Why there needs to be an industry wide focus on diversifying the digital workforce.

By Charlotte Goodwill, CEO of The ITP

2022, and the statistics around diversity in digital and tech industries still make for depressing reading. Less than 20% of the UK tech workforce are women. But it’s not just a gender disparity our industry is struggling with, it’s the failure to attract a diverse workforce. According to the BCS, only 11% of IT directors are from an ethnic minority background. 

To increase innovation in our industry, we need diversity. As Deloitte points out, in order for people to thrive, it can “only be achieved by providing a workplace culture characterised by inclusive everyday behaviours and built on a foundation of respect and appreciation for diversity in all forms.”

Not only are we failing to attract a diverse workforce, but we’re also not retaining them. A staggering 56% of women in IT don’t return to their jobs after having children. So how can we as an industry come together to ensure that we attract and retain the best talent from a cross section of society? 

Establishing a culture of inclusivity 

For many organisations, one of the first challenges is acknowledging that increasing inclusion and diversity is a long-term strategy. To attract and retain diverse talent, as an industry we need to weave this philosophy into business culture. 

To be inclusive, businesses need to be open, transparent, and fair to all. Staff should feel safe expressing their ideas and concerns. Perhaps most important however, is the creation of a culture where staff feel they belong:

•Create a dialogue within the organisation to understand what inclusive means to employees

•Ensure that the vision and accountability filter down from the leadership team

•Look at policies and procedures in place and how these can support employees and where gaps lie

Inclusive recruitment practices

Many of the partners we work with are now realising that hiring on attitude is more important than experience. By abolishing some of the pre-requisites they have discovered they are attracting a wider pool of candidates with transferable skills. 

It’s this approach which has allowed the ITP to hire around 60 female apprentices for one company alone this year. Less than 10% had skills relevant to the role, but many are still within the business and have progressed. 

Ensuring that job descriptions, job titles and adverts are all gender-neutral is also important. So often IT and tech jobs are considered as masculine, when that’s simply not the case. Look at inclusive recruitment practices - 15% of the UK population are neuro-diverse, yet many struggle even at the interview stage where their needs are not catered for. HR policies need to reflect this inclusivity and educate colleagues. 

The importance of mentoring

Mentoring has far-reaching business benefits, particularly when it comes to diversifying the workforce. Championing role models within the business from diverse backgrounds can be a powerful recruitment tool. It can also aid retention, allowing junior employees to feel supported and represented. Many larger organisations have set up staff networks which can give employees a safe space and voice. 

The likes of BT, Openreach and Virgin Media 02 are spearheading the way in their recruitment and retention strategies. Smaller start-ups are following suit. What’s more, the opportunity to be mentored from the start of employment could be a huge draw to potential recruits. 

If introduced as part of the onboarding process, it can transform an uninspiring one-size-fits-all approach and give a business the edge over its competitors. This is particularly important as we tackle the ’great resignation.’ 

According to those surveyed in Mpirical’s Learning & Development in Telecoms report last year, 78% of those who had mentorships reported being happier than those who didn’t. In typically male-dominated industries, mentoring can help employees feel more empowered in the workplace. We desperately need more role models in tech to inspire others to enter the industry.  

Are apprenticeships the answer? 

Employers are also increasingly realising that apprenticeships allow them to embrace younger people from diverse backgrounds. According to the National Apprenticeship Service: 

•86% of employers said apprenticeships have helped them develop skills relevant to their organisation

•78% of employers said apprenticeships helped them improve productivity

•74% of employers said apprenticeships helped them improve the quality of their product or service

Many firms are now realising that they are alienating an entire group of candidates if they look purely at STEM grads. Employers instead need to consider what the candidate can learn on the job and if they are a good fit with the organisation’s values and culture. There are some key aspects here including:

•The company’s mission and values should be clear: this will help identify which candidates are a good fit and where there are gaps in the workforce

•Encourage employees to become brand ambassadors: this will help improve retention but also encourage quality candidates if they can see that current employees recommend the business. This can be done through referral schemes, testimonials on the website and through company Culture Books

•Use social media to find relevant candidates and make approaches

What else should employers be doing? Offering flexible working, closing the gender pay gap and giving more transparency about diversity within the business are also essential. High profile campaigns by the likes of WISE and STEMettes, along with employer-led initiatives are all paving the way. 

We believe that the way to gain true diversity is for employers to continually challenge perceptions.  Embrace differences and give an opportunity to someone you may not have considered previously. The tools are there for us to show that tech is an appealing career choice, now we need to work together as an industry to make it a priority.

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