Forging career pathways for women who are yet to join the workforce is how we sustain female career progression in tech, explains Cathryn Ross.
Q1: How has the pandemic impacted female career progression in tech?
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged us to consider how the work that we do can be delivered digitally. Through the shift to more remote working, there are positive opportunities for women.
Misconceptions around family planning considerations have been broken down as new ways of remote working have shown that stereotypes of women’s career longevity and availability are simply untrue. This actually poses advantages for the progression of women.
At BT, this has challenged us to make positive changes to support progression. Our TechWomen programme, BT’s award-winning development programme to help more women progress into senior roles in the organisation, was originally delivered through in-person sessions.
The pandemic has made us rethink how we can offer the same experiences digitally and create more resources that women participating can tap into at any time. It has made us consider different learning styles and increased accessibility. Giving women the tools that they need to succeed has always been critical, but the pandemic has encouraged us to evolve to support different learning styles and availability.
Q2: Why is closing the gender skills gap a priority for BT?
The gender skills gap affects our whole industry. There is a statistic that women only make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK today. This just isn’t good enough – technology will play a more important role in all our lives and it is critical that the technology sector should look like the society it serves. If we want to encourage the next generation of women technologists, we need to be laying the groundwork for these brilliant women before they even enter the workforce. In any new job, you begin by learning new processes and systems. We need to make sure that women have the ability to get a grounding in coding and other technological skills so that they feel confident to apply for technology roles; this is an issue that goes beyond any one company. We all have role to play in paving the way for future technologists.
Q3: What does your partnership with Code First Girls look like? What are your shared goals?
We’ve just launched a new strategic partnership with Code First Girls, a UK social enterprise focussed on delivering technology training for women, to work to close the gender skills gap in the UK technology sector. Our new partnership includes funding from BT to support Code First Girls enables them to provide £10,000 worth of free education to every woman undertaking a course with them and to upskill upwards of 900 women.
By partnering with Code First Girls, we are showing our commitment to giving women the fair advantage and supporting the cause of gender equity in the technology sector. Participating women will also benefit from the expertise of BT’s world class technologists who have helped to shape previous Code First Girls courses, ensuring the next generation of women in technology are equipped with the skills they need to succeed. We also encourage our colleagues at BT to become volunteer instructors, and many have done this in the past and continue to do so, to enable our amazing technologists to share their skills and expertise.
Q4: In practical terms, what measures have you taken to implement this ideology at BT? What are some results you’ve seen?
Within BT, our TechWomen development programme gives women across BT the tools that they need to progress to more senior roles. Some of the benefits that we’ve seen include over 67% of the women securing bigger roles within our organisation. There is also a visible shift in confidence as 94% of the women would recommend the programme to others. This year, we’re on course to achieve a milestone – we’re aiming to reach 2000 women through the programme. The courses are run for women only as research has shown that all-women groups allow the development of an open and honest environment where challenges can be discussed openly and freely. We’ve created a global support network of TechWomen around the world following the mantra of ‘once a TechWoman, always a TechWoman.’
Q5: Aside from your work with Code First Girls, what other initiatives are you running to improve diversity in your business?
I’ve mentioned that we have our TechWomen development programme to encourage women into more senior roles, but we also have initiatives to improve ethnic diversity across BT. To address global issues of racism and prejudice, we launched BT Group’s Ethnicity Rapid Action Plan in June. The plan aims to challenge us to be better, but we’re not starting from scratch. BT already has bold and ambitious diversity and inclusion plans and we continue to support each of our 10 diversity networks across the organisation. However, it’s clear that we need to do more, faster. Our Ethnicity Rapid Action Plan is designed to kick-off decisive action throughout BT Group, hence it is deliberately selective to ensure we move fast and deliver meaningfully. This is not a statement of everything that needs to be done to tackle systemic discrimination.
We’re in the process of developing race awareness training for everyone at BT to equip our people with the knowledge to make our workplace more inclusive. Learning materials and resources about race and ethnicity are available to all our colleagues until our race awareness training is ready to be delivered across the company. All of our Executive Committee have also been given a mentor through our reverse mentoring programme. Additionally, we’ve started to match our senior leadership team with mentors too. We’re addressing the gaps in our own data, encouraging self-declaration of identity, to help us build a rich profile of our workforce.
Lastly, we’ve created a new fast-stream for high potential people from ethnic minority backgrounds, all of whom will be personally mentored by one of our Senior Leadership Team. We now have diverse shortlists in place for every senior management role to ensure we’re looking as widely as possible for the best person to do the role. For our early career roles, we’ve reviewed the insight on attraction and assessment to make improvements to our assessment centre and training for our recruitment colleagues to be inclusive champions.
Q6: What would your advice be to other companies who want to encourage more women into senior tech roles? What practical steps can they take?
We need to work together to identify and break down the barriers that we see to progression. This is not something that one company can accomplish alone. There needs to be a tangible effort in all organisations in order to truly foster change.
- It’s crucial that all companies continue talking to their colleagues and figuring out the issues that face them. Open dialogue and safe environments are key to helping us understand the issues that our colleagues are facing and how we can support actions to solve them.
- Well-meaning companies can think they are taking steps that will really move the needle on diversity, but unless those steps are grounded in the reality of the hurdles facing colleagues from diverse backgrounds they really won’t successfully achieve change. So, the key is listening to colleagues and really understanding their lived experience and crafting measures that will work in respect of that.
- There is also clearly a danger in chasing targets at the expense of true diversity and a genuinely inclusive culture. However, targets and the data to track progress against them does mean stuff gets done and helps deliver real focus and alignment across an organisation.
Our next steps are to focus on the future. We all have a role to play to supporting the development of brilliant talent at our organisations, but we can’t lose sight of the importance of impacting the women who haven’t even joined the workforce yet. If we only focus on development within our organisations, we will continue to have the same issue years into the future. We need to create brilliant career pathways and we need to show future technologists that we’re here to support them.
Cathryn Ross is the Group Regulatory Affairs Director at BT Group. At BT, Cathryn is responsible for developing and implementing BT’s regulatory strategy across the group, covering regulation in the UK and beyond. As Chair of the Regulatory Horizons Council, an independent committee established by BEIS, Cathryn is responsible for leading the work of the council to ensure that UK regulation keeps pace with innovation and enables it to thrive while safeguarding the public.
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