Tech Talent Charter lays out 2020 plan to make UK tech more inclusive

How a UK-based not-for-profit is aiming to make the UK tech scene more inclusive

debbie forster ceo of tech talent charter speaking at the launch of its annual diversity in tech be
Tech Talent Charter

As we usher in a new decade, it’s clear that some of the things we might have hoped to leave behind are, unfortunately, very much still present.

Diversity in the technology industry (or the lack thereof) is one such pervasive issue. There are efforts to tackle this inequality by organisations like CodeFirst: Girls – which offers free coding courses to young women – and the Women of Silicon Roundabout conference, but women still hold less than 20 percent of technical roles in the UK and only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education are female.

In 2016, Debbie Forster and a group of like-minded individuals looked at the tech industry and saw lots of well-intentioned companies trying to improve the diversity of their organisation but struggling to make any real progress. As a result, in 2017, the Tech Talent Charter (TTC) was born, with Forster at the helm. The ex-headteacher has forged a long career in the technology industry, having transitioned from head of education at The Tech Partnership, to the CEO of Apps for Good and director of international development at the National Consortium of Specialised STEM Schools.

Tech Talent Charter is a not-for-profit organisation that is focused on bringing together organisations that have a vested interest in making technology inclusive and diverse. The initiative is voluntary and free to join. There's no advertising budget, which means businesses tend to approach the organisation through word of mouth or an introduction from peers.

“All you’ve got to do is guarantee that you're doing something internally, that you're willing to collaborate, to share best practice, and to give me your data,” Forster explains. 

This does however mean that being part of the Tech Talent Charter is a privilege, not a right, and no amount of name recognition can ensure you remain part of the programme if you fail to stick to the rules.

“Both years that we had our report, I have cut members,” she says. “If they don't give me data, they get removed. I removed 15 percent of my members this year and about 20 percent last year, because what we found is, when companies weren't sharing their data with us, it was because they didn't have the ingredients that they said they did. They didn’t get senior buy-in and they were really not comfortable in collaborating or sharing.”

Ousted companies are welcome to rejoin after a year but with the knowledge that Forster will be having some challenging discussions with them upon their return. 

The not-for-profit recently released its second diversity in tech benchmarking report with statistics and insights gathered from the 300-plus companies and over 70,000 employees that make up the signatories of the Tech Talent Charter.

While there isn't 50/50 gender parity, Forster is pleased with the progress that the results illustrate. Across TTC’s signatories, women hold 24 percent of technical roles, compared with the UK average of 16 percent. Within the Charter’s micro-companies, defined as companies with one to nine employees, women hold 42 percent of technical roles. 

Part of the Tech Talent Charter involves adopting inclusive recruitment processes – making sure job adverts are gender neutral and that all interview panels have at least one man and woman on it, for example. Working towards this goal helps ensure that, wherever possible, women are included on all the shortlists for interview. Of the signatories who have a target for the number of women on shortlists, more than half were above the national average for the number of women in technical roles.

“What’s fantastic is to see that what we've been promoting is starting to bear fruit,” she says. “This is a great piece of incentive to bring back to people.

“It also shows that our companies are already indicating that they plan to develop a strategy. More [organisations] are planning to have those targets for shortlists, supporting returners and retraining people, which I think is going to be a game changer.”

Collaboration is key 

In September 2019, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a third round of funding for TTC, contributing more than £350,000 in support of the Charter and making it a part of the UK Government's Digital Strategy. 

TTC aims to have 600 signatories by the end of 2020 and hit the 360 mark in September 2019. For Forster, collaboration is at the heart of the Charter. Back in 2016, she was frustrated watching so many companies trying to reinvent the wheel without reaching out to their peers to find out what they were already doing to improve inclusion and diversity.  

“We bring together employers, recruiters, consultants and people who are working with under-represented groups to help them collaborate," she explains. "We think most of the pieces of the puzzle are out there but it's about bringing them together.” 

Two enterprise members of the charter are HP and Nationwide. While one is a technology company and the other is a building society, both were founding signatories in 2017 and continue to support the initiative through their involvement in the TTC Strategy Group. 

Both the building society and the PC hardware seller had a history of fostering a culture of inclusion and diversity before the TTC and wanted to enable others working in the technology sector to do the same.

