The technology sector is synonymous with innovation; in 2019, UK tech beat out competition from industry superpowers, including the US and China and led global growth where investments reached £10.1 billion, which was up by £3.1 billion on the year before. However, the internal demographics of tech firms fail to reflect the culture of progress the industry has come to be known for.
Senior tech professional Jane Craven knows the feeling of being the only woman in the room, having worked in the sector for two decades, where only 5% of the industry’s leadership roles are women-held.
As Sales Director at global audio-technology firm EPOS, she shares its universalist approach to workplace inclusion that reflects its identity as a multinational company and details her experience of gender discrimination during her career journey, including how important allies and female role models were to overcoming these barriers.
As a woman who has worked in the IT and telecoms sectors for 20 years, how have you seen it change in gender representation and diversity?
Recently I’ve seen a dedicated effort to encourage more women to consider a career in STEM in the UK, and in many ways, they’ve been successful. According to WISE (the campaign for gender diversity in STEM), over a million women are working in core STEM roles across the UK for the first time. However, despite this important milestone, there’s no denying a demographic deficit remains in the UK’s tech sector. The UK tech industry falls behind other parts of the world when it comes to representation, where women make up only 16% of IT professionals, a trend that has persisted for a decade.
Organisations of all sizes need to recognise the benefits that having a gender diverse workforce offers. Women can bring new ideas, insights and perspectives to the table, fostering better problem-solving skills, innovation, creativity and help to challenge gender stereotypes already entrenched in the industry.
According to research, female employees also improve business performance – the UK economy would benefit from an extra £2.6 billion annually if the number of women working in tech were increased to fill the prevalent IT skills shortage. As the demand for tech skills in every sector of the economy is growing, it makes business sense to prioritise attracting more women into the industry.
Does diversity stimulate innovation in business?
Beyond the obvious issues, an absence of diversity leads to other problems that directly impact businesses, including attracting and retaining talent, brand perception, and the overall bottom line.
Less diversity means less diverse and innovative thinking, which ultimately narrows the talent pool businesses can draw from. We need people with different backgrounds and perspectives to generate new ways of thinking, ideas and concepts.
By integrating inclusive values into business, you signal to employees that their opinions matter, and you’re committed to helping them succeed. Research also indicates that a lack of diversity can impact profit, with businesses ranking as less diverse than competitors generating less revenue.
Women are still not adequately represented in STEM courses at university, and consequently, fewer women work in the STEM industries. How can this be changed?
As a first step, we need to ensure STEM studies are championed in the education system – without this, we can’t expect female students to aspire to a career in STEM or tech. We need to increase awareness about what types of careers are available, and we can do this by shining a spotlight on women leading the way.
Even before we get to university level, we need to expose more girls to STEM subjects in the classroom. The IT sector must take proactive steps like working with local schools to support programmes both in-school and outside. This could range from arranging work experience opportunities, STEM-focused after school clubs, and guest speaker events. If we start making changes at the education level, we can hope to lay the foundation for future generations.
How important are female role models in remedying the issue?
Having vocal and visual female role models is a key component to attracting more women to STEM. It will help female students relate and inspire them to consider applying for a role in the industry.
Overall, there’s a lack of awareness about how to make a name for yourself in this sector and the benefits that come as a result of this career path including the tech, communication and leadership skills developed.
Offering internal mentorship schemes or partnering with external ones is a great way to bridge the gap at a business level. I’ve experienced first-hand the benefits of having a mentor, whether receiving career guidance, advice or having a sounding board for ideas or work worries.
Female networks are also becoming increasingly popular across industries, whether virtual forums, advice blogs or virtual meetups. Building a sense of allyship with other businesswomen will help to lead the charge in improving gender diversity.
Can you tell me about your experience at EPOS as a woman in a senior position? What diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives at the company impress you?
EPOS is a truly global company, and we strive to uphold inclusivity as one of our core values. Having 36 different nationalities and LGBT+ employees in our staff, we strive to create a culture where everyone feels comfortable, and no silos divide us.
We’ve started small from catering to people’s dietary requirements to respecting people’s work habits and cultural differences. What’s great about having a diverse team is that we all bring a new perspective, experience, and voice to the table. Embracing people’s different cultures and heritage means no one should feel excluded or like they don’t belong.
