The COVID pandemic has forced a broad reassessment of how the working world should work and this reappraisal could have profound implications for diversity in IT, says Professor Clem Herman.

Why is gender equality in this sector important, and why now? It is timely in several ways. We have an opportunity to benefit from this unique time of change - over the past 18 months we have witnessed enormous changes to working practices, with increased flexibility both in time and place of work. This includes changes to the lived experience of some men who have been actively engaged in home schooling and childcare during the pandemic.

Working norms have been shaken up, and this presents the chance to do things differently going forward. But we risk returning to the old patterns of gender inequality if we do not learn from this experience and use it to make a step change.

Thus, attention to diversity is even more important now than ever. Diversity initiatives and movements for equity and justice are still met with resistance, and during times of crisis can be relegated to being less important than other problems considered to be more pressing.

The need for change through resistance

Resistance comes in many forms. Sometimes there is denial which includes saying gender equality is no longer an issue, or this is not a problem within ‘my’ organisation, or that this is ‘just how it is’, that women just happen to make different choices to men. We are also seeing evidence of what some call ‘gender fatigue’.

People are tired of women in tech as an issue - we’ve been there, done it, worn the t-shirt or they may express a sense of futility, that we cannot do anything to change the culture or that it is simply too hard to fix. I also worry about what some have called the ‘diversity diversion’, meaning we no longer need to focus on women but should be working towards everyone being included.

That’s all very well, but until we acknowledge and tackle deeper structural issues, inclusion efforts to redress gender inequity remain superficial.

Equality in IT is difficult to achieve but necessary

Achieving gender equality is hard; changing cultures is difficult and often emotionally draining work and as quickly as we think we have nailed it, the manifestation of gender inequity can change, and the issues faced by women can show up in different ways. We have to recognise that this is a consequence of historical structural inequities and cannot be undone by wishful thinking alone.

Most organisations, and this is particularly true of tech companies, have been created with a certain type of ideal worker in mind, often someone who can work long hours with no other commitments such as family care getting in the way, and have had an uninterrupted career, without any breaks. We have to move away from prioritising and rewarding this normative expectation and ensure that successful careers are able to be combined with care and other responsibilities outside of work.

Diversity in IT and your role

I’ve been working for most of my career in different ways to support diversity in tech, via educational, research and policy interventions.

On the one hand, I am pleased that there is so much interest in this area, and that our new book 'Women in Tech: A practical guide to increasing gender diversity and inclusion' is receiving such a lot of publicity, but on the other hand it saddens me that a book such as this is still needed.

As well as trying to increase the attraction of computing and technology to women, as an educator I’m interested in how we can raise diversity awareness and competence of future technology professionals through our own teaching and curriculum content. This needs to be intentionally built into the way we teach and assess learning.

As well as technical competence, our students need to know how to embed equality, diversity and inclusion into their day-to-day practice as they move into the workplace.

As a researcher I’m particularly interested in looking at how the UK can learn from countries where women are better represented in IT - for instance in India where 50% of new entrants to the industry are women. And, as a senior professional in my university, I am leading on implementing structural changes to our processes and practices as our institutional Athena SWAN lead and chair of the Open University’s Gender Equality Steering Group which has responsibility for implementing our gender equality action plan.

Embedding a diversity pathway

Finally, a word about numbers. Representation is of course important and increasing the proportion of women not only makes this area of work and study more attractive for girls and young women, but we also know that a critical mass is vital to change the culture within any organisation or group.

But getting more women into technology professions is not the only measure of success, it is also about what happens after they get there. Organisations need to make sure that work environments are places where everyone feels a sense of belonging and can contribute their best and achieve their full potential.