DEBIASING TECH: Debiasing Tech Teams

06 Apr 2021

To break new ground in technology we must first break down the blind biases that are limiting female technologists from achieving their enormous potential.

This article is the second article in the ‘Debiasing Tech’ content series, produced by the BIMA Tech Council.

Below, four senior tech and diversity leaders answer a handful of the most important questions affecting tech team inclusion and innovation.

1. Why is gender equality no longer just important, but urgent?

KL – Many companies who employ technologists have their hearts in the right place. They’re implementing fair hiring policies, investing in RD&I initiatives and trying to attract female talent, but ultimately still failing to see a high number of women entering the tech industry. 

With only 27% of women (compared to 61% of men)1 considering a career in tech, studies have shown that the reason for the disparity is mainly due to a lack of female mentors and role models – senior women in technology.

That’s why it’s urgent to establish gender equality measures in the workplace now, because, until the new wave of young women in tech reach positions of power, the next generation of young women simply won’t see a space for them in the tech industry, with a knock-on effect for many years to come. 

SA– It’s never not been urgent. Gender equality affects every single person, and it must be prioritised to ensure that our workplaces, societies, and policies work for everyone, not just those in leadership roles.

2. What are the issues/ barriers keeping the gender gap open in tech teams?

IO – Firstly we need equality in education. Women are still under-represented in STEM subjects and tech courses, accounting for less than a third. There are many reasons for this, including lack of role models or social bias. However, the real concern is those women that make it through education. Reports show a dropout rate of up to 50% as women move through the ranks in tech. Speaking to tech teams, the challenge seems to be culture. Without an inclusive culture, diversity can be tokenist. Male dominant, male-led teams are more likely to be loud and competitive, drowning out equally talented female voices. 

AL – The fundamental fault is that the sheer numbers at whatever level are imbalanced. The lack of numbers is stuck with us for years still. The seed for this is set in schools. When I contributed to a careers fair at my local secondary school very few 6th formers approached the tech careers representatives, even by then tech was not attractive to most.

3. Where are you seeing real systemic change, beyond simply tracking gender quotas?

SA – When organisations take accountability for the harm they have caused and put steps in place to rectify it. When people measure inclusion and not just diversity representation. One without the other is fruitless – representation means nothing if these people don’t feel included – knowing that their voices are heard and insights are actioned.

KL – Change has to come through culture. It’s not enough to simply hire more women and expect them to thrive in a male-shaped work environment; women need to be allowed to shape their workplace to match their expectations and needs. 

Language training, workplace sensitivity, equal pay and bonuses, and fostering inter-office support networks can go a long way towards creating a more welcoming environment. 

The main change I’ve really seen has been through companies working with organisations like Code First Girls and Coding Black Females to learn from their mistakes, open their doors a little wider, and embrace the spirit of equality, not just through numbers. 

4. Has an increasingly distributed and remote workforce made things better or worse?

IO – It’s just made things worse. The Covid-19 data is clear. Women are leaving the workplace in huge numbers. In addition to women being more likely to suffer from stress and take on more responsibility at home and at work, it’s easier for female colleagues to become anonymous when faced with a dominant male culture. It’s also harder to see where the issues lie and how, as leadership, you can best support your team. This reality doesn’t have to be the case, but it does take commitment from tech leaders to recognise the challenges women are facing and work to create a more inclusive workspace. 

KL – Pre-COVID, the general sentiment has been that working remotely has harmed womens’ chances of integrating into the ‘Boy’s Club’ of workplace culture, and risking being passed over for opportunities and promotion. 

However, since COVID, several women I’ve talked to have almost universally felt positive benefits from the lockdown, citing that platforms like Zoom give them more of a fair basis in which to make their voices heard. Simple tech like group muting and audio priority have coincided with the need to make space for each other in conversation, allowing more women to feel able to hold court in meetings. 

5. What practical actions can tech leaders take today to address gender equality?

AL – One source of passive prejudice is unfamiliarity.  This is as true for gender as it is for disability and the other differences we have between us.  This is why role models are important, but a role model need not be the chief.  Think of your tech teams and ask yourself how many of your male developers have ever had their code reviewed by a female?   Thus, the action is to urgently seek to embed at least one female in every team, so that your male team members work with women in the same roles, reviewing code, contributing to stand-ups and all the ceremonies of tech life. 

IO – 1. Recognise your bias and ensure that you have a diverse group shaping how you tackle diversity. Your white, male leadership team won’t come up with the right answers. Include women, no matter how senior they are.

2. Make DNI measurable, such as scoring your managers on whether their team think they create the right culture. Create KPIs for each team member to do one thing that promotes DNI. 

3. Remember, you won’t always get things right; creating a space for people to learn, ask questions and not be afraid of saying the wrong thing is much more important. 

Many thanks to Sheree Atcheson, Andrew Liles, Ingrid Olmesdahl and Kim Lawrie for their contributions.

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