Improving diversity in tech is a topic on everyone’s lips, and BCS has been proud to sponsor an episode of diversity focused recruiter Halzak’s podcast Elevate — Women in Tech. Georgia Smith MBCS chatted with founder Kellie Kwarteng about the podcast, the importance of inclusive culture, and Halzak’s goals for the future.

Tell us a bit about the Elevate podcast, and what your goals are for its future.

It’s actually grown quite quickly; we’ve been going for coming up to 12 months and we're at nearly 30 episodes. We've reached over 2,000 listeners in over 50 countries, and it's been recognised as a top 10 women in tech podcast series. We have three different series that we run: Elevate — Women in Tech that focuses on inspiring stories from women and male allies; then we've got the Female Founders Series, which focuses on female tech founders sharing their journeys; and we're also about to release a series focused on breaking taboos in women's health, which is speaking to women about all the many biological and health challenges that they have to overcome.

“Our mission is elevating women and girls in tech from the classroom to the boardroom”

In essence, it’s all the subjects that just don't get talked about — and that's kind of where Elevate came from as a whole. I wanted to amplify the inspiring voices and stories of women in the tech space, people who have overcome barriers to pave the way for others. The goal is really to create a platform that celebrates their achievements, shares their wisdom and inspires the next generation of women. Our mission is 'elevating women and girls in tech from the classroom to the boardroom' — giving them that courage and confidence to fiercely go on and achieve and know that they belong. It's about supporting women and those who identify as women or non binary within the tech space. If it helps even one person go for that promotion or ask to go on that project, then it's served a purpose.

How did this partnership with BCS come about?

BCS were launching the Bring It On campaign and looking for partners in alignment with its goals. Your marketing team reached out to me because they saw that we have that shared vision of empowering underrepresented groups  — for us, we particularly focus on women within the tech sector. The marketing team recognised the work, particularly the podcast, and how we were amplifying those voices. It was a great opportunity to come together with that shared focus on building this powerful movement — working together enables us to reach that broader audience, to help inspire more individuals of all genders, which I think is really key when we're looking to try and solve some of these issues within the industry.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be where you are.

I've been supporting the tech industry from a recruitment perspective for 19 years, since 2005, and my journey has been one of real resilience and transformation as well. My professional experience started at quite a large recruitment company. When I first started out, they were quite small, but by the end of my 15 years there they were a stock exchange listed, FTSE billion dollar STEM recruitment company. I was one of their UK partners and, at the time, their only female UK partner. After that, I moved into a global group president position at a US boutique recruitment firm and a key part of my role there was driving growth, transformation and everything in between.

The recruitment industry, particularly the tech recruitment industry, is very male dominated once you start to move into senior leadership. So for me as a woman within the space and reaching executive level for quite a large company, I can really understand and appreciate some of the challenges that women in tech face — I have had the privilege of experiencing that senior perspective and being able to use that as a catalyst for change. Additionally, having had the opportunity to sit in that senior space, I want to pass that opportunity on to others.

But one of the things that I realised was lacking in both of those roles, particularly towards the end, was fulfilment; personally, as I grew in my career and as I got a bit older, I became more driven by purpose — especially becoming a mum of two. Being able to be part of a change is something that really motivates me. That was part of why I decided to step off the corporate track — which was quite scary at the time — and go into entrepreneurship. So when I talk to the female founders, I really do it from a place of passion because I sit there as an entrepreneur as well. So I set up Halzak with a conscious effort to be different within the recruitment space,  being driven by purpose which is to connect underrepresented tech talent with inclusive companies. We are also about walking the walk, so to speak, which is why we set up the Elevate Women in Tech Community and the ElevateHER Leadership Mentor Program which, through fees that our clients pay to Halzak, has funded 80 women to enter onto our Leadership Development Program.

Halzak focuses on improving gender diversity in the tech sector, but also really hones in on the idea of creating a supportive, inclusive environment. Why is that so important?

There's no point focusing on diversity if you're not going to focus on inclusion. There's a really good saying that goes ‘diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance’, and I think it's so true; tech is the future, tech is the now, and we need to ensure not only that diversity is there but that we create a truly supportive and inclusive environment which makes it not only possible but appealing for underrepresented groups to stay within the tech space.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance”

Without proactive change, the statistics tell us it's going to take 300 years to close the gender gap in the tech sector. Another big statistic that really alarms me is that 50% of women will leave the tech industry before the age of 35, and they’re doing so specifically because of the non-inclusive cultures and lack of career progression available. That's why we focus on it as an important area, that's why we talk to our customers about it — and that's why Elevate really exists, to try and support some of those individuals on their journeys.

