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Creating a progressive new culture to attract and retain female talent in tech – Doniya Soni, Programme Manager, Skills, Talent and Diversity at techUK

Women in tech

Doniya Soni is Programme Manager – Skills, Talent and Diversity at techUK, where she runs activities in the Women in Technology programme and the Skills, Talent and Migration programme. She supports members, coordinates stakeholder meetings, as well as undertaking project work such as research, development of articles and papers, campaign activities and coordinating submissions to government consultations. Doniya graduated from the University of Exeter with a B.A. in Economics and Politics, and subsequently received a Master’s degree from LSE in Public Policy & Administration.

Doniya Soni - techUK
Doniya Soni

“…There’s a lot of initiatives focusing on shifting that image of the tech sector being made up of young men with beards, glasses and scruffy t-shirts, programming into the night. We’re seeing a lot of great images coming out recently of role models of all ages, genders and ethnicities…”

Championing diversity through my role representing tech

I graduated from LSE [The London School of Economics and Political Science] two years ago, where I completed an M.Sc. and from my undergraduate degree three years ago. I originally started out as an account executive at a communications agency, working specifically in stakeholder engagement. Throughout my time there, I developed a personal interest in women’s rights and diversity. I also held a personal interest in tech. I’d always been a techy nerd from an early age, so when I saw there was a job going at techUK working in skills and diversity, I decided it was a really good fit, and luckily, so did they!

I joined because it was a really interesting role. It drew me straight in because it was the opportunity to help take forward some of the great work on the Women in Tech programme that techUK was already doing, but it was also an incredible opportunity to use my own initiative to drive new projects. My passion became my job and I couldn’t be happier.

The voice of the UK tech sector

techUK is the trade body representing the voice of the UK tech sector. In 2015 alone the Internet economy contributed 10% of the UK’s GDP, and we’re here to represent that ever growing and important voice in the UK. Over 900 companies are members of techUK, and collectively they employ more than 800,000 people (so that’s about half of all tech sector jobs in the UK). These range from leading FTSE 100 companies to innovative new start-ups, although the majority of techUK members are small and medium sized businesses.

Our remit is to give a voice to the UK tech sector. At techUK we work alongside our members towards collective goals in the tech sector – so policy and business initiatives etc.

Connecting and supporting our 900 members: Identifying barriers to equality and how to overcome them

My day to day role varies greatly. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve got more than 900 members, so one of the key things I do every day is to communicate with them. That might be through news updates, or events and sessions that I’m running. Members will often drop me an email on issues pertaining to skills and diversity. I’m happy to answer their questions or direct them to the relevant literature on our website.

We’re also making sure that we’re catering to our members’ needs – we connect people through events and promotions, social media and networking. I spend time hosting, facilitating and speaking at events which are relevant to skills and diversity in tech. I go out and advocate for the work techUK does, as well as communicating what the industry is doing, and what Government is doing.*

Another key element of my day is spending time with my team, thinking about how we can best address the wider issues the industry faces. We spend a lot of time looking at the wider picture and being a though leaders on the issue of diversity in tech. I research and keep up to date on the latest policy developments and observe what tech companies are doing that is good for diversity, and how we can adapt that model and recommend it to our members. I work with our members and other stakeholders to identify barriers to equality and how to overcome them.

When I started it was purely a Women in Tech programme, but part of my role this year and next is to think about diversity in a broader sense. It’s not something we’ve delved into deeply as yet, primarily because the Women in Tech programme is so young. We’re working with our members to identify the best way to address different types of diversity, such as socio economic diversity, ethnic diversity and sexuality. We’re helping our members identify what their challenges are and how we can help.

Primary challenges in encouraging more diversity in tech

The primary challenge I perceive is the lack of uptake of tech careers amongst women, so there’s not so much a problem of companies trying to hire women. It’s not that they’re not seeking women out, but the market for great female talent is competitive. The challenge goes right back to the start of the talent pipeline, which is getting young women interested in STEM from an early age so they can enter into tech sector roles. That’s where the problem starts.

Even if you recruit lots of women (some of our members have a 50/50 gender split of recruitments of graduates in their technical programmes), there is a huge drop off in terms of retention. The average tenure of a woman working within the tech sector is seven years at the moment, and that’s a real issue. More work needs to be done to attract women, but also to retain them. We see lots of initiatives to get young women into STEM – Coding Girls, Code First: Girls and we have something similar ourselves.

An issue where we thought we could help is around women returners so we partnered with Everywoman to create the Back to Work programme, which is a two-day course to help women regain the confidence and find the encouragement they need to return to the tech sector. It’s partially development and training with some technical skills to give them the means to find and apply for jobs that may be of interest to them.

We secured sponsorship from our members – Accenture, Fujitsu, HPE, Finmeccanica and Computacenter to put 28 women through the course. We’ve just had a networking reception one month on for the women to get a chance to speak to the recruiters from the sponsoring organisations about what sort of opportunities they have available and how they can work together. That’s something that we’re really passionate about, and something that we’re going to take forward through events this year and next –four in London and two outside London.

