take

If just one person in every company across the UK took it upon themselves to start working on those four stages highlighted by Dr Black, we might see a more meaningful shift in the diversity stats by the time of the next BCS report. Don’t leave it to someone else in your company, or think it’s only the realm of senior management or HR. Take the initiative, start jotting down some notes about what you’d like to see change at your company, and get talking to others in the business.

I agree with Rebecca George that it is mostly men who have the power to effect this change – but the more employees raising diversity in tech as an issue to the CEO and board, the more likely they are to actually do something about it.