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Beyond the DEI committee – how can everyone be an ally to women in the workplace?

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Boosting female representation in technology has been high on the agenda for more than a decade.

But the good news is that, according to an ONS report from February, the number of women working in technology has continued to increase over the past year, with 31% of UK tech jobs now held by women. 

Though steps have been taken to improve gender parity in the workplace, more needs to be done to address the number of women in leadership roles too. According to the data, women are still widely underrepresented here. The pipeline of women in leadership has to be built through education, and inclusion needs to start as early on as possible. That is not to say that businesses don’t have a role to play here too. Tackling inequality is not a new priority for organisations in the industry. In fact, if anything, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has simply highlighted gender imbalance even further. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, in 2020, 23% of women with children under 10 considered leaving their jobs. This, compared with just 13% of men, is a harsh reminder of the support women need in the workplace.

Progressive steps through education

Change doesn’t simply happen overnight. In order to start making the progressive steps needed to improve gender diversity in the workplace, first there needs to be a cultural and generational shift.

I believe that closing this tech gender gap also needs to start at an early age. There’s still a real stigma associated with certain subjects and career titles being inherently “male” or “female”. We need to break that cycle. For example, if we continue to expose young girls today to the societal and cultural norms that have, in years gone by, told us that science and maths-based careers are for boys, then we are fuelling another “opt-out” generation. Both men and women need to challenge these stereotypes and showcase the examples of successful women and non-binary leaders who have built careers in the industry.

But attainment is only one facet of a complex issue. We also need to encourage women to develop their careers in tech once they have arrived. At Zendesk, we have an internal network called Women at Zendesk that actively aims to do just this. Through our partnerships and mentoring scheme, we have been able to build a foundation whereby women can ask for what they need to meet their personal and professional goals.

Encourage safe spaces

For businesses to integrate true gender equality across their business functions globally, supporting employees through public commitments can be a good first step. That way, you are truly held accountable.

One of the ways we have done this is by establishing inclusive global empathy circles – spaces in which our employees can talk, listen, share and feel heard on some of the topics surrounding DEI that matter to them. However, this kind of behaviour should also extend beyond the empathy circle meetings, into the day-to-day job role.

To create an inclusive culture, it’s important to communicate to employees, at every level of the business, that it is not solely the responsibility of a small GDEI committee to ask what we can improve, or how. Real change requires everybody to understand and identify inequality – no matter how small or large – and challenge it, speak up, and suggest actions for a more positive future in order to change ingrained mindsets and behaviours.

To give a very personal example, at times in my career I have been called “unprepared” in meetings for asking my colleagues to contribute in situations where I was expected to speak. But this is a misconception – the truth is, if I didn’t defer questions to equally capable members of my team, some of them wouldn’t be given another opportunity to contribute, speak up and showcase their own expertise. Sharing the platform that too often gives only senior staff opportunities to contribute creates a more level playing field for career development. Leaders need to foster a culture within the workplace that encourages staff to provide one another with equal opportunities. Championing the voices of others is a great way to do this.

We have reached a tipping point, in which the industry recognises that a real shift is needed. Urgent action – regardless of how small – needs to be taken if we are to prevent deepening divides between men and women in the workplace. The challenge for businesses is to ensure that their employees don’t burn out, acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances many people have been working through over the past year, and listen to what is important.

In doing so, it becomes easier to adjust working standards and accommodate the individual needs of staff. Because the reality is that many employees won’t do this by themselves. Together, with the right programmes and mindset, we can challenge the culture that makes women less likely to advocate for themselves. Let’s encourage women to ask for what they need. Be it the opportunity to present a new idea, the chance to speak up and share expertise and insights in meetings, or simply the opportunity to take a seat at the table.

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