The tech industry is notorious for its lack of diversity, with black women only making up 0.7% of the tech workforce in 2020. Following the Black Lives Matter movement, Claire Penketh spoke to Shola West, B2B Digital Marketer and founder of Youth Unlocked about why she set up her BAME network for apprentices.

‘I was an apprentice at WhiteHat - they are an apprenticeship provider - and I felt in a unique position because I could take decisions on behalf of other apprentices. I was able to listen to what the apprentices wanted, take on their feedback and bring it back to my team at WhiteHat.

‘A lot of apprentices from BAME backgrounds felt they weren’t receiving the support they needed from within their organisations. For instance, they may have been the only person from a minority ethnic background in their team or their organisation and that comes with challenges, even in inclusive workplaces.

‘I noticed it was a reoccurring theme, across many different apprenticeships and I thought, how can I help? I came up with a BAME network proposal for WhiteHat or apprentices who didn't have that in their workplace so they would have a safe space and support group.’

How important are such networks for BAME workers?

‘I think they are extremely important because it allows them to have that sense of community which, again, might not be available where they work. But also, it’s a great way that allies can come and join in celebrations or events and also learn in what is a safe space for them.’

How have you and your fellow members benefitted from having this group?

‘People benefitted because many were having similar challenges and they knew they could bring that to the table, and they weren’t going to be judged for it. Other people could come up with solutions. I also noticed that people began to make friendships which is amazing.

'In university, you do that naturally by joining societies, but with apprenticeships, that's not always the case. Plus, it helped everyone find out about other cultures because the BAME network isn’t just for one ethnic group. For example, we did an event for EID which helped people from different cultures learn about that.

‘Pre-COVID we were a monthly event, with a discussion group - for instance one week we looked at how to deal with microaggressions. Now we are virtual, we do inclusivity training and we have focused also on allies, especially with the whole Black Lives Matter issue.’

How has Black Lives Matter highlighted discrimination?

‘I think the whole Black Lives Matter movement has really helped and especially in the heat of the moment when it was happening, everyone just stopped to think about this. Everyone should now know this is important, regardless of whether it’s trending, or in the news or not.

There was a lot of awareness raised, and it put companies under pressure to share their data on the diversity of their workforce. It has brought diversity higher up the list of priorities, and that means people are doing something about it. The conversation hasn’t stopped I think everyone just stepped up their game.’

As a black woman in tech, have you had to deal with any discrimination or challenges?

‘I think a big part for me was imposter’s syndrome, which is where you don’t feel good enough. As a black woman you stand out. If you were perhaps white and European, it might be easier to hide at first than me as the colour of my skin stands out immediately.

'Plus because of where I’m from, my accent does sound very different from other people. Feeling that I didn’t fit in played into my personal development because of doubting myself. Instead of saying: “I’m here, I can set an example for others,” you think: “Why am I here because no one else like me is”.

‘But having such a supportive team and company that allows me to embrace who I am, helps me to find confidence and overcome any insecurities that I might have. Now it’s safe to say I can be myself 100% at work, which is great.’

How important is diversity in tech?

‘I think diversity is important in general and I don’t think it should be one industry. It's important in tech because of the mental health aspect. If people don’t feel comfortable, they don’t feel safe, they’re not being given opportunities like everyone else, then naturally, retention isn’t going to be great. The whole cycle of getting more diverse people in and trying to develop them won’t work. People need to have a sense of belonging.

‘For companies, it is known that those that are more diverse make more money so why wouldn’t they want to do that? It’s good for the bottom line as shown by reports such as McKinsey which found the most diverse firms outperform those that aren’t.

‘It’s important for team working, different ideas and concepts and avoiding pitfalls like when a company puts a campaign out and it ends up with a negative reaction because they didn’t have a diverse mindset.’

How do you feel about the future of tech and increasing the representation of women and people of colour?

‘I feel positive about it - I feel like I’m seeing different strategies from companies trying to make a difference. Whether that’s companies doing more things for young black people, like internships, or putting budgets behind diversity and inclusion.

‘People are making changes. My generation is so diverse, and we are the people who will be the future leaders and managers. We already understand why diversity is important.’

What do you think it’ll take to make tech diverse?

‘It’ll take actions over words, and a serious dig into the data because a lot of companies pay lip service - but if you ask them for their data, they don’t have it.

‘Companies also need to make sure the young black interns they take on are promoted to C-suite positions. Once you get young diverse people in, if they have no one to look up to, then they will have that imposter feeling. I do believe seeing is believing.’