It has become increasingly clear that the pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on the careers of many working women.
In fact, according to a global study of 20,000 professionals around the world conducted by professional social media network LinkedIn, a huge 49% across all sectors have seen their careers either being set back or put on hold over the last year.
To make matters worse, 43% of the women questioned had either considered leaving or had left the workforce temporarily or permanently. This situation was mainly the result of having to take on additional domestic and caring responsibilities but also, in just over a quarter of cases, due to a lack of support from their employer.
Times were just as tough for women in tech during the pandemic as they were elsewhere, with many having had to juggle the demands of work and home life in difficult circumstances. But for all that, the industry has not seen a “mass exodus” of female talent, says Amanda Whicher, Senior Business Director at recruitment agency Hays Technology, although undoubtedly “some in the contractor community did stop working”.
Female job candidates on the rise
Indeed, over more recent times, she has actually seen an increase in the number of female candidates for certain roles, such as business analysis, programme, project and service management, which require softer organisational and people skills than other more technical positions and so are usually considered a more traditional ‘female domain’ anyway. Whicher explains:
Females have traditionally tended not to move into more hard core technology roles, such as infrastructure and software development, which tend to be more male-oriented. There are more women in technical jobs now than three years ago, but not enough to really change things.
As for the rise in female candidates, she puts this down to various factors, ranging from a widespread shift to more flexible working approaches within the tech industry to an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion among many employers following the death of George Floyd and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But in times of such deep skills shortages as today when Whicher is seeing demand up 40% on pre-pandemic levels for temporary, permanent and fixed-term contract workers, she believes there is scope for employers to be more imaginative in how they source, attract and engage female talent.
On the one hand, this means being prepared to take on women with transferrable skills and train them up. On the other, it is about moving beyond the usual talent pool haunts, which continue to generate similar candidates year in, year out. Whicher explains:
For example, employers could work with community groups to engage women by going to where they are, so perhaps to antenatal or mother and baby groups. IT training could also be offered to parents during the day at their children’s school - but it needs to be affordable.
Another possible option for women who can afford it is using specialist training and recruitment organisations, such as UK-based Supermums, which specialises in Salesforce skills. It launched a month-long awareness campaign entitled #MumsSkillUp at the start of October to encourage mothers without a technical background to re-skill.
The goal is to highlight potential career opportunities in areas, such as systems administration, business analysis, CRM and project management, while also encouraging potential candidates to sign up to the organisation’s ‘Five Day Challenge’.
The Challenge requires mums to undertake a “bite-sized task” each day in order to learn more about what a career in systems administration would entail so they can assess whether it is right for them. If interested, they can sign up for a six-month online accredited training course and 12 months of support, which includes a continuing professional development programme and an ongoing Slack-based get-together for alumni, for a total of £2,040 (US$2,817). Heather Black, Supermums’ CEO, explains the rationale behind the Challenge:
We’re running the campaign for a month initially to shine a light on the fact that furlough [in the UK] is coming to an end at the same time as the ‘Great Resignation’ is taking place. So if someone’s been made redundant and is wondering what to do next or perhaps wondering whether to stay in their current job, it may feel like it’s a timely point to retrain.
The power of transferrable skills
To date, most of the 500 or so women who have been through the company’s training programmes since it opened its doors in November 2016 have had some level of management experience, which means they are used to dealing with processes, managing people and have sound communication and relationship-building skills. As Black says:
Many people used to be managers in sectors, such as retail, hospitality and leisure, but when it all ground to a halt during the pandemic, they looked at how to use their transferrable skills in different ways. And when employers are looking for people in tech, they want business experience. You can teach people technical skills, but having existing knowledge and understanding of a particular industry is invaluable.
As to what it is that makes most women decide to switch to a career in tech, Black points out:
Salary and flexibility definitely play a part. People can double their salary in 10 years by putting the work in and undertaking lifelong learning. But it’s also a more resilient career as we’re starting to see the death of some industries.
In terms of how employers can better support female employment, meanwhile, she makes four key recommendations:
- Introduce a four day week, not least because not only does it make the life of someone with caring responsibilities easier, but it also enhances productivity.
- Expand internships beyond the usual graduate pool to encompass more mature candidates.
- Create an inclusive culture at all levels, which covers everything from recruitment to day-to-day meetings.
- Invest in coaching and support for areas ranging from mental health and wellbeing to career progression.
I agree wholeheartedly with Whicher that if tech employers really do want to address the deep skills shortage and their gender diversity challenges at the same time, they must start going to the places where women actually are rather than relying on the same old talent pools that have been generating the same old kinds of candidates for years. They also need to start looking at the potential hidden in transferrable skills as they may find that the combination of a little training and a lot of care truly make all the difference.