You also asked why its important. Firstly, it’s morally the right thing to do, but secondly, it’s absolutely a business necessity. There's loads of statistics and information out there which proves that diverse teams build better products and better businesses which can offer more to the external market. It’s truly embracing those diverse individuals, perspectives, backgrounds, experiences — that's when the magic really happens, and we start to unlock creativity, innovation and problem solving abilities that really can then drive technological advancements and shape the future for all of us.

Building inclusive cultures that foster a sense of belonging and empower individuals to be themselves at work, especially for underrepresented groups, enables that kind of diversity to achieve its full potential — and I think the benefits of that are visible already for the companies that are doing that really well.

Halzak uses ethical selection practices. Can you tell us more about what that means?

To us at Halzak, ethical selection practices are really rooted in the beliefs that talent knows no boundaries and that every individual deserves an opportunity to showcase their abilities. Particularly in tech, it's quite easy for people to get overlooked because businesses use traditional recruitment methods and just go out to general market, whereas at Halzak we’ve put in the work to become deep rooted within underrepresented communities, which enables us to unearth talented individuals who might not always put themselves forward.

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Additionally, we actively challenge biases and promote inclusive language — people often forget how important language is when they're looking at their hiring practices and job descriptions, and how they might be unwittingly putting off great candidates. So what we work hard at is engagement of those diverse communities to ensure that the talent pools we’re working with actually reflects the richness of society. Then when we are working with clients, we share some of our practises back to them — for example, using blind resumes, or ensuring that when they’re looking to increase diversity they ensure there is diversity within the hiring team or interview process. Just little tips and tricks to help them create a more level playing field when they’re evaluating candidates, to ensure they’re making it clear to candidates that they not only belong at the company but also that their merits, skills and potential are being evaluated free from prejudice or preconceptions.

One example of how we help companies improve hiring practices is examining the job descriptions they’re putting forward. A standard job description is often a laundry list of criteria, with a lot of detail. If we look at application statistics, particularly at gender, that causes a problem; if you look at women and men applying for roles, a man will apply for a job if they meet around 40% of the criteria, yet a woman won’t apply unless they meet 80-90%. But often, an employer is only actually looking for 40-50% of the listed criteria to be met anyway — and all they’re doing by putting the long detailed specification out there is minimising applicants, and specifically reducing the amount of people applying from diverse backgrounds. So what we do is help them break that job specification down, and improve the language — make it more gender neutral, for example — to make it less intimidating and have a broader appeal. If you can start improving diversity right from that first selection process of attracting a range of applicants, you’re off to a good start.

Additionally, many companies fail to realise that though you may want to hire diverse candidates, you can't just flick a switch and attract them; you need to be entrenched in those communities to build their trust and bring them on board. That’s another point at which Halzak comes in, using those relationships we’ve built with communities to help companies increase diversity.

What is one thing you think people of all genders who have forged careers in tech — however far along they are in that career — can do to increase and improve diversity and inclusivity in the sector?

This is the area I love the most, and what elevate really hones in on. If you're truly wanting to be part of improving diversity and inclusion within your own company or the tech sector, what I think people of all genders should do is actively engage in mentoring, sponsorship and allyship, particularly for those from underrepresented groups. At Elevate — Women in Tech, we set up the ElevateHER Leadership Mentor Programme, which focuses on supporting women to level up into leadership roles — from first line leadership all the way up to C-Suite roles. And for that we go out and we get senior women and men that are part of the tech community at all different levels to be those mentors and support those women on that journey.

I was fortunate enough in my career to have a mentor who became my sponsor, who is still very active and involved in what I do today, and that was crucial in my advancement. So for me that's something that I personally work on as actively as I can, and I'm always advocating for others to do the same as they move up in their careers. It’s crucial to give back and support the careers of others, and particularly those that are from those underrepresented backgrounds. it's quite easy to try and mentor someone that is like you, but it’s so important to go out and find those people who potentially don’t have those role models they can look up to and who can support them. So for me that is the one thing that people can do; not only will it improve diversity within the industry, but it definitely will improve that inclusion and belonging for all.