Mid-market tech companies lead the way on diversity and inclusion

Christelle Boileux,
Kalpana Balasubramanian,
Katie Macquivey,
Lindsey Copland,
Maria Pretorius
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The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our awareness of, and reliance on, the tech industry to a startling degree. From nine to 90-year-olds, ‘zooming’ is part of the new norm as we have all found ourselves embracing a more digital life at home and at work. But has the new world of work benefitted the women working in the tech industry itself?
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Our Women in Business 2022 research shows that the pandemic has had significant implications for women in tech, prompting a new focus on diversity and inclusion (D&I) in a sector that has largely been considered a male haven.

And as big tech companies begin to enforce a return to the office,[i] their mid-market counterparts are advocating for new ways of working to boost engagement and inclusion across their workforces.

We explore our findings with female industry leaders across our global Grant Thornton network, asking how the mid-market tech sector can continue to build and nurture a culture that’s increasingly more diverse and inclusive for women.

Women in tech seize their window of opportunity

Our Women in Business research shows that mid-market tech companies have embraced the opportunities presented by the pandemic to improve the working conditions and prospects for women more keenly than those in many other industries. Of the sector’s C-suite leaders, 72% believe that new working practices have benefitted women during the pandemic (global average 63%) and 82% are using new ways of working to create a more inclusive environment for female talent (global average 73%).

“In some ways, the technology industry is trying to catch up,” observes Katie Macquivey, Managing Director at Grant Thornton US. “The bigger the problem, the bigger the effort to course correct. Women have historically been underrepresented in technology, and underpaid. In the United States, fewer women getting educational degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas, so from a talent perspective, there's a more limited pool of women available. Today’s hot market, with competition for talent, provides a huge push for companies to differentiate to try and attract the limited number of women in STEM.”

Christelle Boileux, associate at Grant Thornton France agrees. “In the past we’ve lost a lot of women managers when they have children, but this is no longer the case. Now they can organise their own work schedule, which means they can pick up their children from school but then work later in the evening. This wouldn’t have been possible before Covid. I think as a woman you no longer have to reject a career in technology if you have children.”

Maria Pretorius, director at Grant Thornton South Africa has also noticed the increased opportunities for women. “I've certainly seen that a lot more women in tech businesses are actually getting promotions and other opportunities, as well as in technology departments of other businesses as such banks. in particular. Now that we work remotely, we don't need to travel and I've seen a lot of women use that travel time to study more and update themselves on new emerging trends. I think that has also made them more marketable.”

Whilst the panel recognised the broad trend in the uplift for D&I across the industry, they also pointed out that things haven’t been positive for all women.

“There’s a socio-economic divide,” observes Lindsey Copland, partner at Grant Thornton UK. “Women who have homes and spaces that are safe and appropriate for working from home are really benefitting. But I think the pandemic detrimentally impacted women in the younger generation, particularly those with flat shares in London for example, and I think that has been damaging.”

Katie agrees: “While there’s a higher empathy and appreciation for our priorities outside of work, data suggests that women have had to take on more responsibilities – with families, but also with employees. Often women are looked to more for the emotional support to pull folks through challenging situations. As a result, we are seeing higher burnout and increasing rates of women departing their careers because of the higher levels of responsibility.”

The impact of additional caring responsibilities and household demands on women’s productivity, working hours and wellbeing is not something that is exclusive to the technology industry. In fact, this is something our female leaders in banking and life sciences also referred to when discussing the findings of our research. But if the technology industry is already behind the curve when it comes to women in the workplace, then this is something businesses will need to pay closer attention to, to ensure that they are continuing to attract and retain diverse talent. 

Are tech companies doing enough to help drive progress?

With the pressure of the pandemic still taking its toll on women, this year’s Women in Business research showed that stakeholder pressure within tech companies to achieve or maintain gender balance is well above average.

While there has been no measurable increase in the number of overall actions to ensure employee engagement and inclusion over the last year, it seems technology businesses are doing more than other industries. They are giving high priority to instilling new working practices to better engage all employees, including long-term virtual and flexible working, and paying careful attention to employees' individual working styles and adapting approaches accordingly.

