But the summit in Paris inspired a lot of hope: using modern ways of thinking, exploring new strategies and having different conversations with girls and young women, we can, I believe, build more diverse, robust and successful workforces and spaces together.
WiT Global was an exhilarating showcase of what can be achieved in diverse and inclusive tech spaces — I posted my personal highlights earlier. Sharing and collaborating with so many women focused on the same goal was a welcome confidence boost after Covid brutally exposed gender inequalities we still face in everyday life.
Since the summit, I’ve continued to reflect on how I can improve things at LzLabs and beyond for women and diverse groups. I’m so proud the program practice team I lead is 50% women and grateful for the support I receive from LzLabs leadership to make this happen in a sustainable way. Hiring with DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion) as a key pillar of growing a single team is good. But there’s a way to go to make the sector as a whole more welcoming and savvy in its engagement with all demographic groups who make up the workforce. And I believe three core principles will help achieve this goal: Fair access, Perception management, and Sponsoring (with mentoring).
When I look back at my journey into and through the tech space as a woman of colour, these three principles highlight what can make a difference. I was born into my Nigerian family, the youngest girl with four brothers ahead of me and another brother right after! As you can imagine, it was a fight to get access to resources and recognition of my aptitude in a traditionally male culture and society. I think I only took math and computer science at school to prove a point to my parents — that I was every bit as good as my brothers!
During the pandemic, many households didn’t share computing resources equally and lower domestic access shows up in depressing and familiar workplace statistics; women make up just 16% of the tech workforce in the UK**; the MIT puts female participation in the STEM sector at 16% in Europe*. This needs to change soon.
Again using my personal experience, having made the point about my competence in studying, I landed in the professional tech sector and realised it was a great place to be for a woman. Nor did I find it as technically difficult as it’s made out to be. So often I hear from girls, “but you have to be good at maths” or “it will be too difficult!”. Neither of these are true in my opinion. The tech sector is broad and can accommodate — and in fact needs — many talents and strengths alongside bog standard skills of programming and coding.
There are multiple and growing opportunities in the digital and tech sector that play to women’s strengths as collaborators, problem solvers and fixers. From a creative career as a UI developer to an ability to evaluate and spot patterns as a data analyst to doing big-picture thinking as a strategist; there is room for all of the shades of women. The growing field of computer and digital behavioural psychology calls for the skill of empathic thinking often associated with the female psyche. Managing and creating perceptions that mirror the reality of our very dynamic sector is therefore really important.
Alongside these two well-recognised barriers of access and perception is the newer notion that’s circulating about women being “over mentored and under-sponsored.” In other words, there’s plenty of goodwill and advice out there, but not enough direct backing for women – whether it’s recommendations for speaking opportunities or funding for their education. In the cut and thrust of the commercial world, sponsorship — think patronage in previous times — is in short supply. As the word patron stems from the Latin root for father, it’s perhaps not surprising there’s no strong convention of women backing females at work with hard cash or affirmative action.
More women take degrees and enter the workplace than men, so something is definitely amiss when a proportionate number of females are not landing the senior jobs during their careers. The current, tiny pool of women in tech leadership roles exacerbates the problem of diminished sponsorship capacity and has a direct bearing on the slim pipeline of women into leadership roles in the sector. And so again, a shift in attitude and behaviour is essential to afford women the same sponsorship opportunities as men.
Thinking about how to make an immediate change, I was touched by an appeal from one of the keynote speakers, Jameka Pankey, at Paris WiT “not to be a gatekeeper”. As you grow in your career, there can be a temptation to focus and consolidate, even hoard, what we have built. With so few women in our sector, it’s incredibly valuable to share salary information, provide tangible support and network together as females. I know the value of active sponsorship from my experience of mentoring young women and girls for a charity called Wentors. As one of only a few women in tech out of a hundred volunteer mentors, I was besieged with requests from girls to help them get a toehold in the field.
From my perspective of working and mentoring in my two home cultures, Nigeria and the UK, I was struck by structural differences and local customs I encountered when I moved to Switzerland. While the dearth of women in tech is a global problem, which calls for local solutions and action, the fundamentals remain the same: providing childcare, education and supportive changes in taxation. To support this journey, the growing availability of modern tools across the world, such as cheaper, more ubiquitous broadband and mobile is cause for optimism.
For those of us acting within the workplace, I applaud you. Consider that you can make a big difference by tackling these three points as a working strategy. In most circumstances, equal access to education, formulating realistic perceptions, and on-the-ground sponsorship will surely help address current disparities between the genders — and boost the future of tech.