As we look to the next year and beyond, we recognise that we have progress to make in this area. We’ll be doing this by talking to our employees and figuring out what’s working, what’s not, and what initiatives they’d like to see introduced at EPOS. We’re firmly committed to making this an open dialogue with our colleagues – everyone’s voice should be heard and considered.
Despite its reputation for innovation, why is IT (and tech more broadly) not the most diverse and equal sector in the world of business?
Unfortunately, in the past, I think people have been quick to stereotype STEM subjects or a career in tech and place it into a ‘male only’ category. So much of it is down to creating a culture at schools, colleges, universities, and workplaces where girls and women feel comfortable pursuing these subjects and feel like they have an equal chance of getting the same access to education and career progression as their male counterparts.
Again, this is not only gender-specific but also relevant to ethnicity and sexuality. Last month it was Black History Month in the US. We saw big tech corporations starting to reflect on the state of diversity within their companies, including how they’re trying to address long-standing inequalities and encourage change.
It’s promising to see initiatives such as OneTen, where IBM, along with other tech firms such as HP Inc and AT&T, are aiming to train, hire and promote one million Black Americans to jobs over 10 years to create a more flexible talent pipeline. However, these initiatives need to be introduced and rolled out globally. Other tech organisations, alongside education institutions, need to follow suit and implement strategies that scrutinise current policies and identify areas of improvement.
What’s been your experience of gender discrimination?
There have been times I’ve felt discriminated against because of my gender, particularly in the past being the only female manager on a team of 6 within a male-dominated industry. Discrimination can take many forms from being delegated the task of ordering lunch as the only female in the room to the only person taking notes in a meeting. In a past role, I remember being asked to iron a shirt for a male colleague at a work conference.
I am grateful to have had very supportive teams throughout my career who were just as disappointed in this sort of behaviour as I was. As with most experiences at work, I chalked it up to a learning opportunity. If anything, it made it easier to identify this behaviour in others and quickly stop it before it starts to impact someone’s job and work environment. I think everyone has a responsibility to call out this behaviour and create a supportive and open atmosphere at work regardless of their role.
Who was your professional role model when you started out?
On my first day in sales in 1997, I was introduced to Karen Bell, known as ‘the best salesperson in the company’. Karen’s story inspired me from day one. Karen was a single mum at the age of 17; by the time she was 27, she was the company’s top-performing employee.
What’s stayed with me all these years is that Karen instantly took me under her wing, and with her help and support, that’s how I became the second most successful salesperson in the company. Karen went onto set up her own business and now runs one of the UK’s most successful wedding event companies. Karen’s kindness highlighted how important it is to have female role models at work.
A mentor is an invaluable relationship to have, helping to provide guidance and advice at every stage of a career. Considering my experience, I think organisations should offer internal mentorship schemes or partner with external ones
You have significant experience in the IT sector. What changes in terms of representation do you want to see within the next decade?
I’m hopeful the IT sector will be more diverse than it is now. Thankfully, we’re starting to see more representation from Gen Zs entering the workforce, including those from different genders, ethnicities, and sexual identities.
As this new intake matures, they’ll climb the career ladder, translating into more representation at all levels of business, particularly at the leadership and board levels.
We know change needs to come from the top to combat unchecked bias, both conscious and unconscious. This prevents groups from being shown or even considered for progression paths or leadership tracks at companies. As diverse talent starts to move up, we’ll slowly but surely start to close the diversity deficit that plagues the IT sector. Although this sounds and looks nice on paper, it will require collaboration across the industry to challenge existing stereotypes and enact long-lasting change
What skills can women as a group bring to sales roles?
I don’t see the sales sector through a gendered lens – ultimately, selling is selling; your gender shouldn’t make a difference to the job you do. Any salesperson will tell you the key to being successful is to find a human connection when pitching or a commonality you can tap into when trying to negotiate a deal.
However, sales isn’t just about making a sale or a profit; it relies on strong communication and relationship-building skills with your colleagues as well as potential customers irrespective of your gender.
There’s no denying these skills take time to develop, but once you’ve honed them, they will benefit you and your team in the long term. If I had to pinpoint one skill that is fundamental to the sales sector, it would be listening – when you’re pitching, you really have to consider who the customer is, their needs, and how you can provide them with the best solutions they need. Without that mindset, it will be very challenging to connect with any prospects and build a longstanding relationship.