Why Gender Equality in Tech is Good for Business

Business is Booming

Within NI, the tech industry generated an average of £531m GVA between 2013-2015, growing 34% from 2010-2014 (TechCity, 2016).

Belfast has seen new digital tech businesses emerge by 37% in five years – which is more than double UK enterprise growth – and become Europe’s leading destination for new software development projects.

Also, the GVA to the economy per worker is more than double in tech to non-tech UK workers (TechPartnership, 2016) – all going to show that the digital tech sector adds significant value to the our local economy.

In fact, it makes the largest contribution to a regional economy outside of London and the South East. And the industry is expected to continue to grow 3% by 2025 creating around 1,000 new jobs (TechPartnership, 2016).

Is Diversity Important?

Diversity and equality in tech has become a fashionably hot topic of late, particularly with numerous high profile stories coming out of companies such as Uber and Tesla.

Locally, there are many initiatives aiming to encourage and support more women in tech including local Belfast groups such as Women Who Code, WIT Belfast Lean In, Django Girls, Women TechMakers, Code First: Girls at Queen’s University Belfast, and Belfast IT Girls at Belfast MET. 

And, it seems that all this encouragement just might be working, as Stack Overflow recently published their latest user survey which shows that most of their users with 1-3 years’ experience are female (Stack overflow, 2017).

But tech has been a mostly male-dominated industry, so why now is there so much of a conversation about women in tech? 

Well, the business case for it is pretty epic.

There is a wealth of academic literature that espouses the many benefits of diversity: it’s been shown to increase innovation (as the more diverse ideas you start with, the more likely you’re going to come to a more unique and disruptive conclusion), which in turn increases sales, profits, market share.

Interestingly, diversity also increases crisis resilience, corporate social responsibility, and reduces turnover by creating better working environments and policies for all.  Yes, it’s also documented that more diverse teams are also more complex to manage because of their differences, but with the right management, the case for diversity greatly outweighs the case against (Catalyst, 2013).

However, research shows that the tipping point for these benefits of diversity is 30%.

Currently in the UK whilst women make up 47% of the labour market, in the tech industry, they only make up 17% of all IT specialists, 23% of the industry overall, and only 11% of directors of tech companies (BCS WIT Scorecard, 2016).

If you imagine how incredibly successful the tech industry is now, imagine how much better it could be if those numbers met or surpassed the magical tipping point.

Bad News

Recent UK-wide research shows that girls quickly lose interest in tech when they transition to secondary school (which is especially disturbing considering that STEM subjects aren’t compulsory at primary level in NI), describing their lessons as “boring, repetitive and out of date” (TechPartnership, 2016); young women are actively discouraged from entering a technology career by people close to them – particularly parents (TechPartnership, 2017); and the number of women attending university to study Computer Science is remaining static whereas more men are attending, and so the overall proportion is decreasing (HESA).

Not to mention the infamous “leaky pipeline”– not only do we struggle to get women into the industry but we also apparently struggle to keep those that we have. 

For example, whilst 63% of UK male CS graduates end up in an IT specialist role, only 47% of female CS graduates do (BCS WIT Scorecard, 2016) and Europe-wide, for every 1,000 women graduates, 29 graduate in IT, and 4 of them end up working in industry (compared to 95 male IT graduates with 20 working in the field (European Commission, 2013)) – although the statistics don’t answer the question “why?”

Good News

Northern Ireland produces around 1,000 new computer science graduates a year and we are already at the forefront of the number of women in tech within the UK; with 25% of our computer science students being women (DfE, 2017) (as opposed to the UK average of 20% (HESA)), and 20% of our IT specialists – the highest rate of representation of any region in the UK (BCS WIT Scorecard, 2016).

However, we are still lower than many other European countries. 

13% of Romania’s women work in tech, as do 8% of Slovakian women (compared to less than 2% in both UK and Ireland (European Commission, 2013), 15% of Russia’s inventors are women (as opposed to 4% for the UK (BBC, 2017), and 23% of the world’s new tech billionaires in 2016 were Chinese women (TechNode, 2016).

Next Steps

Arguably, two of the main tenants of innovation theory are diversity and collaboration.

Ergo, we need to diversify our local industry to make it more successful – which includes getting the number of women in the industry and in the C-suite up to 30% (as a starting point). 

This includes policies to get more women into the industry, to make it a place that women want to stay, and to do more to help skilled women return to the industry after a hiatus.

But we need to collaborate to get there.

Different companies need to come together to share and discuss their diversity practices to improve them for the betterment of all, and these learnings need to be shared with our start-ups and small business whom may not have the resources to research this area themselves. This could perhaps be done by collaborating with our universities and their researchers.

But industry also needs to collaborate with external parties – to work with our legislators and educators so that more students:

  • are taught tech (and all STEAM subjects) throughout their schooling;
  • are taught in a way that excites and enthuses them;
  • and teaches them about all the different possibilities within the industry, more than just being a developer.

We need to work with our legislators to advance women’s rights in general, as how are we going to attract top talent from outside Northern Ireland (something which is currently actively being done within the industry) when we are one of the worst OECD countries to be a working woman? (The Economist, 2017).

And we also need to work with the greater public themselves so that parents don’t advise their children away from the industry because of incorrect and outdated stereotypes.

I sincerely believe that with these goals are achievable, and they will benefit our local industry, economy and society as a whole, and these are the long-term goals that I will be working to achieve through the Lean In – Women in Tech Belfast circle.

For anyone whom is keen to get involved and lean in, regardless of their gender, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Victoria McCallum is focused on developing technical skills to enhance her existing skill-set to build a career within the tech industry. She’s doing this through being: an apprentice software engineer at Civica; the instigator of the LeanIn Belfast Women in Tech circle; being a Women Who Code Belfast city leader; the instigator behind Code Co-op; campus ambassador and course co-ordinator at Queen’s University Belfast for Code First: Girls; and by speaking at local tech events.