Despite the tech industry’s seemingly endless launches of well-meaning gender-based diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, the situation for women is still not where it should be.
According to a survey of 1,200 male and female tech workers conducted by IT services company NTT Data UK, for example, just under three quarters of women have had a negative experience at work based on their gender. Some 59% felt they had been spoken down to, 49% felt subjected to biased behaviour and 34% experienced downright discrimination.
Moreover, while just over two thirds of men believe women have equal access to promotion and progression opportunities, only a quarter of their female colleagues agree, implying the continued existence of systemic, and largely unconscious, problems.
On the other hand, given the male-dominated nature of the tech industry and its preponderance of male leaders, it would seem clear that men have a vital role to play in supporting their female workmates and helping them to flourish - a concept that is often referred to these days as ‘allyship’. As defined by the Neuroleadership Institute, allyship is:
When someone is aware of, and uses, one’s advantaged position in a specific domain, to advocate for people in less advantaged positions.
This means not just being aware of burning issues, attending street protests or making friends with members of a minority group, but rather taking action on an ongoing, day-to-day basis to help support and build the confidence of those who have not enjoyed the same privileges as yourself. As Bev White, Chief Executive of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash Group, points out:
People grab and roll with the term, but it does come with responsibility. It’s important not just to see it as a word - it’s about saying ‘I stand up for the women around me and this is why doing so is important to me’. It’s not a badge, but a state of being, which includes role modelling how to interact and behave.
The ultimate aim, particularly in the case of leaders, she believes, is to generate cultural change by “really showing up, encouraging people to behave in a different way and putting the spotlight on female talent”, which often requires that organisations “rewire themselves”. For example, White says:
If you see or hear inappropriate behaviour, you have to call it out, even if it was said in ‘jest’. It’s about respect and it starts with day-to-day actions. Activities, such as allyship and mentorship, are accelerants for this, but you need the right culture to be there in the first place for them to work.
The importance of removing headwinds
Seb Britten, Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Senior Director of IT and Lead Team Sponsor for Gender Equality, agrees:
It’s not so much about who can or can’t do what. It’s more a question of removing headwinds - and using your position as a leader to remove them is critical. In my role as Senior Director for IT, I can support and ensure the right recruitment and mentorship processes are in place. I can ensure the right assignments and career planning are in place. And I can ensure they’re gender-neutral so that we have a meritocracy. In other words, it’s about using your privileged position for good.
Like White, he also believes that positive role-modelling is crucial:
Role modelling the right behaviour by leadership is absolutely key because ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. For example, it’s important to model flexible working and incorporate it in your own working patterns, which includes leaving the office early sometimes or doing the school run in the morning. It helps people normalise the conversation so they feel they can take advantage of the situation too. It’s one thing to say someone can access this or that programme or support, but it’s quite a different matter if a senior manager takes action on it.
Another important activity includes providing equality and inclusion training in order to raise awareness of the challenges that others face. Driving “dialogue actively and persistently across the total organization” in a way that feels psychologically safe for all participants is also vital. Britten explains:
It’s very important for people to feel they can get involved in dialogue in a safe environment, so they can learn from, engage with, and support others. Without that, you run the risk of not getting complete engagement from across the organisation. This is a very complex issue and you have to bring the whole organisation along, not just one component of it, or change won’t be sustainable.
But such change is starting to become more embedded within P&G, says Britten:
We’re now seeing three key things: there’s more understanding and empathy among men for their female colleagues and, as they internalise the concepts, we’re seeing them spread more widely through the male population versus just having a couple of champions. We’re also seeing some great examples of mentorship and allyship as well as more role-modelling of expected behaviours – not just in direct reports but across the whole organization.
Another company that has worked hard to evolve its culture over the last four years, meanwhile, is IT infrastructure and services provider, Softcat. In order to help its employees gain a better “baseline understanding of what minority groups face” though, says Anushka Davies, the company’s Head of Talent, Engagement and Diversity, the decision was taken to launch an allyship program in June 2020.
Although the ‘Stronger Together’ initiative was not dedicated to women’s interests alone, it was intended to give them and their colleagues a safe space in which to learn, discuss and challenge themselves and each other. So far, about 900 employees out of a total of 1,750 have participated in the voluntary, three-part scheme, which consists of small groups getting together over the course of seven hours. Davies explains the rationale:
We didn’t want to mandate it as otherwise people go in with closed minds and the point is to have healthy discussions. There’s quite a lot of pre-work involved so attendees are asked to read and watch various videos in advance, and then they’re given the opportunity to chat and get to know each other. We launched the programme during the pandemic, which meant it had to be virtual, but it actually meant people were more able to open up and felt safer as they were in their own homes. So I’m not sure we’ll do face-to-face in future as it works so well. We just want people to have a growth mind set and understand more about others.
But she adds that the program is considered just the start of the process rather than an end in itself:
We all have external customers, so we’re trying to show that there’s a human behind the job title, whether it’s a colleague, customer, family friend or someone you’ve known for years. It’s about continuous learning to ensure you don’t put others in a box and that you open up to other’s perspectives. Just attending three workshops doesn’t make you an ally though. It helps people start the journey and opens the door. It also gives them the confidence to call in inappropriate behaviour.
At the end of the program, attendees are asked to make a personal commitment to being a better ally in future. Examples here might include male employees agreeing to join the ‘Women at Softcat’ group in order to gain a better understanding of their challenges and what can be done to help. Over time, a further aim is to launch a more advanced ‘Allyship Champions’ programme to provide established allies with ideas on how to become more proactive.
As ever with such things, just introducing a few one-off DEI programmes and hoping that they’ll stick simply won’t cut it. Approaches like allyship, while useful, are really just a jumping off point to help create an inclusive, respectful and supportive company culture but can never be enough in and of themselves.