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Kalpana round image.jpgThere are active measures being taken according to CEO of dGTL at Grant Thornton India, Kalpana Balasubramanian. “In terms of working practice, companies are making sure that they coach people on drawing boundaries between personal and professional life.

"Not everybody has a big home, so how you actually manage that delineation becomes very critical – there is generally a huge impetus on understanding how people work from home. Many businesses are now giving paternity leave for six months, which has positive benefits for women too. People are being open about their care commitments and there are new policies on that, as well as for mental health and physical wellbeing.” Companies are looking at their entry level recruitment too, trying to ensure more women are included.

“One area where I see less of women is in Tech entrepreneurs. We do see for example Sequoia Capital running a spark initiative for women entrepreneurs, similarly, Waterbridge ventures also has a separate programme for female tech entrepreneurs. I think for change to happen we need to work across different communities - none of us is as strong as all of us!”

Christelle recognises a similar trend. “We’ve seen Salesforce begin a new programme to support women returning to work after maternity leave, helping them to reboot their careers. In today’s competitive climate, tech companies are afraid to lose their consultants and developers, so I think this is a good initiative.”

“A lot of the larger companies are adding D&I into their hiring practices,” Katie agrees. “They have minimum thresholds for the diversity of candidates that are being interviewed for positions. We’re also seeing a lot more emphasis on business or enterprise resource groups, getting communities together within companies to ensure that they are feeling supported and getting more resources, training and one-on-one mentoring. There are often scorecard metrics or enforced behaviours around participation in those kinds of groups.”

Top drivers for action in mid-market tech

Aside from stakeholder pressure, our research highlighted three key drivers prompting mid-market tech companies to take action for engagement and inclusion:

  • A need to improve business outcomes through more diverse teams
  • Improving or maintaining gender balance; and
  • The need to better reflect their customers and community.

“I think there is a huge pressure to actually understand the customer better,” suggests Kalpana. “There is a lot of focus today on customer-targeted selling and for that to be successful you need equal representation, because otherwise you may miss out on your own customer population. As females, we are a big customer base.”

“We’re starting to see companies take a stand on issues,” says Katie, “so that they can reflect and mirror the core values of the customers and employees that they serve. More people are looking to align their places of employment, and the products and services that they consume with their values, with much more emphasis on being fulfilled. There's a lot more that goes into developing a brand and what it means beyond just the things that you're buying.”

Maria agrees. “I think companies are becoming more values orientated. I can certainly see that in South Africa: there's a stronger focus on why certain things are being done and aligning actions with customer values.”

Measurement is power

Could the increased focus on reflecting its customer base indicate a need for the industry to prove its increasing commitment to D&I? If so, this could explain why tech companies are stealing a march on other industries yet again by doing much more in the way of measuring D&I across the board. They show an above-average focus on measuring gender pay equality (49% vs 44% global average) and employee perception of inclusion (44% vs 35% global average).

Measuring diversity and inclusion, and all aspects of gender parity is important both for shareholders who want confidence in the sustainability and resilience of the business, and for regulators who want to see measurement against key reporting requirements, such as gender pay gap.

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Measurement is also important internally, allowing organisations to make informed decisions and identify gaps, inequities and risks. If an organisation hires equal numbers of men and women at entry level but sees the numbers of women consistently decrease higher up the management ladder, then ongoing measurement could help leaders take action to deliver effective change.

Both parity and perception are important then, and keeping a finger on the pulse of D&I will prove vital in the long-term if the tech industry is to harness the full benefits of ESG policies.

Technology – the one to watch

Our Women in Business research shows that the mid-market tech industry is no longer behind the curve when it comes to recognising the value and contribution women can bring to the workplace. With senior management consisting of 35% women and a three-point improvement over the last year in female representation at both CEO and COO level, tech could prove an increasingly attractive prospect for women in STEM.

If tech companies can keep their nerve, keep taking deliberate action towards a more inclusive management cohort and continue to measure and adapt for ongoing success, they could become a serious challenger for the top spot in the diversity stakes.

To find out more about how businesses are opening the door to diverse talent and driving gender parity, read our Women in Business 2022 report and D&I insights.


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