This International Women’s Day, we spoke to ten industry leaders to get their insight and advice on what more can be done to welcome and keep women in the workplace.
First celebrated in 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, International Women’s Day has now been observed around the world for over 100 years. It is not only a time to celebrate the social, economic, and cultural accomplishments of women, but it is equally important to spend this day reflecting on how far we still have to go to achieve gender equality.
One of the areas where women are still facing significant barriers is the modern-day workplace is in industries such as technology and science. In fact, while women make up 49% of the UK workforce, only 19% of tech workers are women.
Barriers in tech
For women looking to pursue a career in technology, one of the greatest barriers they face, from a very young age, is the conscious and unconscious bias they face in their schooling. Lucy Zhang, Senior Digital Designer at Plutora, explains: “The biggest barriers in technology for women are what we believe they can accomplish, and attitudes surrounding that on an educational level. Most people can agree that the idea that women are better suited for certain types of work is outdated, but this notion still permeates society and is difficult to tackle head-on. It’s important to support STEM activities designed to get girls interested in tech at an early age. Female mentorship, role models, and leaders are also crucial for giving women that voice and sense of belonging in the space.
“The American activist Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Women are self-selecting out of tech due to a lack of role models in the space. We need access and exposure to tech programs at an early age, fostering a community where girls can feel comfortable and empowered to pursue a future in tech.”
“We are all being called upon to lead in a new, technologically and globally-inclusive world where issues of inequality are at the forefront – and gender, racial and economic disparities must all be eradicated”, furthers Markeith Allen Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Mission Driven Organisations at Diligent. “The question is, how can we all lead in our individual and collective roles to affect these changes? Technology tools may be the key, helping to level the playing field and empower everyone.”
Opening up industries
Of course, technology is not the only sector that women are struggling to break into. Krishna Desai, senior global marketing manager at Cubic Transportation Systems, highlights, “with this year’s theme being #BreakTheBias, we must turn our attention to the public transportation industry, which has quietly been influenced by widespread bias for much of its existence. It’s a sector that in many ways is still stuck in the past when men took the bus or train to work while women stayed home to tend to their houses and families. Now, women are getting educations, pursuing careers, and using public transportation as much in their daily lives like anyone else, yet they’re dealing with a system not designed for them.”
Hugh Scantlebury, CEO, and Founder of Aqilla, also brings our attention to the finance industry, “the financial industry is notoriously male-dominated, and businesses still face considerable challenges recruiting and retaining female talent. The good news is we have seen improvements in recent years. In fact, women now make up 43% of the UK’s financial services workforce. While this is a move in the right direction, the gender gap in leadership roles is more concerning. Only 15.1% of CFOs are women, so businesses and industry bodies need to fully invest in the potential that women have in this profession.”
Making adjustments in the workplace
Although there are undoubtedly specific sectors that are specifically failing to recruit and retain women, across the UK almost every workplace could still be doing more towards gender equality.
“There’s no shortage of experienced, capable women across all sectors of business today, and yet time and time again, they are absent from the upper ranks of industries,” details Sarah Schor, Head of Sales, Americas at SumTotal Systems. “I started in Sales in my early 20s, and being the only female on the team, regularly felt the need to go above and beyond to prove myself.
“Often, especially early in their careers, women feel the need to apologize when no apology is needed. Rather than standing in solidarity with their gut, far too often I hear women say (or read in email) “I’m sorry” followed by their opinion or recommendation. Rarely – erring on never – do I hear the same from male colleagues. Women in any industry should feel supported in collaborative conversations, strong in their ability to lead, and confident in the absolute value they bring to the table.”
Jen Lawrence, Chief People Officer at Tax Systems, continues, “businesses must begin to take a more pragmatic approach to make the working environment more open to women, who statistically take on three times as much child care as men, often at the expense of full time working roles. If senior leadership roles are only open for full-time workers, organizations will be missing out on a huge talent pool of skilled and experienced people, who for whatever reason, only have part-time availability. One way of changing this is through a flexible working policy and creating a company culture that supports part-time working as a norm within senior leadership roles. In fact, research indicated that the preference for flexible working is strong for both men (84%) and women (91%) in the UK.”
“When I look back at my career in IT industry, I can recall times where women’s ideas and opinions were dismissed only to be received positively when presented by their male counterparts; women openly criticized for “leaving their children” and “putting work first”; men promoted and awarded a higher salary over women despite having less experience and industry knowledge,” reflects Donna Cooper, Director of Global Marketing at WhereScape, an IDERA Software company. “I have to believe that gender bias and inequality can be overcome but we are all responsible for making this happen.”
She adds, “with time and attention the issue of gender bias and inequality can be addressed with us all removing stereotypes from our language, being an advocate and ally to all women, having a flexible attitude toward those responsible for childcare, embracing diversity and – above all – being considerate toward the needs and feelings of our fellow human beings.”
Support through mentorship
With a significant lack of female representation in the industries such as tech, finance, and technology, one of the best things we can do to encourage women is to provide models from a young age. Kathy Gormley, Principle Solutions Engineer at Resistant AI, recommends, “finding a talented and driven network. Having a solid network and mentors to look up to creates a sense of unity and helps give that extra nudge. I wouldn’t be where I am today without a strong support system of female leaders and peers who pushed me to reset boundaries and be fearless with my career. I hope that I am able to empower a whole new generation of women to #breakthebias and help others make a transformational shift to close the gender gap for future generations.”
“We need strong role models able to bring a diversity of views, opinions, experiences, cultures, and solutions to our everyday problems,” agrees Branka Subotic, Principal Data Consultant at Ascent. “We need these role models to be really listened to and their ideas considered and truly accounted for. I have been in situations where the correct things were said, but not acted on. It is merely paying ‘lip service’ to diversity, with genuine action still missing. This needs to change and I would like to be part of making that happen.
“We need business leaders to live and breathe diversity in the way their organizations are set up and run; in the way they recruit and search for talent.”
Richa Gupta, Chief People Officer at Globalization Partners concludes, “we all know we have a long way to go towards equality for women worldwide, but I do believe that as the world of work continues to change and adapt to more remote work and autonomy, women (and all genders) will find that geography no longer dictates their destiny. I believe that if you include and offer chances to women in a variety of roles and fields globally, you automatically ensure global inclusivity and as a result, will #BreakTheBias on International Women’s Day and beyond.”