Gender Diversity Promises Much for Digital but Remains Elusive Goal

International Women’s Day is always a good time to reflect on fresh successes of females in business, science and technology, domains where they were barely visible just a few decades ago. Sure, it’s encouraging to have more female voices audible in the digital conversation: in the UK, Anna Barsby, Sarah Flannagan and Fumbi Chinma, respective CIOs of Morrison’s, EDF and Burberry, are prominent figureheads.

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Looked at from the whole, however, women still form a risible proportion of leadership in digital, and this is a business opportunity missed; ever more reports flag up the economic – as well as social advantage – of a gender diverse leadership. The 2014 Gartner CIO Agenda survey revealed the percentage of women CIOs has remained largely static since 2004, at 13%. A recent CIO UK survey showed a slightly more favourable proportion of females in the top IT job at 16%.

It’s not only at the top of business that women are under-represented. Just as worrying, says Oxford University professor and CEO of DiffBlue, Daniel Kroening, is their lack of presence in academic fields crucial to digital innovation, such as artificial intelligence. At the University of Oxford, female PhD Computer Science candidates represent just over a quarter (26%) of applications. The data for artificial intelligence PhDs is even worse: just 10% of applications come from women.

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“This is concerning for not just universities but for the wider technology industry, which is increasingly hungry for AI engineers” says Kroening. “High-paying AI roles may end up being dominated by men, and the risks of algorithmic-bias have been well-publicized. There’s clearly a need for companies to champion their female AI computer scientists as role models for the next generation, which should help plug the talent shortages that are plaguing the industry.”

Against the backdrop of female scarcity in digital business and technology, I was surprised to read in a new survey from QA that 80% of women in the industry report they had been discouraged from starting a career in tech. Conceivably, the sample was weighted with mature workers, who were mavericks at the time, But if it includes new entrants, who have been through a school system mandated to encourage participation, then something clearly is going wrong.

The report’s conclusions include:

  • 50% of women in tech were actively discouraged from entering into a technology career by people close to them.
  • 76% did not view technology as an attractive career path at school, but almost 100% of them have enjoyed an exciting career in tech.  
  • 80% of women say that they think that there need to be more role models in tech.
  • Post-Brexit faces a chronic digital skills shortage. Lack of gender diversity will contribute to this issue.

To be an effective force within leadership and entire digital organizations that delivers their full potential, women’s inclusion has to go beyond gender diversity box ticking. I suspect more prolific female role models in the sector and an embedded form of mentoring will play a bigger part than quotas systems.

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Helen Beckett

Author: Helen Beckett

Helen Beckett is the Community Manager of the Business Value Exchange. She has been a writer and editor for over 20 years and takes a particular interest in the challenges facing the CIO in today’s business climate.