The issue of gender diversity in business is always in the spotlight. While this is an issue across all industries, the tech sector has been called on to attract more young women into technical roles and to promote them into senior leadership positions. Female founders are also widely reported to have a different experience in growing their companies than their male counterparts. I recently chaired a Silicon Valley Bank event that addressed the subject of diversity, focusing on gender and how boards can encourage more women to enter and lead tech startups, the challenges faced, and how to overcome them. We were joined by WorldRemit, OpenSignal, TAB and Octopus Ventures among 70 others for the conversation that resulted in several ideas about how to change the ratio of women in tech leadership:
Tackle the issue early
Make diversity a priority from the outset by realising its importance and aiming to recruit different types of people. When onboarding new team members, be absolutely clear about your business’s attitudes and policies on diversity. Connect diversity back to your culture and values and clarify your expectations from day one.
Don’t make size the issue
Larger companies have a greater ability to back-fill when people are taking some time off, so this issue can be more acute for younger companies. More established organisations also tend to have more clearly defined mission and vision objectives and a formal training programme to support these goals. Many FTSE 100 companies, for example, have ingrained practices to support equal opportunities. Nonetheless, by establishing flexibility early, a culture embracing diversity can grow with your company, and make it a more attractive place to work.
Help leaders inspire
As with other aspects of business, leadership is key to setting culture and conversations. People can sometimes be nervous about saying the wrong thing around gender issues. By displaying openness and being willing to engage on the subject, senior male and female executives can encourage conversations about diversity, its benefits and the practicalities around it. Communication is pivotal and openness to discussing matters helps to support employees, foster the intended culture and put best practices into place.
Pay attention to language
The use of language is crucial, across the board. Considering the use of pronouns even before roles have been filled helps set the tone and deters fixed expectations. It is important not to make assumptions that foster unconscious biases and reinforce stereotypes; for example, prospective employees are often referred to as ‘he’, senior board members may bear the title ‘Chairman’ instead of ‘Chairperson’. Considering language from the outset helps to embed best practices into everyday use for the future.
Understand that culture is the DNA of your company
The inspiration that founders and leaders provide in companies goes beyond technology and markets – it goes to the heart of the culture. Diversity is in the DNA of a lot of young companies, where they recognise and value how important it is. Starting with a more balanced pool of staff makes it easier to continue to hiring diverse talent and helps establish your business’s culture moving forward.
It is also about regularly celebrating the accomplishments of your team. By recognising and highlighting the achievements of all team members, in interviews, on social media or at internal events, for example, the profiles of successful women are raised and visible to others. The Board at WorldRemit makes a point of celebrating its high achieving women, so that seeing women succeed in a variety of technical roles becomes the norm.
Enable flexible working
Beyond basic maternity and paternity leave, flexible hours and working from home are simple ways in which family or other commitments can be accommodated around work schedules. In fact, there is a growing trend and evidence that demonstrates many companies recognise that this pattern of working benefits the productivity of all employees at every stage of life. Modern tech has made it possible not to have to go to the office. This, combined with our cross-time-zone globalised world, is challenging what constitutes normal working hours.
Support programmes, mentorship
Aside from practical matters like flexible working, support structures can be supplied in the form of role models, mentors and training. Putting in place mentoring and networking frameworks is easy to do and is a low cost way of energising and supporting your team. An interesting example raised during the panel discussion was that many men lack confidence, a trait often assigned to female employees. Beware of making assumptions around gender. We heard about a series of courses organised at Expedia, mainly aimed at women to boost their presentation skills, which resulted in employees of both genders wanting to join as they were so good.
Create role models
The importance of having female role models cannot be understated. Success breeds success. It is no coincidence that many successful female CEOs had mothers who worked full-time. As a full-time working mum of two I was pleased to hear that stat (and my mum worked full time too).
Without women being visible in high-profile tech and leadership roles, the possibility of such paths being open to young girls in education can skew their subject choices, discourage working women from applying for senior roles and create the expectation that leadership in the tech sector is the less travelled path for them.
Make it happen
The good news is that companies can bring out the best of their own workforce and harness all the positive benefits that diversity can deliver. A diverse culture that is driven by the leadership will be adopted with enthusiasm across the business. Tech companies are innovative by definition, and having a diverse workforce is at the heart of maintaining this creativity. Being surrounded by like-minded people limits the ability to break new ground.
The group we assembled to discuss gender diversity in tech offered many useful tips to help each other and others build out a framework to support recruitment, retention and engagement of a diverse workforce. Ultimately, we heard from the group it is about having the means to identify and attract the best talent, building a vibrant and creative culture and tapping into a diverse range of views to maximise the opportunity for growth in your business.