BY CHARLOTTE SCOTT
Offering an international perspective on digital diversity to #leedsdigi18, Bita Jabbari, Education Coordinator and Teacher of the Java4Women initiative, joined a panel of local digital influencers to discuss cross-collaboration, diversity in digital, and the disconcerting digital skills gap.
Hosted by Matt Thornfield, MD of their UK resource providers, Virtual Pair Programmers, ‘Java4Women: A Presentation & Panel Discussion About Women in Tech’ also included CEO of Panintelligence, and Founder of Lean In Leeds, Zandra Moore; Aline Hayes, Head of Systems at Lloyds Banking Group; and Tom Hudson, Technical Trainer at Sky Betting & Gaming.
Backed by the Swedish government and delivered by cohort of Swedish recruitment and tech companies, including Lexicon and TNG, Java4Women saw candidates with little to no previous experience of coding undergo an intensive training programme, with 95% securing jobs in the digital workforce within 6 months of completing the course.
The word ‘inspirational’ is thrown around a lot these days, but it seems a fitting epithet for the achievements of the Java4Women participants, who completed in 4 months of full-time training what would normally span 2 years at university, motivated to raise themselves out of unemployment despite their lack of technical skills. According to Jabbari, hundreds of determined candidates applied, prepared to commit to the full-time course, confident that the financial support provided by the government would see them through retraining to employment.
Sweden has often been touted as the beacon of gender equality in the workplace, with both parents granted generously-paid leave since the 1970s along with heavily subsidised childcare, but do these perks translate to heightened equality in the tech workforce?
Sadly, the figures for gender ratio across the tech workforce in Sweden say otherwise, with only 20% of developers being female. Jabbari has also run an open coding course for 4 years now, which sees only 2 or 3 female participants in each class per year. But something very intriguing happened when Java4Women was developed, using the same source material but with an emphasis on a solid foundational knowledge base. When pitched as a course for women, applications flooded in by the hundreds. Adding ‘4Women’ was the difference between 2 female applicants and 200, she observed.
What does this say about women stepping up and applying for tech jobs? What is stopping us?
‘Our experience is we’re not even getting enough candidates to ask them – the numbers simply aren’t there!’, lamented Zandra Moore, CEO of Leeds-based data intelligence company, Panintelligence.
Tom Hudson, Technical Trainer at Sky Betting & Gaming, a major recruiter of talented graduates in the region, agreed. ‘We have to actively go out and find and engage female applicants, and unfortunately we still really lack female role models at a senior level – this is changing, albeit slowly,’ he added.
While Hudson may be discouraged by the lack of female applicants to tech jobs, it’s certainly not through lack of trying. Sky Betting & Gaming have developed a keen awareness of how their application might be influenced by subconscious bias and frequently review their recruitment process for greater neutrality.
QUOTAS: CREATING THE NEW NORMAL?
The conversation surrounding workplace diversity has come a long way since Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, as a slew of unapologetic hashtag movements disrupt traditional responses to workplace harassment and prejudice, with programmes such as Java4Women ensuring women aren’t left behind as the world careers towards a digital future.
But not everyone was satisfied with a female-only approach.
One audience member tentatively raised their hand.
‘Doesn’t adding ‘for women’ onto ‘Java’ just reinforce the perception that java development is a male occupation?’
The panel exchanged glances. It was time to broach a subject that divides many: positive discrimination. Do hiring quotas help or hinder women in the workplace?
‘When you’re hiring to hit a target, Moore observed, quotas in an organisation with the wrong culture can, and unfortunately do, devalue women’s contributions to the role because they’re assumed to have been hired for good PR rather than their ability.’
Without fundamental change at a societal level, quotas do little for neither the confidence gap nor gender equality.
Aline Hayes, Head of Systems at Lloyds Bank, might recognise the downsides of quotas and positive discrimination in the hiring process, but having reached a senior level in a infamously male-orientated industry, she is quick to defend their role in creating a diverse workforce – whether that’s gender, age or ethnicity.
‘We needed something to break the barrier,’ Hayes emphasised. And with unemployment figures among young women in the UK rising by the thousands in 2017, it might be time to accept the risks that accompany any potential catalyst to societal change. By deliberately recruiting diversely for senior positions, we normalise the idea of women leading industries. When this new normal trickles down into our collective subconscious, we can inspire a wonderfully diverse younger generation to rise through the ranks.
But don’t be fooled into thinking quotas are enough to spark what needs to be a massive cultural shift in how we perceive our leaders. There needs to be support and responsibility taken at every level – with parents, in schools, at university, in government, in the private sector. But individuals also need to develop a self-awareness and willingness to challenge their own assumptions and the subconscious bias that is instilled in us from young age.
‘Ultimately, I think we put limitations on ourselves as women,’ Jabbari pointed out. ‘We will all inevitably come face to face with misplaced bias at some point in our careers. People will always have an idea about why you’re there and how you got there. Just don’t care about what other people think. Focus on what you want, and go for it.’
And for the individuals out there who convince themselves they won’t get a job before they even apply, take stock in knowing that startups and established tech companies alike – such as Pantintelligence, Lloyds, and Sky Bet – will nearly always recruit on aptitude rather than technical skills that can be taught – so don’t sell yourself short! Tell yourself you can, and it’s likely the support will be there.
‘Perhaps it’s time for a new hashtag? ‘#actuallyIcan’, Moore quipped.
We think she might be right.
NOTE: Following the event, many of us in the audience, as well as the teams at Leeds Digital Festival, Virtual Pair Programmers, Panintelligence, Java4Women, Lloyds and Sky Betting & Gaming, toyed with the idea to replicate the Java4Women initiative for unemployed individuals in the UK. If you’re interested in becoming part of the movement to tackle the digital skills gap and promote digital diversity, please email firstname.lastname@example.org