Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
November 9, 2022

Opening doors in tech

We had our end of financial year meeting the other day.

Sure, there was much talk of performance and analytics, new hires and new objectives, but looking around the room I couldn’t help but notice the representation on display and, yes, it matters.  

We have far from cracked it – no one has and, of course, there is always more to do; complacency will always be a derailer – but looking around at my colleagues was something of a relief.

After all, with everything else going on in the world, there is a risk that representation, as an issue, might be pushed to the sidelines. From political churn in Downing Street to geopolitical instability, cost of living challenges to financial market turbulence, navigating this new environment is hardly straightforward. But that’s exactly why difference is so important – together, we are better placed to see around corners.

And you may take my perspective with a healthy pinch of salt.

I may have only been at Spencer Stuart for a little over a year but throughout my career I’ve somehow found myself prioritising conversations and actions around equity and inclusion. It’s a big part of the reason that I shifted careers from the legal field to what I do now. Diversity of approaches and points of view help fuel improved performance. Diverse teams are proven to come up with new ways to solve problems and create new products, as well as offering up the mix of skills and experiences so vital in traversing this new world we find ourselves in. It’s one of those often too rare areas in which the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do.

Such messages were on full display at Computer Weekly’s recent Most Influential Women in UK Technology 2022 event. I had the good fortune to attend as a facilitator and I was immediately struck by the whiff of positivity in the air – which is not always the case as fatigue, frustration and cynicism can understandably creep through the cracks.

The tech industry is such a crucial part of the UK economy and is projected to be worth £30bn by 2030 – six times larger than today – but did you know, for example, that while 50% of workers in the UK labour market as a whole are women, in tech, it’s just 26%? Such challenges extend far beyond our borders too. For example, just 17% of ICT specialists globally are women and only 34% of STEM graduates in the EU are women. And these are just a few statistics – there are plenty more out there – and so it is easy to feel diffident and defeated.

So why the positivity at the Computer Weekly event?

Well, the good news is that more women than ever are entering the tech industry and female participation is higher than it has ever been. The pace of change, admittedly, is slow – a 50/50 gender split is projected to be met only by 2060 – but this was a room filled with women and men seeking to make a difference, celebrating the women who had. And my dear friend, Flavilla Fongang, was crowned the “Most Influential Woman in UK Tech”. It was joyful to behold.

So what can be done to quicken the pace and make lasting changes? Here are a few tips which work for all industries that I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Entry requirements. Think critically through some of your gating requirements. Does a graduate into the engineering team really need a STEM degree? Instead of thinking, “but, they don’t have C and D”, could you think, “we have C and D in abundance, this person will bring X and Y, and we are short on that”?
  • Jury duty. Do you have a well-represented panel of interviewers and decisions makers when you are hiring? We all have our blind spots but, luckily, we tend not to share them. Like with most things, think of teams. Challenge each other. But this is also about the candidate experience; how will this person feel about the process? How will this reflect on your employer brand in the context of underrepresented talent?
  • Data dividends. Hold yourself accountable across multiple dimensions. This is not about tokenism or preferential treatment – it’s about consciously seeking equity and shifting the dial.
  • Ditch “Fit”. If you are consciously and commendably seeking to build out better representation across your organisation, expect it to feel uncomfortable. Be prepared for biases to appear and do not give in to the temptation to let these biases hide under the term “Fit”. Lift that mossy rock and look underneath. Confront yourself. Disrupt yourself.
  • Beyond inclusion to belonging. Once you have talent through the door, do not expect them to try to “fit in”. This cannot be their task alone. How is the organisation making space? Leaders, this is disproportionately on you. Are the leaders of the organisation visibly and consistently welcoming of challenge, different approaches and styles? Are leaders demonstrably unwilling to tolerate poor and non-inclusive behaviours? We do not want our people spending their energy on maintaining an armour or mask when they come into work. That energy would be much better spent elsewhere.
  • Listen, don’t assume. So many well-intentioned programmes for change and inclusion fall by the wayside because they have not been informed by the underrepresented voices. You can find yourself pouring energy and resource into the wrong solutions or even solving the wrong problems.
  • Intersections and personalisation. Each of us belongs to many different tribes. We come together and pull apart in many different configurations, much like the turns of a kaleidoscope. The experience of a woman is different when you add in ethnicity, socio economic background, sexual orientation, neurovariance – to name a few. The point is, there is rarely a one size fits all solution, we are all so much more complex and nuanced than that.
  • Allyship, mentorship and sponsorship matter. If I look back on my own career, I am forever grateful for the voices that spoke up for me in rooms where I was not. The voices that listened and guided without judgement when I was experiencing something they had not and, I suspect, in many cases, did not fully understand. The voices that championed and emboldened me when I was shrouded in doubt. Thank you. I’ll do my best to pay it forward.
  • Kindness. That’s it.

These suggestions are not going to crack the code overnight – sadly there is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling these systemic challenges. But what they can do is contribute to the conversation, support efforts to overcome lingering barriers and, hopefully, help ensure that representation and inclusion always remains centre stage for companies large and small.

The bottom line, though, is that this is simply the right thing to do. I don’t want my children – or anyone’s children – to grow up in a world where opportunities are closed on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, background – or anything, for that matter. Let’s take it as a given that we all want things to be better.

So let’s keep talking, breaking, building and disrupting. Let’s all be brave enough to sit with the discomfort and confront ourselves. I’ll share with you the overwhelming feeling I had when I looked around the room at the extraordinary group of people gathered within: we’ve got this.