‘No gimmicks’ – how to attract more women into tech

Hannah Meiton
Hannah Meiton, former COO of Soundtrack Your Brand, joined Sting this year. Photo: Sting

Although the tech sector is known for stark gender disparities, 40% of recruits to companies under the wing of Stockholm tech investor Sting are women. Here, Raman Ramalingam reveals the techniques the firm uses to attract this remarkably high proportion of women into tech.

One of the most common counter-arguments to people trying to promote gender balance in the tech sector is to cite the existing rate of improvement in the industry. “Look how far we’ve come in even the last five years,” pale, male, and stale executives will claim, as though the rate of progress means the hard work is over. “Gender parity is on the rise, it will just take time.”

PWC’s Women in Tech report exposes the fallacy of such arguments. To get a sense of the future of gender balance in technology, the report’s authors spoke to 2,000 A-Level and university students about their perceptions of the industry. About 15% of young men consider a tech role their first choice career, compared with only 3% of women. More than three-quarters (78%) couldn’t name a famous female working in technology. And with only 5% of industry leadership positions held by women, it’s easy to see why.

There is a lot more work to be done if this is how the next working generation feel. So the question becomes how can you bring about longstanding, meaningful change?

First, ditch the gimmicks. One day, women-only hackathons are useful networking events, but they’re not going to change the deep-rooted structural imbalances of the industry. Mentorship schemes provide invaluable wisdom to the next generation of female workers, but if the odds are stacked against you from the outset then they’re fighting an uphill battle.

The answer has always been: put your money where your mouth is. Invest in women in technology, either by paying them a salary or funding their companies. Social attitudes follow the money, and if the money is flowing into clever female entrepreneurs’ pockets then our perceptions will evolve. Suddenly there will be thousands of female tech superstars whose names A Level-aged students can reel off to researchers.

First, ditch the gimmicks. One day, women-only hackathons are useful networking events, but they’re not going to change the deep-rooted structural imbalances of the industry”

On the investment side, in 2018 our own team made a conscious decision to do better. At the time, only 26% of the startups accepted to our incubate and accelerate programs (who receive investment as a result) were run by women. A year later, thanks to internal champions and clear achievable goals, this figure was up to 42%, supporting excellent companies such as Mindmore and Kavalri Games.

With recruitment, the challenge is harder because the biases are far more structural and issues harder to define. At Sting, we have helped more than 500 people find jobs in the tech sector, hiring many women in traditionally male roles like programmers and development engineers. In 2018, 40% of all our recruits were women. Through this process we’ve learned a few techniques for making application processes inclusive and balancing the odds.

The starting point is to understand the pre-existing biases that are more likely to surface male candidates for roles. One of the most important has been heavily publicised by Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. This is that men and women approach lists of criteria for a role completely differently. Men will consider themselves suitable for a job if they meet six out of 10 criteria, whereas women are unlikely to apply for jobs unless they have 100% suitability. To accommodate this, my team at Sting challenge the necessity of every criterion on a job spec; stripping down the list of mandatory requirements to as few as possible. Anything else can be classified as “nice to have but not necessary”, so as to not put off female applicants who strive for perfect compatibility.

Men will consider themselves suitable for a job if they meet six out of 10 criteria, whereas women are unlikely to apply for jobs unless they have 100% suitability”

On the subject of tech tools, there are some to be wary of in the recruitment space. Platforms designed to present possible recruits often have in-built algorithmic biases that mirror their creators. Our mental images for candidates tend to look like ourselves, and these preferences can be carried over into coding. Though bots and search tools can turbocharge recruitment efforts, it’s important to handle them with care. To compensate for these problems, make sure to stack the odds the other way through social media ads targeted towards women, partnering with female-focussed skill-training organisations etc.

Finally it’s important to consider whether gender-discriminatory bias is being masqueraded as brand preference. For example, if a startup says they’re looking for a software developer from a certain university it might not seem discriminatory at first glance. But when 80% of that university’s computer science graduates are male, the prejudice becomes apparent.

These are just a few techniques we have learnt over the years. The evidence comprehensively suggests that mixed teams perform better than all-male and all-female startups. But with the odds heavily stacked against women, it’s only with active strategies that rapid improvement can be sustained for generations to come.

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Raman Ramalingam

About Raman Ramalingam

Raman Ramalingam is head of talent at Stockholm-based technology incubator Sting where he is the champion of the company’s gender equality improvement efforts
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