Women in Tech: How BT is driving up its diversity

20 April 2017 -

Diversity

Looking at BT's Tech Women network, Insights assesses how corporate networking and mentorship programmes can boost gender equality

Jermaine Haughton

From the ‘Queen of Software’ Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, to Ada Lovelace, acknowledged by many as the first computer programmer, women have played a vital role in the history of technological advancement over the centuries.

Yet, there is still an underrepresentation of women in the technology sector, particularly in managerial positions. Deloitte’s research found fewer than 25% of digital jobs were held by women last year, while another study showed that in London, 10% of tech teams have no female employees and more than half say that less than 15% of their teams are women.

For BT, this is not good enough, and Rachel Higham, BT’s Chief Information Officer, is leading a series of programmes to encourage and support more women into technical and leadership positions at the telecoms firm.

Speaking at a recent CMI Women event, the technology executive spoke of how her early experiences at BT Group highlighted the need for change.

“When I joined BT just under two years ago I was looking around the various meeting rooms I was in and there were very few women around the table, probably fewer women than I've ever seen in my career as a technologist,” she said. “So I went and started looking at the data and what the data was telling me was that we were not addressing that missing middle.

“I was seeing we had more women leaving at the junior to middle management and middle to senior management transitions than we had joining and that our diversity and inclusion initiatives weren't making a difference.”

CMI’s own research shows that while 73% of entry-level roles are occupied by women, this reduces to just 43% of women in middle management roles. A worrying trend that CMI is keen to help employers set right.

At BT, Higham was on a mission.

“I went around and spoke to a number of women who had left, who were thinking of leaving and who had just joined and what they were telling me was that first of all the culture was wrong,” she said. “Secondly, there weren't opportunities for them to move into and thirdly they weren't feeling confident to take control of their careers and make BT their homes for the rest of their careers.”

In response, Higham and her team devised the BT Tech Women Network, aiming for 30% of all its executive level roles to be held by women by 2020. Initial results have been promising.

“We've had 245 women go through that programme so far and we're expecting to take another 500 women through it in 2017 and 2018,” Higham said. “The programme is centred around six core modules. We designed those modules with women in our organisation to help them overcome the specific challenges they were facing and that's the difference I've seen between the way we're approaching it and what I've seen elsewhere in the industry.

“We've used the women themselves to design the content for themselves.”

The key parts of the initiative are its mentorship, sponsorship and networking opportunities for aspiring and ambitious women looking to advance their careers.

“They also formally sign up to a two-way pact and this has seven commitments that they make around the effort they will put in but also the give-back, as we call it,” Higham added. “That is: what they're going to do to pass their hand back down the ladder and help the women who are behind them become effective mentors and coaches themselves; and more junior people getting involved in our STEM activities or our barefoot campaign, which helps teachers better teach the computing curriculum so that give-back is very important for us.

Higham has also been keen to get more male role models involved in the drive to get more women into senior management roles, and highlights this as one of the biggest successes of the push for greater diversity.

“We have a gender network which we have just renamed from the women's network, and the reason for that was to engage more of the men in our organisation in that conversation,” Higham said. “That's one big step we've made over the last 18 months and it has really had a big impact - making sure that our male senior leaders are sponsoring and talking about this topic and the changes they're going to be making around their individual team cultures has been a key part of it.”

How you can play your part

CMI is all about developing and enabling brilliant leaders; giving them the management skills they need to fulfill their own potential and unlock the potential of others.

At the heart of this commitment is a belief that diversity is the foundation for good leadership and management as it improves financials, creates a better culture and ensures less risky decision making.

That's why we've launched CMI Women. We want organisations to embrace gender diversity and put it at the heart of their agenda and business practice.

CMI Women will inspire and support women throughout their careers and provide organisations with a Blueprint for Balance so they can benefit from being a gender diverse organisation.

To achieve this we are focusing on three key areas:

Creating high performing, balanced teams - Organisations to use the Blueprint for Balance to share best practice, implement new strategies and achieve 50/50 leadership;

Highlighting men as agents of change - Prompting men to become everyday champions of women at work and agents of change, driving organisational strategies for balance; and

Tackling the missing middle – Increasing the number of women in middle management positions and enabling emerging women leaders to unlock their potential.

Click here to find out more about joining CMI Women

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