Extrapolating from ONS’ 2021 figures, the BCS Diversity report 2022 suggested that the IT sector could be missing out on 754,000 talented people – particularly among women, disabled individuals, and older people. Toby Mildon, Diversity & Inclusion Architect at Mildon, explores how the sector can address this issue.

As a Diversity and Inclusion Architect with a background in technology, I was immediately struck by BCS’ article Finding the 754,000. It highlights the underrepresentation of diverse demographics within the IT sector, particularly pointing to the shortfall of older people, women and disabled individuals compared to industry ‘norms’, and claims that if this shortfall were to be addressed some 754,000 additional talented people would be available to fill the sector skills gap.

The article doesn’t claim to be scientific, instead pitched as a ‘thought experiment’- but however the calculation is made, and whatever the resulting number, underrepresentation remains a key concern.

How can the sector address the issue?

While counting heads is important, making heads count through the creation of an inclusive culture is essential. In other words, if existing staff are able to create and establish an inclusive culture, then IT companies will be better placed to attract and retain a diverse workforce.

An inclusive culture is one that values and respects diversity, where everyone feels welcome, valued and supported. Often, business leaders delay making moves towards such inclusivity because they simply don’t know how or where to start - but there are several sensible stepping-stones towards achieving cultural change.

Firstly, senior leaders in IT companies should lead by example by prioritising diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. One misstep is to assume that diversity and inclusion is solely an HR concern; handing D&I decision-making to the HR department may result in some amendments to working practice, but it won’t ensure that the whole company is engaged. Senior-level champions can play a major role in galvanising support and driving positive cultural change throughout the business by appointing a diversity and inclusion champion at board level, creating diversity and inclusion councils, and regularly communicating the company's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Be alert to process bias

While raising awareness about our own implicit bias is important, it is also crucial to address bias within systems and processes. Reviewing recruitment and promotion methods often reveals unintended bias which can limit both the size and diversity of the talent pool.

For you

Be part of something bigger, join BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

Fortunately, simple steps can be taken to eliminate bias and ensure hiring objectivity. For example, degree requirements can be removed from job postings where appropriate. Additionally, gender-neutral language can be used, and stated advancement opportunities or job benefits should serve a diverse employee population, not just be limited to management tier employees.

Implementing unbiased assessment methods such as requesting work samples or offering skills tests and simulations to evaluate candidates' abilities is also effective. Rather than screening CVs, it’s about enabling candidates to demonstrate their technical capabilities in an objective way which ensures that decisions are based on merit and potential.

Harnessing grassroots passion

We’ve mentioned the importance of senior-level champions, but a truly embedded D&I culture also requires grassroots passion and commitment. It’s quite common for organisations to have self-organised Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) which are usually founded at the grassroots levels of the organisation and focused around a particular area of interest, such as LGBTQIA+, women in IT or working parents. ERGs can help create a sense of belonging and community for underrepresented employees, but businesses often don’t know how to truly foster these groups.

Without senior leadership support and governance ERGs either continually operate in isolation, keep hitting brick walls and eventually run out of steam, or act entirely independently, leaving them misaligned with the business’ strategic and cultural aims. Senior leaders can play a key role both in supporting employees to volunteer and set up ERGs and in harnessing this enthusiasm to drive improved collaboration and ensure values are aligned.

Supportive policies

Policy change in itself is rarely enough and can often look like tokenistic box-ticking if it occurs without evidence of a broader company commitment to D&I. But the development of inclusive policies as part of this cultural change is important, showing employees and candidates that practical actions are happening alongside internal education, discussion and strategic D&I planning. Policies such as flexible working hours, parental leave, and disability accommodations ensure that all employees can thrive in the workplace.

Widening the net

Ultimately, all of these steps can play a role in widening the prospecting net. Evidence of a truly embedded D&I culture will serve to encourage interest from a more diverse prospect pool as well as helping businesses to retain existing talent.

The broader benefits of this are clear; D&I initiatives help attract and retain skilled professionals from a diverse talent pool, providing many benefits that can give businesses a competitive edge. Diverse teams bring different perspectives that can help identify and mitigate risks as well as lead to more creative and innovative solutions. Including diverse voices in the decision-making process also leads to better decisions that consider all stakeholders, fostering more equitable and sustainable outcomes. These benefits all contribute to a business’ growth and success.

Taking the next step

Given these advantages, the obvious question is: ‘Why aren’t all businesses further along in their D&I journey?’ My experience working in the sector has revealed that some of this reticence may be down to business leaders not knowing where to start, or of being fearful of saying the wrong thing.

The good news is that there is no need for such businesses to go it alone. The expertise exists to help them to not only take the first step but to develop an ongoing D&I structure and strategy, leading them to what I term ‘Inclusive Growth’.

As the original Finding the 754,000 article states, ‘a combination of getting already available IT people back into work and getting the diversity balance right gives us potential access to three–quarters of a million much needed IT professionals’. Small steps towards achieving this balance can begin right now.