What can companies do to improve diversity?

With an increasing demand for skilled STEM workers, organisations need to take responsibility for their own success

The drive to improve the UK economy is reliant on the success of STEM industries. Telecommunications, IT services, advanced manufacturing, even the generation of food and water, all rely on highly skilled STEM professionals. Yet women represent just 21% of the core STEM workforce. The overall number of UK engineering professionals has grown by 2% in 2016, but women make up just 8% of the UK total in fact there are almost 5,000 fewer female engineers fewer now than there were last year. The science sector in particular has haemorrhaged talent this year, with almost 14,000 female professionals leaving the field.

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As the talent pipeline has become constrained, it has never been more important for industry to make smart decisions about recruitment. "We wanted to challenge our assumptions about where good technologists come from," says Jackie Kinsey, chief leadership officer at technology consultancy firm ThoughtWorks. "We had to challenge where and how we were hiring, so we diversified our search for graduates in other disciplines such as maths and philosophy, as well as people who are just passionate about coding and development."

This change in hiring perspective has led to a surge of female graduate intakes, which are up by 60% in the UK and 50% globally. Kinsey believes the technology industry needs to inspire the next generation of female techies to join the field, and understand the importance of creating connected support communities.

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Unfortunately, there's still no unified strategy for dealing with diversity, but a great deal of success has come from disparate non-profit organisations. WISE is one of the UK's largest non-profits providing support for both girls and women looking to build careers in science and technology fields. The organisation uses events, sponsorships and award schemes to bridge the gap between school and work.

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As changing customer needs have forced many companies to undergo a digital transformation, non-profits have helped support firms that lack the resources to reskill staff.

Code First: Girls is social enterprise group dedicated to supporting working age women by teaching valuable coding skills in commonly used languages. A conscious effort is made to teach skills that will enable female engineers to work on emerging tech and mobile app development.

The problem is not just at the bottom though there's also a striking lack of female representation at executive level. Of the 48 STEM firms in the FTSE 100, only eight have over 25% women on their committees. In response, the government has just launched the 'Future Boards Scheme', which provides opportunities for women to gain board level experience and advance their careers, with backing from businesses such as Aviva and retail development company Hammerson. However, given that the number of female professionals in science and technology has dropped drastically this year, there is a real concern that diversity at the senior ranks is unsustainable.

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A Tools for Change study published earlier this year showed that nearly two-thirds of female scientists felt they had encountered a 'maternal wall', where employers would see having children as a lack of career commitment. To maintain healthy numbers across an entire company, working culture needs to adapt for women.

"We recognise the value that different life experiences and viewpoints bring to the business, so we focus on creating an inclusive working culture to help support this," says Theresa McHenry, HR director at Microsoft UK. "Those coming back from maternity leave are offered return to work coaching sessions, with access to an external consultant who can offer advice on work life balance, confidence building and re-integration."

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According to a recent review by construction and infrastructure giant Carillion, policy changes to maternity leave and dependent care led to a 20% rise in the number of returning mothers. With a few simple adjustments, Carillion has seen overall numbers of female staff in operational roles increase by 6%. "This approach to working families and flexible working was cited as a source of positive attraction for new graduates into our business," said Carillion.

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But, intrinsic bias towards men remains a problem. It's tragic that in 2016 there is still a significant pay gap, where women stand to earn up to 17% less than men for the same role in tech. The country's 'Equal Pay Day', which is marked on 10 November, is effectively the day women start working for free until the end of the year. "This country has had the Equal Pay Act for over 40 years and we are not there yet," says Kinsey. "There is a growing trend of women who take career breaks and never fully recover from a salary decrease compared to their counterparts."

In February this year, the government introduced a long overdue mandatory pay gap policy, which will force companies to publically disclose the differences in average pay for male and female employees. For the first time, organisations will be ranked according to their gender pay gap, and placed on publicly accessible league tables.

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"The current lack of available industry data demonstrates many companies are nervous about reporting on diversity," says Melanie Richards, vice chair at professional services company KPMG. "Leaders are perhaps concerned that disclosing their metrics publicly could harm their reputation or leave them a hostage to fortune. This nervousness is holding back both business and individuals."

The UK government's answer is the Think, Act, Report campaign, which was launched in 2011 and has since attracted prominent names in the tech. The campaign sets out a framework for industries to identify their own internal issues and enact policies to drive change. For example, BT has developed its own programme for diversity called #Womenintech. "The programme started in 2015 with the first cohort of 105 women from the technology line of the business," says Isabel Allanwood, relations manager at BT. "Feedback from the participants was excellent, and of the 105 women who took part, there have been 28 promotions, 2 award winners and no leavers."

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For diversity to flourish, organisations need to take responsibility for encouraging it, which will only serve to improve their business. "Yes, it is difficult, [but] you have to invest in something if you believe it's the right thing to do," says Kinsey. "By challenging yourself and your organisation's practices, you can look at the different dimensions of diversity and work through how to improve."

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