Changes in the stereotypical male dominated culture in tech

Lego-manI’m seeing changes in the culture in tech. There’s still plenty more to be done, but there are so many more female role models out there and initiatives that match young women with mentors in the industry. There’s a lot of initiatives focusing on shifting that image of the tech sector being made up of young men with beards, glasses and scruffy t-shirts, programming into the night. We’re seeing a lot of great images coming out recently of role models of all ages, genders and ethnicities.

Additionally there’s a cultural shift occurring in the industry with more flexible working. Men and women are taking advantage of working remotely to create a better work / life balance. This is something that is important, not just for women, because a cultural shift is coming. Tech tries to recruit dynamic, young talent and Millennials don’t want to be fixed to a rigid schedule.

A lot of Millennials will work very hard, but they might not work from nine to five. They will get their stuff done, but they might come in at half nine and finish at eight, or come in at ten and finish at seven. It’s having that flexibility and tech enabling tech culture change – having the technology available to work from home, to work remotely, to work from your phone and your laptop.

That type of schedule is slowly becoming accepted now – every big company has a work from home policy, but what needs to happen now is cultural change and the removal of the stigma. Even now, there’s a stigma if you say, “I’m working from home.” There’s a stigma that: “She’s just going to sit in from of the TV in her pyjamas with her laptop open!” but it’s just not the case.

For working mothers, working fathers and those who have got extra responsibilities outside work, it makes sense to be able to leave work at half past three, pick up the children, go home and log back on from 6-8pm to get their work finished.

New best practice to encourage diversity

What I’m noticing more is the encouragement of role models and flexibility, so the cultural shift in organisations to help them adapt to meeting different human needs. When you think about things like mentoring, networking and unconscious bias training, they’re all quite corporate. Only organisations of a certain size can afford unconscious bias training, or for their staff to take time to go to networking sessions. For SMEs and the smaller companies, what are they doing to make sure that they’re finding enough diversity, and keeping that diversity?

A big thing that companies are doing is changing the wording of job applications to be more appealing to women. Even if you look at job titles – if you say ‘IT software developer’ and somebody saw that on an online job advert and they didn’t think they had the specialist skills to do it, they’d scroll right past it.

Drawing women in by changing language

Doniya Soni - techUK
Doniya Soni

Even changing the language around job titles and the wording of job descriptions can draw someone in. When you click on the job advert and it says: “Logical minds needed to solve complex problems in the infrastructure of technological databases”, some people will relate. It’s about working in a dynamic team helping big companies solve the problems that they need to operate every day. If you say: “Are you a critical person who thinks they can change infrastructure and the way technology works?” it can draw more people in. They think; “I can do that. It sounds great.”

That’s something I’m seeing a lot more of in my meeting with companies, including SMEs. They’re saying, “Can you share best practice?” “What does a good job advertisement look like?” “What can we do to get more women involved?”

Women and men don’t think differently in a lot of ways, but there is some difference in what attracts a woman’s mind and what attracts a man’s mind. It can be perceived as being down to lack of confidence for women. Men will raise their hands immediately and say, “Of course I can do that.” Whereas women will say, “I’ve only got eight out of ten of the skills they’re asking for so I’d better not apply.”

It’s about making sure that you are dynamic and flexible. That’s a really good new best practice.

Coming up next for techUK

We’ve got a busy time ahead at techUK this year. We’re already planning what we’re going to do next year and what we’re going to focus on.

By way of context about how the Women in Tech programme works: We’ve got a Women in Tech Council, which has 15 women and men who champion that work that we do within the Women in Tech programme, which has got four work streams.

Within those four work streams we look at women throughout the pipeline, so starting with Youth in Tech – getting more girls involved, Tech for Life – talking about retention of women and Conditions for Change – so for example language, rhetoric and unconscious bias in relation to job applications. What are the conditions that will create change? Also, finally – Challenging Industry – encouraging industry to look into what they’re doing and how they can work with Government, the third sector and other stakeholders for mutual benefit.

We’re also working on the People Like Me pack for tech – a leaflet pack for teachers, parents and ambassadors. It’s an interactive quiz that you give to girls aged 14-16 to match words to their personality. These words aren’t what you’d get from a normal career aptitude test – they’re words like: ‘creative’, ‘optimistic’, ‘diplomatic’. You match your results to the careers in the tech sector to see what you might be good at.

It might give you roles like ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘CTO’ [chief technology officer] or ‘technologist’. It gives options and job titles that many young girls aren’t aware of, so it’s about opening their eyes to the fact that working in tech isn’t necessarily about being a nerd, or being geeky. It’s about saying: “I’m a fun bubbly person and I can be a CTO one day.”

We published the pack in a physical form but we’re looking to digitise it. The organisation that we’re partnering with is a not-for-profit and we’re a charity, so we’re asking our members to sponsor it so we can get it online as a web game or in app form.

We’ve also got a huge calendar of events, including four or five coming up in the next six months. We also partner with other organisations; when we say ‘partnering’ we promote them and we help them to find speakers. It’s about making sure we’re finding the right partnerships to bring value to our members.

We’re also looking at tech conversion courses and things like the apprenticeship levy – how tech companies can use it to fund something, like retraining women (and men) who want to retrain within the tech sector, because there’s a huge skills gap and we need to look at the different ways we can fill that.








*This piece was written before the referendum result. You can read techUK’s response here:


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