Bath Does Diversity in Tech

I spent most of today in Bath attending part of the Bath Digital Festival. Primarily I was there to attend a session on Diversity in Tech. It was run by the folks behind the Tech Talent Charter, an industry initiative making its first foray outside of London.

I have to say up front that the event went pretty much as you might expect for such an event in Bath. There we no obviously disabled people there (though of course that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any). There were more white men than women of color. And there were only two openly queer people, of whom I was one. Many of the panelists spoke eloquently about the need for diversity to mean more than white people of two different genders, but none of them seemed to have any idea how to go about achieving this.

One might also argue that a Festival whose website has a question about gender with options of Male, Female, Transgender & Intersex is so desperately clueless that it has no place running a diversity panel at all.

This, however, would ignore that fact that IT is now pretty much in crisis. The number of women in the industry has now fallen to 17% (and that’s without considering what jobs they get channeled into). If it falls any lower even the men will start to notice an absence of women. And, as the the event host Debbie Foster succinctly put it at the beginning, the pipeline is broken everywhere along its length.

There are, in my view, two significant issues that will be very hard to overcome. The first is that young girls, no matter how keen they might be on IT, have their eyes open. GamerGate happened. They know what they would be walking in to. One audience member who works with school kids says that girls as young as 13 and 14 were regularly asking her if IT was a safe career, or should they just give up now.

The other issue is that lad culture is now so heavily ingrained in the industry that women who do stick it out as far as getting jobs often don’t stay. One panelist talked about a company at which women recruits only stayed a few weeks, until such time as they put a woman in charge of the development department and forced a culture change. Most companies don’t see the need to do that, and yet they complain constantly about how difficult it is to find good staff, which is what happens when you have need of very talented employees and restrict your hiring to young white men.

And that’s before you get into issues like problems with recruitment practices, problems with work-life balance, domination of senior management by old white men and so on.

Challenging this sort of thing is hard. Yesterday evening I was a guest speaker at a careers workshop for LGBT+ students at Bristol University. One of the questions we got asked was, “if your sexuality or gender becomes a problem at work, who do you turn to, your manager or HR?” There were five us on the panel (two gay men, two lesbians and me, and yes they did try to find someone openly bi). We all said, “neither”. Because once an issue becomes a matter for company disciplinary practices you are going to lose (unless someone has been really stupid, and even then you can’t stay in the job).

So there is an enormous amount of work to be done, and there were some really interesting speakers, including my friend Zara Nanu who has recently set up a company (with Sian Webb) to develop technological solutions to closing the gender pay gap. We had two hours. We could have done with two days.

The sad thing is that there is plenty of evidence that a diverse workforce is a more efficient and competent workforce. There are also areas, such as AI algorithm development, where a lack of diversity can result in software that has massive biases when dealing with customers. That makes this sort of work massively important for the whole of society.

I have no neat solutions, because there is so much to be done. Obviously The Diversity Trust is happy to help if anyone wants us. I suspect that the sort of problems we can help with will get pushed way down the priority list.