To date, the company has helped to improve workforce diversity within its legal and marketing agencies, provided unconscious bias training to employees, mandated that 50 percent of their intake of interns are female and supported apprenticeship levies at smaller companies to ensure diverse candidates are being considered for roles.

George Brasher, managing director of HP for the UK and Ireland signed up immediately after his initial meeting with Forster, strongly supporting her mission to make the UK tech industry reflective of the British population at large.

“I think they're doing a lot of good things,” Brasher says. “They're driving for companies to have strategies, and I've always been a big believer that if you want to go somewhere, you've got to plan to get there.”

At Nationwide, being a founding signatory felt relevant because of the Charter’s “strong alignment to the purpose of Nationwide,” explains Faye Whitmarsh, head of culture and engagement at the building society. “It really fitted with where the organisation was looking to go.”

For both these companies, inclusion and diversity was an issue they were looking to tackle long before the Tech Talent Charter came along. Brasher talks about  how LGBTQ+ HP employees launched one of the first In Pride groups back in 1986 and had one of the most diverse board of directors across the global tech sector.

For HP, which has a 36 percent female workforce, 31 percent of leadership roles are held by women, as well as  22 percent of technical roles. The goal is to continue to improve diversity internally, whilst providing others with support, funding and roadmaps to help them achieve similar success.

“There's actions and then there’s results. We tried very hard as a company, not only globally but locally, to have specific actions to take because, if you don't take different actions, you're not going to get a different outcome,” Brasher says.

Nationwide, which currently has 63 percent female representation across its workforce and 35 percent of leadership roles held by women, has gone on a similar journey. The company has worked hard to internally foster an inclusion-first strategy, whilst providing external support for schools and women in STEM. 

Whitmarsh says that there isn’t a quick fix for inclusion and that any attempts to improve diversity need to be multi-faceted, otherwise they will fall short of their aim. 

“In the past, [organisations] have tried to fix women, or fix ethnic minorities when actually the focus needs to be on fixing the system,” Kirsty Keck, delivery lead for the ‘Tech Talent Squad’ at Nationwide, notes. 

She also believes that organisations need to be much more experimental in their approach; testing initiatives on a small number of employees to see if they are effective, rather than rolling out company-wide programmes only to find they have less than the desired effect.

To reflect this, Nationwide has set up pilot schemes including a programme that allows employees to learn technical skills over a 12-week period, development programmes for recent graduates or people who are looking to change careers, and a mentorship scheme that has proven so popular the pilot has been doubled to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate. 

“One of the things we’ve come to realise is that taking a broad-brush approach and thinking that one thing is going to solve everything, doesn’t work,” Keck explains. “Our approach has shifted to much more small experimentation as opposed to one massive scale opportunity.”

Future outlook

At the third annual Tech Talent Charter event on 15 January, people from across the technology sector gathered at the top of The Gherkin skyscraper in London to find out what signatories and supporters of the Charter had achieved in the past year, and hear Forester spell out her vision for TTC’s future. 

Long term, Forster has a very specific goal for the 2020 Tech Talent Charter report. She wants to move beyond just reporting the lack of gender diversity in the technology industry and look at how (un)successful companies have been at hiring ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, disabled, neurodiverse and socially diverse employees. When it comes to gender, TTC would also like signatories to look at how to support inclusion that goes beyond the binary definitions. As Forster noted at the event, if we only bring in more white, middle class women, that’s not diversity.

She said at the time: “I want our members to know they can find the tools, the information, the strategies, the organisations, in order to genuinely move the dial on all aspects of inclusion and diversity. I want our members to be able to find posts in our open playbook and our mapping. I want to see those ingredients inspire more returning and retraining programmes, more targeting in terms of diverse shortlists and then really continuing to pull ahead of the pack when it comes to tech.”

For the Charter’s signatories, the next 12 months are about continuing to build an inclusive environment for diverse employees while helping TTC to bring more organisations into the fold. HP set itself a goal of signing up 50 new companies to the Charter and has thus far successfully brought 30 on board.

Nationwide is also looking to scale up its pilot programmes this year whilst focusing on its returners programme – an initiative that helps bring those who have taken a career break back into the workforce – and helping to reskill that untapped pool of talent.

“The time to act on it, to focus on the practical and move the dial is now,” as Forster concluded.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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