Unconscious bias dries up the tech talent pipeline

At a dinner party last week I was asked by a yummy mummy, what field should she encourage her daughter to go into and what academic choices would I advise she make? The kid is 8.  Now my first instinctive reaction was that this was more than a little over the top.

The poor girl should become whatever she would like to be …. right? In line with her talents and passions …

Or maybe not.

How do you know what you are good at or passionate about if you have no knowledge or experience of it?

I have recently been invited to be a VIP Blogger at the HR Tech Conference in London in March.  I tick many of the boxes: I blog, I know about HR, but in many ways I’m not technically minded.  I dropped maths and science as early as I could in school. Yet, I am above average intelligence (really), generally quick to pick things up, was a strong student and the only person in a recent Executive MBA class who could explain Pythagoras’ Theorem.

So what happened?  Rewind to home and school.

Unconscious bias

Back in the day science was for boys. We had no data then to tell us how we were being channelled, even unconsciously and even less idea if it mattered. I studied Social Sciences, breaking the curve for the time, because back then it wasn’t a “girly” subject,  with women students being out numbered probably 5:1.  At that time it was a gateway qualification for women into business and industry.

But both my brothers took straight science. They were also taught to play golf. I wasn’t.

Drought in the female talent pool

We live in an era where organisations are trying to deal with critical hard and even soft skill deficits. Companies are looking internationally for computer scientists and engineers, many of whom now come from overseas. Almost 30% of US engineers are born outside the US. Yet  although 60% of European and US graduates are women, they are not selecting these subjects with only 20% of technical and engineering graduates being women. In the UK only 6%of engineering jobs are held by women.

So even today, many years later, knowing what we know now, nothing much has changed. The tech fields, still struggle to attract women, with men dominating those industries and functions, whether home-grown or imported. Even the workforces of forward thinking companies such as Google are only 30% female. Women are continuing to move into careers with a soft skill focus (pink functions) or so-called caring professions and the gap continues to widen.

Gender balance

There are simply too few women to attract. Organisations have missed the boat. The reality is combating stereotyping and gender balance starts while the workplace is a twinkle in a pushy mother’s eye.

I have met a few women who took science qualifications in later life, but generally in my experience, the trend has been in the other direction. 40% of women for example leave engineering reducing the talent pool even further. Egg freezing benefits fail to address the real issues and come far too late in the talent pipeline process.

So good for the pushy mother at the dinner party. Not so much pushy, as savvy and strategic.

Identifying effective opportunities to deal with these challenges is complex, involving paradigm shifts in thinking in many areas of our society. All are integrated and almost inseparable. It will inevitably involve creating effective gender balance policies to make any dent on our unconscious bias riddled culture:

  • To parents: encourage sons and daughters to explore all sides of their intelligence and discourage a split into girly subjects and activities, separating them from those for boys
  • To education authorities: making science compulsory to a reasonably senior level,  also gender neutral and fun. In some educational systems high school graduation is impossible without maths, a science, as well as arts subjects.
  • To the media and tech companies themselves: Kill the mad, reclusive, on-the – spectrum, scientist stereotype. Make science cool and sexy, not geeky. Create characters for movies, cartoons and games that show that women can be scientists and engineers, without being unfeminine. Not forgetting boys can be caring, without jeopardising their masculinity.
  • To organisations:  make women employees highly visible. Give them and make them mentors. Send them to schools as ambassadors and make sure they are on stage as conference speakers internally and externally especially when talking about diversity. Create return-ships for women who have taken parenting leave, so that they stay with their companies, rather than deferring having children. Someone still has to take that child to the dentist.  

Of the 9 new jobs anticipated for 2030 – how many require tech skills?

I predict a good profile for the future will be a  technical subject (of some yet to be created discipline, which we currently know nothing about) languages (no, not everyone will prefer to speak English) and business training.

Only time will tell if I am right!

2 thoughts on “Unconscious bias dries up the tech talent pipeline

  1. Neil Patrick

    Hi Dorothy,
    I enjoyed reading this post. Unconscious bias is a problem for sure. But sometimes the very measures designed to ensure greater equality actually have the reverse effect. It even becomes conscious bias on occasion in organisations that should know better.
    In the UK, most public sector organisations have targets to achieve within their recruitment for gender and racial mix. This can have unintended consequences. A major UK police force was found to have immediately rejected 300 job applications from white men, simply because they were from erm, white men.
    Race, sex and age discrimination are illegal. But nonetheless alive and well. We are moving towards a version of equality where white men are now also likely to be discriminated against based on race and gender.
    Unfair discrimination is now equally available to all, regardless of age, gender, or skin colour.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton Post author

      Hi Patrick – From my perspective the example you quote with the police force is more about positive discrimination than unconscious bias. Have you ever taken the Harvard Implicit Bias test? It’s worth doing.

      You can’t obliterate unconscious bias all you can do is manage it. All organisations should certainly have unconscious bias programmes for the recruitment and promotion processes. But by then it’s too late for tech companies.

      Assumptions made by our wider culture are already channelling both men and women in a certain direction. That same will be for other minorities. The difference is that women are not a minority.

      To shift this requires some radical re-thinking and a re-connect between organisations, education systems and the wider community. Will I see you at the conference?

      Reply

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