Every fight for equality and fair representation benefits from the support and solidarity of allies. While some people who are part of a dominant group will happily and enthusiastically back movements that make society in general and workplaces, in particular, more equitable, others might feel threatened.
Roisin McCarthy, co-founder of the Women in Data initiative faced a particularly irate man who confronted her at an exhibition stand demanding to know why the initiative needed to exist in the first place. This hostility is likely to have originated from him feeling threatened; seeing a microphone being passed to others unlike themselves could cause a person to fear being silenced.
However, there are men who hold the polar opposite view of that irate individual. They are not shy about championing the ‘women in tech’ ethos and are part of events and programmes that promote gender equality. Jim Bichard is the UK insurance lead at PwC and winner of the everywoman in tech ‘male agent for change’ award.
I asked him why discussions around gender equality can make some men feel uneasy. He said: “The whole discussion is very uncomfortable to men because you feel like you are doing something wrong. We’ve got bad diversity stats, whether it is gender or ethnicity and so if you’re not in those groups, you feel like you are doing something wrong.” He also said it can lead to a feeling of helplessness and lack of agency from not knowing to do to help improve the situation, apart from apologising.
Data and analytics specialist James Morgan was far more blunt and said that perhaps they don’t like the competition. However, he gave a great many reasons why it is an important cause to get behind.
For Morgan, it is crucial that the teams he works with and the teams he works in are reflective of the makeup of the country. “Given that 50% of the country are women, our industry should reflect that position,” he said.
For him, the benefit of having a diverse team is that the members bring a different set of approaches, opinions, viewpoints and skillsets. He went on: “That helps you think about things from a different angle and brings a real variety of personality types to the mix and certainly makes whatever you are doing more rounded.”
In Bichard’s view, there is a moral as well as a business imperative for having diverse teams. He said: “It’s the right thing to do, but I guarantee we are going to be more successful as a business if we’ve got a more diverse workforce that reflects wider society and hopefully reflects our clients.”
Graeme McDermott, chief data officer at Addison Lee, said he sees gender diversity as primarily about getting the right skills into his teams. “It became important to me to support Women in Data to ensure that people did think about how they recruited, who they recruited and how they retained people for their teams to be more balanced,” he said.
McDermott is very involved the recruitment process, as are a couple of other department leads and although he said that the three of them are white, English and male, he made a conscious effort to “look at something broader than someone who looks like me or sounds like me.”
He also emphasised the importance of forging connections and showing empathy to others unlike himself. “When I inherited my current team, on day one there were no females in the team. It turned out there was one but she was on maternity leave and no one in the team remembered she existed.” McDermott contacted her, introduced himself and reminded her of her place in the team. She said that he was the first person to contact her from the company in 11 months.
The others in the team may not have purposely shut the female team member out and it may have just been an oversight but this is an example of how a concerted effort needs to be made to make everyone, despite their differences, feel welcome.
Aside from individual acts of kindness and support, what else can be done to assist and encourage women working in technology, and data and analytics?
For Bichard, it is about questioning his own thoughts and motives, recognising his ability to effect change and then setting a good example by using his influence in the right way. He would ask himself: “Am I being unconsciously biased? Am I supporting minority groups?” His lightbulb moment was the launch of the HeForShe campaign back in 2014. “I realised ‘OK, as a white man, I can actually do something. I’ve got a role. I can help the statistics through my actions’.”
Since then he has encouraged other men in his organisation to show the same support that he does and also gives talks and presentations on gender equality “month in month out” which are seen by the 1,000 people in the insurance practice which he runs.
Over the years. he has seen positive changes in this regard. He said his partners are turning their talk into action and are thinking more intuitively about diversity. The ways of working and the events in the company are now naturally more inclusive and there is more diversity in general in the company with more female partners and directors than ever before.
One tactic is highlighting senior women in the business as role models to the more junior women. However, Bichard is adamant that there is still more work to be done in order to be better. Morgan has also noticed a change during the years that he has worked in the data and analytics industry.
“Initially, it was very heavily male-oriented. I’ve seen that change over the years. The other thing I’ve seen in recent years is far more senior roles being filled by women. That helps the whole piece by providing role models. Then others come through, get on and achieve more senior positions.”
Morgan had several pieces of advice for organisations and leaders wanting to become more gender diverse. The first is to make it clear that is it part of the agenda and company values. “Be open from the start and lay it out in plain text.” Following that “practice what you preach.”
He said it is important to make job adverts and specifications appealing to as many candidates as possible by looking carefully at the language and wording used. This point was reinforced by McDermott who said that when he was recruiting he would make sure that adverts did not just focus on technical skills but also on the necessary softer and transferable skills.
It is also critical to advertise open roles in a wide variety of outlets, so they can be seen by as many people as possible. Morgan said that having a flexible approach to working can lead to attracting staff of both genders who may have responsibilities outside of work.
Furthermore, actively recruiting people returning to work after a break, such as those coming back after maternity leave, will have a positive impact on the gender split. One example is the PwC Back to Business programme, which Bichard introduced. Morgan concluded that gender equality is about inclusivity and so the company or the leader has to make it clear that they want to or already have a diverse team, that everyone is welcome and that differences are celebrated.
The moral motive for supporting women in data was a recurring theme that arose while speaking to these allies. McDermott said: “I believe it is the right thing to do.” He would like to encourage people to be more aware of the gender and ethnicity splits of their teams and question whether they really have recruited the best people if they are all of one gender and one ethnicity.
Morgan said that ultimately, teams that are diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and many other facets, deliver results. He said: “That’s an important point. The proof is in the pudding in that it produces a better workplace, a better environment, a more enjoyable place to work and delivers better outcomes.”
For Bichard, it is worth remembering that every bit of support helps even it is just by talking, and that making a difference shouldn’t just be left to minority groups. He said: “You are choosing to talk about that topic rather than something else. I am doing it because I think that is what you do to try and move the dial even if you yourself are not in a minority.”