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Have businesses come far enough in supporting female employees?

The approach of technology companies to their female employees is still a pressing issue within organisations and within the media. A number of businesses have suggested increasingly inventive, but not always practical, ways to solve the reported lack of gender inclusivity, diversity and equality amongst their workforces.

While women now make up 46 per cent of the UK’s work force, only 15.5 per cent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce are women.

The numbers highlight the challenge — last year a government report showed that while women now make up 46 per cent of the UK’s work force, only 15.5 per cent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce are women.

Is there a solution?

To find out, HP spoke to five of its successful female UK employees — from a variety of backgrounds including HR, law, as well as technical support — to discuss how they felt about being a woman in technology; how far businesses have come in supporting their female employees; and what can be done to improve the situation.

Being a woman in technology

What does it feel like to be a woman at HP? All of the women we spoke to agreed that HP never feels like a male-dominated business. Says Aileen Allkins, VP Worldwide Software Support and leader for HP’s Women’s Diversity group:

HP definitely has put initiatives in place to help drive more women into the business and retain more women. I’ve never felt that being a woman is a problem or a positive thing… just neutral.”

This sentiment is largely the result of HP’s flexible and open approach to its employees regardless of gender. Businesses which provide individually-tailored initiatives not only inspire loyalty but also a supportive environment. For women, this could apply to flexible policies around maternity leave, part-time working — or more broadly, keeping an open mind. When Jane Keith, Head of HR UK&I, needed it most, she was given flexible work hours; when she needed additional support, it was there. Similarly, Susan says that she was given

the chance to go for the jobs that [she] wanted to go for… it’s never been about whether [she is] female or male, it’s about whether [she] wanted to do something and whether [she] was capable and the right person to do it”.

Her progression from technical to sales development is because she took the variety of opportunities as and when they arose.

It’s this attitude which engendered the launch of HP Ascend in 2013, a global sponsorship program through which HP’s high-performing female employees receive mentoring, coaching, and networking support. CEO Meg Whitman led the kick-off event for the pilot, which matches 30 of HP’s senior executives with 30 high-potential women as protégés for a year.

 HP has a female CEO because its culture fosters women in leadership positions.

Having worldwide female figureheads in the form of two female CEOs (one previous and one current) is, for these employees, symptomatic of HP’s culture — HP has a female CEO because its culture fosters women in leadership positions. It’s about the grassroots, not just top-level direction.

Back to the roots

While internal company measures help in the short term, all women agree that longer term solutions need to be found. The most obvious answer is starting with education: as Aileen puts it, it’s about,

getting more girls interested in technology from a very young age. HP has got its diversity and inclusion board, all big companies do… it needs a much bigger change from the roots if the country is going to make any difference.”

It comes back to the oft-repeated problem: the lack of STEM female students and a lack of female role models within technology. Susan sees this problem as a societal issue — we need to encourage children to see that it’s OK to be into science and maths:

It’s the culture we need to influence.”

In addition, Donna Herdsman, Director UK Public Sector, believes there is a

struggle to get women to step forward to be highlighted as role models and campaigners in technology.”

Of course, to tackle this requires cross sections of society to buy into the change, from parents to teachers. Ultimately, government can only do so much, and what is needed is investment from the wider technology industry. This is where organisations such as HP can make a difference. One solution is to have more collaboration between industry and teachers, the influencers in many children’s lives, to get them to understand the excitement of the industry. As Aileen says,

technology is perceived as sitting behind your computer and writing code… teachers and schools don’t always know the huge variety of jobs available.”

We are seeing more and more of these types of partnership. HP, for instance, is sponsoring TechFuture Girls aimed at girls aged 10 — 14. Since its launch in 2005, more than 150,000 girls have benefited from its mix of activities, games and projects, all designed to build girls’ skills and confidence in technology. And now, thanks to its sponsors, which include HP, more than 20,000 schools can access the programme without charge. In addition, HP staff also volunteer at local TechFuture Girls to support teachers and serve as role models for the girls.

The business challenge
All women agree that companies need to do more than focus on awareness – the issues surrounding women in technology are fundamental business challenges.

Looking to the future, all women agree that companies need to do more than focus on awareness – the issues surrounding women in technology are fundamental business challenges. Donna believes that, “without driving forces behind these initiatives it will become something where you count heads rather than make an indelible difference.” When Susan first studied computing science 20 years ago, she was the only girl in her class – since then the ratios have barely changed. This really matters — not having enough women in technology is a long-term structural problem. If more women than men are coming out of university, and they don’t have technical positions, we will have a workforce problem. It’s about helping managers and businesses understand why this matters.

While the focus on STEM skills in particular is important, it’s essential to remember that in today’s business world non-technical roles in technology companies can be just as meaningful. Donna did a degree in business studies and now heads up HP’s Public Sector services. If we can broaden the quality of the talent pool, we can become more diverse and help reflect, in HP’s case, its customer base.

But still, we’ve come a long way. Tara Trower, Legal Director UK&I, is an example of one of these non-technical women. She says,

Over the years I’ve seen it generally improve across the industry, I’ve seen more and more women moving into senior legal roles.”

While we still have to be vigilant, it’s good to see that HP is in some ways a leading light in this debate and that solutions to some of the greatest challenges exist.

In 2013, 20.7% of HP’s top executives (director level and above) globally were women, up slightly from 20.1% in 2012. We’ve made progress, and we’re getting closer. As Donna says,

We’ve all got a role to play, it’s not just government but organisations like HP. The people that bring it alive to any woman interested in this industry are the people like us in this discussion today — we make it a reality.”

Aileen Allkins is VP Worldwide Software Support, HP

Jane Keith is Head of HR UK & Ireland, HP

Donna Herdsman is Director UK Public Sector, HP

Susan Bowen is Chief of Staff UK & Ireland, HP

Tara Trower is Legal Director UK & Ireland, HP

You might also be interested in: How can business recruit, retain and inspire the best talent? Diversity of talent = diversity of thought = great business, says Helen Wollaston, WISE campaign.  Is business doing enough to redress the gender balance? British Glass asks how we can STEM the leaking talent pipeline in manufacturing

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  1. Moira Biggins -

    It’s good to hear from women in senior roles, but I am wondering why all of the five “successful female UK employees” interviewed were in such roles. Are we defining “success” as meaning “occupying a senior role”? There are a limited number of such roles; most people will never occupy one, and many don’t want one. It would have been good to hear from women at other levels in the company.
    Moira Biggins (happy to be a female UK employee of HP).