Diversity and the IT Industry

The lack of diversity in the tech industry isn’t a new problem. The reasons behind it are regularly debated, and include issues such workplace culture, discrimination and who exists in the pool of qualified candidates (and who doesn’t). Yet in recent years, the conversation has evolved, and it’s now a regular feature of tech conference programmes.

The recent Digital Skills Audit produced by Manchester Digital shows that tech companies in Greater Manchester reflect broader trends in the UK and the western world. The ratio of male to female employees in the tech business stands at 64:36, falling to 81:19 when including only technical roles. Only 5% of employees are over 50 years of age, with 56% falling in the 25-40 age range. 81% of digital staff in the region are white.

This lack of diversity in the industry matters. We don’t have to look hard to find stories of technology failing its users, whether its health apps that haven’t taken into account that 50% of its consumers menstruate, or AI that unintentionally displays ethnic bias. Having more diverse teams designing the tech upon which we are all becoming increasingly reliant is hugely important, and it’s something that we all need to think about as the industry intervenes in society in ever greater ways.

At Web Apps, the issue of diversity is always on our minds. If we’re going to fulfil our ethos – to have a positive impact on our employees, customers and community – then we need to not only try to improve diversity in our workplace, but to engage with activities that will bring about long-term change in the industry as a whole.

For the past few years, we’ve sponsored Hack Manchester. Hackathons are hotbeds of innovation and they’re a great place to look when we want to feel optimistic about the future of the industry. We’re always fascinated to see people – especially young people – channelling their inner programmers and demonstrating that they really are the future of tech.

This year’s Hack Manchester certainly delivered on this front, with one team coming up with an app to track the menopause. At the closing ceremony, our Chief Exec. Craig Dean spoke about three things that the tech industry does particularly badly. The first was that we don’t talk about mental health enough and the second was that we don’t do enough to welcome mature employees into the workplace. The third was the lack of progress on gender issues, from encouraging more women into the industry, to addressing maternity/paternity provision, and ensuring that we’re a welcoming environment for young mothers.

No one speech or event is going to fix a systemic problem like workplace diversity. A recent event at the Museum of Science and Industry tying in with International Women’s Day focused on the challenges and opportunities women face in STEM careers, with panellists discussing how we can encourage more girls to follow a STEM career path. One of the recurring points during the talk was the need for girls to have quality work experience opportunities and role models that demonstrate that a career in STEM is possible for them.

We’re committed to our work experience programme and will continue to offer placements to young people interested in a career in IT. We will also continue to expand our presence in the community, offering programming lessons to local primary schools and attending careers events that introduce young people to what a career in IT can look like. Every tech company can do more to engage with the world around them and to make sure that the roles they are recruiting for are ones that can be filled by a diverse range of people that reflect their community.

A few weeks ago, Gemma Cameron – Director of HAC100 and MadLab, and friend of Web Apps – came to talk to us about her experience in the industry. She talked about some of the challenges involved when people make assumptions about others because of the way they look. On the more positive side, she talked about the many great projects she’s been involved in – such as the Manchester Girl Geeks – that aim to improve the experience of people underrepresented in the industry.

Gemma also talked about the importance of ensuring that there’s a good mix of people on any interview panel. We all have unconscious biases and tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us, therefore limiting our understanding of people with experiences different from our own. A diverse interview panel therefore helps to ensure that companies are recruiting a more diverse workforce and makes the interview experience more positive for whoever walks through the door. Gemma’s talk sparked some debate and got us all thinking about ways our company can help to make long lasting change in the industry.

The tech workforce isn’t going to become more diverse overnight, and no individual person, company or policy is going to singlehandedly solve the issue. Engaging in one diversity event isn’t enough to absolve a company from trying harder and doing more. Yet rather than seeing this as a reason to shy away from the problem, we should see it as an opportunity. This industry is known for its ability to innovate and disrupt, and there’s no reason we can’t apply that way of thinking to the issue of diversity. In the meantime, we can all get involved in activities that will progress the conversation and turn our sentiments into actions. Hopefully by coming together to focus on this issue, we can have a lasting impact on the way our industry looks.

A series of events on diversity and inclusion in tech are being held in Manchester next month. We’ve got our tickets – we hope to see you there!