Our community reporter Laura Hillier interviewed Serrie Justine-Chapman from the Women’s Tech Hub about gender diversity in the tech sector, and ways in which this can be advanced.
What is the Women’s Tech Hub all about?
It’s about supporting women and gender non-conforming people in their tech careers, or advising those that are “tech-curious” about how to get into the industry. It’s become a network in its own right now, and we try to sign-post and refer our members to other supportive groups in the area as well as to training and to jobs. We set up www.womenstechjobs.co.uk and partnered with ADLIB (a recruitment agency that specialises in the tech sector) to support women struggling to get through the recruitment barriers, and speak to companies about why they are not seeing them. We also ran www.tech3shed.org as an inclusive careers fair which gave members a chance to talk directly to the companies. There were no recruiters allowed, and with the HR department gone members were able to speak to managers and Chief Technology Officers directly about their companies and what they needed to do to get into the industry.
How did the Women’s Tech Hub get started?
It’s changed along the way, as it was initially set up out of Bristol Girl Geek Dinners, which is a social and networking group for women interested in tech and science. Industry was struggling to understand why women weren’t applying for jobs and came to Girl Geeks looking for help. We knew a lot of the reasons, but as we wanted to protect Girl Geek Dinners from its core purpose of being a supportive network for women in tech (or interested in tech), we set up the Women’s Tech Hub to act as an interface to tech companies.
What’s your career background and role at the Women’s Tech Hub?
I have spent the last 20 years as an engineer working in pre-silicon SOC (system on chip) verification and requirements engineering, as a product manager and as a model-based systems engineer – all around transport. Previous to that I was told that engineering was not something for me and I had a portfolio career, as we find that many of our members have. I have also been one of the organisers of Bristol Girl Geek Dinners for about 5 years. Myself and Constance – my co-organiser at the time – came up with a plan for setting up the Women’s Tech Hub as a company (over a glass of wine). Thanh Quan-Nichols from Desklodge then offered us free space as she loved the company, so we made her join us! We are all co-founders and Directors.
What are the current challenges for women and gender non-conforming people working in tech?
Bias. Interestingly, I was talking to a BAME systems engineer recently who’s partner has been looking into gender bias. The engineer stated that for him, the racism he experienced was behind his back and hidden, whereas he had noticed that gender bias is very much in front of us. We were already aware of these biases and some of the poor behaviours towards women in the industry. What this seemed like to me is that where racism is no longer culturally acceptable and therefore becomes hidden (and let’s not pretend that racism isn’t still there, as we know it is), open and clear bias against women remains more socially-acceptable. In work practices and interviews, these biases are still very much on show and deemed acceptable behaviour. Being a small minority within the sector means that it’s hard to speak out and be heard.
Why is gender diversity in tech so important – both for the industry, and for Bristol as a whole?
There is so much data out there highlighting the fact that diverse companies have better success. With regard to Bristol, we have a tech skills shortage which will continue if companies are only going to fill it with white males that look like the industry norm in this century (as let’s face it, tech was a female industry until the money started coming). If we can upskill the women pushed out of the industry or allow the women back in then we, as a city, can possibly afford to carry on living in a place that is becoming pretty expensive to live in.
What steps can tech companies take to improve diversity and equality?
Companies need to have a navel gaze, and look at their company practices and culture. It’s no good to put a big banner over your company and run the occasional ‘we are inclusive’ event as our members see through it and realise if these principles are not being followed up. What is interesting in Bristol is that the city’s collaborative nature means that word is quick to spread about companies who do behave badly. Across our networks we have over 2000 women in tech, and they talk to one another. They tell one another horror stories about their workplaces – they are not alone, and companies really should put their monies into the industry and try to fix the problem, rather than spending money on banners and champagne.
What would you say to someone wanting to go into the tech industry?
I used to say “don’t do it”, as the horror stories coming from the women were too depressing and I wouldn’t want it repeated on others. However, I think now that the tide is finally turning and we are finally able to realise that the tech industry is for all of us, that bad behaviour is no longer acceptable, and that the pay gap in the industry is now being watched and commented upon. Women are great in tech – men are too, but it should always have been about ability rather than looks, background, gender or anything else.
How can people get involved with the Women’s Tech Hub?
We have membership for companies in a similar vein to the WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering) campaign and other groups. With this, we can run a diversity audit which highlights any issues we can spot and allows the member companies to use this information to improve their culture and their reputation. Rather than trying to replicate our initiatives, why not bring us in and pay us to actually highlight the issues? It’s easy to copy and get someone to talk about ‘diversity’, but why not let the women tell you what they want?
If you would like to find out more about the Women’s Tech Hub and what they do, please visit: www.wthub.org/ . Other relevant websites are: