Following last week’s column by NHS Digital’s director of implementation on closing the gender gap in technology, Lisa Emery, CIO of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, talks about the scale of the challenge and that the real change will come only if we create the right environment. 

The Tech Talent Charter was founded by a number of organisations across the recruitment, technology  and social enterprise fields to increase gender diversity in the tech workforce in the UK; and was supported in the government’s policy paper on the UK Digital Strategy in March 2017 .

Since early 2017 the charter has widened its reach and now garners the support of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) who are leading on the digital skills agenda for the UK government.

The DCMS was the first government department to sign up to the charter with secretary of state Matt Hancock, stating that “you can’t catch all the fish if you only fish in half the pool, and if we want Britain’s tech industry to prosper we should be using the talents of the whole nation.”

NHS Digital’s Eve Roodhouse recently welcomed the government’s signature of the charter. Eve chairs the Women’s Network at NHS Digital and praised the organisation’s “talented women” who were “pushing the boundaries.”It was also great to see a female employee of NHS Digital being recognised at the recent Women in IT awards.

The scale of the challenge

In its 2017 report Diversity in IT, BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT found that just 17% of IT specialists were female.

The Tech Talent Charter quotes this statistic, adding that “only one in ten females are currently taking A-Level computer studies, and yet there is a looming digital skills gap where the UK needs one million more tech workers by 2020.  Half the population cannot be ignored, and nor should it be, if there is to be a more diverse, inclusive, fairer and commercially successful tech workforce and industry”.

Whilst acknowledging that diversity encompasses much more than gender, the charter asserts that “the low number of women in tech is by far the most pressing issue at present”

It aims to mirror the success in the US of the 2002 ‘Rooney Rule’ which required members of the National Football League to interview minority candidates for certain roles, and led to a significant increase in the number of African American coaches.

There are now over 125 signatories to the charter, including Dell, HP and Cisco. Signing up obliges organisations to commit to actively promote the appointment of women into technical roles, and to collect and submit anonymised data to contribute to annual diversity reporting.

It recognises that signatories will need to “define their own timetable for change and implement the strategy that is right for their organisation” and must pledge to “having a senior-level, named representative with responsibility for the Charter commitments”.

Start early

This is all really positive, but largely focusses on the here and now, addressing issues facing those already in, or about to commence, work. It’s my firm belief we need to start much earlier – in our schools and communities.

Although a new computing curriculum was introduced in the UK in 2014 with the aim of encouraging more kids in to careers in STEM, this is still to bear fruit and there remains a prevailing view that science and tech are a ‘man’s game’.

Much of the focus is on the more technical aspects of IT, whereas we increasingly need to see technology as a change agent, requiring a breadth of skills to get the best from it.

Change needs to happen right across the board – in our schools, homes, communities, and employers. Ultimately there can only be positives to come from increased diversity in STEM, and it is down to us all as leaders to actively promote this.

Set the agenda

We need to get ourselves out there – talking in schools, bringing female colleagues to conferences and events, making sure that agendas show balance in terms of presenters and contributors.

Talk about science and technology with your kids and young relatives; foster the natural inquisitiveness they have. Girls are just as glued to phones, tablets and other tech as boys, but somehow we’re just not translating that to the possibility of careers related to science and technology.

Use social media channels to promote groups and events and to support and champion women who are out there leading the way.

There is an increasing array of fabulous initiatives aimed at promoting women in STEM. It’s important that we actively get behind these – and that means more than just the occasional half-hearted retweet.

It means getting out there and role-modelling.

Although it can feel uncomfortable and a little contrived at times, try to come out of your comfort zone at events – it’s too easy to fall in with the same group of people.

Encourage your male colleagues to introduce themselves to female peers, and to include them in their networks. Challenge event organisers where you see a lack of female input to the agenda.

Men still make most of the hiring decisions in tech. This is not to say that men don’t wish to see change – but it can be harder for them to recognise quite how difficult it can be for a woman to walk into a male-dominated environment.

Thankfully I can honestly say that I can see real change in the time I’ve been working in science and tech, but there is much still to do to create the right environment now, and into the future. We all have a responsibility to make it happen.