Attract, Recruit, Retain: Creating pathways for women within the UK tech sector

Back Attract, Recruit, Retain: Creating pathways for women within the UK tech sector

Gabriela Styf Sjöman

MD Research and Networks Strategy, BT Group

At BT Group, we are committed to embedding diversity and inclusion into everything that we do. We recognise the value that these characteristics bring to a business, helping us to drive productivity, innovation and growth. A report earlier this year from Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) and Amazon Web Services (AWS) demonstrated a tangible link between the maturity of an organisation’s Diversity, Education and Inclusion programmes and positive business impacts, with better competitive position, increased agility and innovation, and better brand perception listed amongst those benefits.

We also have a responsibility, as one of the UK’s largest employers and its biggest telco, to help the wider technology sector improve in this regard. Specifically looking at gender imbalance, according to Tech UK only 24 per cent of employees within the industry are women.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some ideas and examples of how we’re working to attract, recruit and retain more women through a wide range of initiatives. Each of these factors is equally important if we as an industry want to enact significant change and create a level-playing field. Attracting talent without having the right recruitment mechanisms in place can potentially cause talented individuals to be lost either prior to or during that process. At the same time, successful recruitment is meaningless if the pathways don’t then exist for women to progress to management and leadership positions within the organisation.

Attracting talent

Given current gender imbalances within the industry, attracting female talent can be challenging. With fewer mentors and role-models to look up to, especially for those looking from the outside in, it’s important to create accessible ways for girls and women to experience the sector, learn new skills and network.

Our external partnerships with brilliant organisations like Code First Girls, The Prince’s Trust, Black Girls Tech and Girls Talk London are crucial to achieving this. All are dedicated to creating a more diverse sector, and we’ve further built on the success of our relationship with Code First Girls to now sponsor Nanodegree, an intense 13-week learning bootcamp for women who want to pursue a career in data, software, or as a full-stack developer. All participants can subsequently join BT Group in paid roles.

Of course, it’s not just about partnerships – there is more that organisations can do themselves to break down entry barriers. To give a slightly different example, in 2021 Openreach commissioned ground-breaking research into gender-neutral language in advertising, which led to revamped job adverts. The resulting recruitment campaign successfully attracted 300 per cent more women to engineering roles, driven by this simple yet forward-thinking research insight.

Recruitment at all levels

This should be regarded as an equally important area of focus for tech organisations. Partners like those mentioned above are working tirelessly to bring talented women into the sector, but we risk being unable to fully capitalise on those efforts if we don’t have the right processes in place at a recruitment level. How those jobs are advertised – the language used, where they’re placed, and so on – is more important than people might realise, as the Openreach campaign goes to show.

It’s also vital to ensure that relevant colleagues both internally and externally have the knowledge required to effectively coach hiring managers on inclusive hiring best practices. Again, leaning on the expertise and impartiality of external partners here can make a big difference. For example, we worked with Upskill Digital to design and deliver a targeted learning intervention to more than 80 talent acquisition professionals in order to understand and minimise bias in recruitment. Similarly, in partnership with Cubiks, we’ve redesigned the training delivered to our assessors so they can act as Inclusion Champions – recruiting graduates from a wide range of backgrounds so that we can become a business which truly reflects our customers and the regions within which we operate.

Through implementation of the above practices and partnerships, we’ve gradually increased the percentage of female graduate hires to 39 per cent, while at the same time expanding our apprenticeship scheme where 19 per cent of the 3,275 new starters were women.

But the industry can’t focus its efforts solely on entry-level joiners. For example, we know that women who take career breaks are frequently screened out by recruitment processes despite often possessing extensive relevant experience.

Overcoming unfair employer perceptions, alongside other challenges including a lack of flexible working options, is a major barrier for women looking to restart their careers. Recognising this, last year, BT Group developed its first ever career returner programme ‘ReEngage’. Offering successful applicants a six-month fixed-term contract within BT Networks, with the chance to then transition into a permanent role afterwards, such programmes are critically important in allowing women to restart their careers in a supportive way. The success of our first intake, as well as its positive impact on diverse recruitment and inclusive cultures, means we are already looking to run similar schemes elsewhere within our business.

Creating pathways to seniority

Last but not least, retaining diverse talent is also absolutely critical. By ensuring that there are clear routes for progression within the business, from entry level through to senior management and beyond, organisations will not only benefit from the positive business impacts that diversity of thought brings, but also create role models and mentors, the importance of whom cannot be understated in terms of talent attraction and retention. After all, women and other underrepresented groups may naturally be discouraged from entering a sector or organisation where they see a lack of representation at a senior level.

Mentoring opportunities, as well as talent programmes for women in middle management, are effective routes for both enhancing knowledge and progression. Our new Accelerate programme, for example, offers a fast-stream for high potential middle managers, with an initial cohort of 220 women. A similar programme for senior managers included over 160 women, and we plan to expand those numbers across both.

Of course, there is still a lot of work to do both as an industry, and here at BT Group, in our efforts to close the gender gap. We’re laser-focused on achieving our ambition to have a workforce made up of 50 per cent women by 2030, as well as 33 per cent of each of our Board and Executive Committee, and 41% of our senior leadership and management teams by 2025.

The initiatives and partnerships we’ve put in place so far have created a good platform for us to address the gender imbalance. We now need to build on those external relationships, expand our talent management programmes, and continue to establish diversity within recruitment as we strive to achieve proportional representation at all levels of the business.

I have been in many large multinational organisations, all which strive for serving their customers with the best value proposition. This requires to continuously innovate across all functions of the organisation. At the core on creativity and innovation is diversity and inclusion. While this has been recognised in all organisations I have worked for, I am proud to say that I have never experienced an organisation that works as hard as BT Group to achieve this objective.