Why it's time for the tech industry to take gender diversity seriously

The tech industry is still doing too little to make gender diversity a priority. That needs to change, says Booking.com.

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Research conducted by travel giant Booking.com has found that only just over half of women working in the tech sector feel their company is prioritising gender – and three out of five that take a career break feel less valued.

The company says the industry needs to be better at supporting women in IT, both at the start of their careers and when they are more established, if it is to maintain a representative and skilled workforce. ZDNet spoke to Booking.com CEO Gillian Tans to find out more.

ZDNet: Your recent research into the role of women in IT suggests that the situation is better than it has been. Would that be correct?

Tans: Well, there is good and bad. While you do see that some areas are better, the gap is still pretty big. With women working in IT, and the need to improve the balance between women and men, there is an urgency needed. Are things getting better? The urgency is there but I think it requires a lot of attention.

Can you talk about examples, areas that do need attention?

booking-com-gillian-tans-ceo.png

Tans: "There is still a lot that needs to be done and that sits with creating diverse cultures within companies."

Photo: Booking.com

Yes, I think that if you look at the gap, companies can do a lot. The biggest problem Is in education, and I think that is probably the first area that we need to think about because there are not enough women taking the studies that are needed for the future.

For instance, McKinsey put out the report that showed that women make up just 23 percent of those at high school on advanced courses in computer science.

Just 19 percent of computing and information science degree places are for women, so you can see that overall women tend not to choose these subjects when they study. I think that this is one of the main elements that needs to change.

That is why Booking.com started a scholarship for women and I think that is what many companies could really do to help address this situation and help women in these STEM subjects.

Within companies there's a lot of work that still needs to be done, even in the technology sector. We found that 44 percent of women said that their companies were not prioritizing on diversity.

SEE: Transgender employees in tech: Why this "progressive" industry has more work to do to achieve true gender inclusivity (TechRepublic cover story)

There is still a lot that needs to be done and that sits with creating diverse cultures within companies. It sits in having programmes for women – membership programmes. It sits in training that women need. It sits in many different areas, and that's what I've learned at Booking.com is that companies really need to look at their data and see what's happening. What's working well? We see that even when you start recruitment, you must have a diverse candidate mix from the start.

You have promotion processes that should be calibrated and there's all kinds of things that we've learned that you need to go through as a business as well.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that in a company like Booking.com you have a fairly high ration of female employees?

Yes. Over 50 per cent of employees at Booking.com are women. In technology, we have 20 percent. That's probably a bit higher than the average and I think that's because we are putting in a lot of energy around this topic. We would like, of course, to get these numbers up.

In the technology side of the business, what ways do you use to try to improve the ratio?

We started this internally by setting up specific programmes to bring women into Booking.com. But then we also started externally because we realized that putting all your efforts internally will not get you there.

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We started offering scholarships and linking up with Universities, which we do now with Oxford and Delft.

We also realized from all sorts of research that many students could not name a famous female who was working or had worked in technology. So, women don't even have role models that they can look up to.

Now that is something that we have also realized internally at Booking.com, that you need a role model. Women need to see that other women are building successful careers in these businesses. That is why we started the Technology Playmaker Awards, to show what women are already doing out there.

And this is where the media can really help as well by showcasing more of these women, women that are already doing amazing things in technology. For example, the woman who won the latest Playmaker Award, Linda Liukas, is from Finland and is a programmer who is also the author of a children's book, Hello Ruby [she programs in the language, Ruby] which is a children's picture book about the world of computer science that has been translated into 25 languages.

So, you see that many women are out there doing amazing things to help other women.

What other areas are there where you think that women aren't represented enough?

Another area where you see this is in data science where women are under-represented.

Isn't programming one of those areas where, despite endless research showing that women are just as good, and often better than men, they continue to be under-represented?

Yes, and if you think about machine learning and AI, the problem is even greater and that is really quite scary because we don't have women creating these kinds of data models. That is something that we need to think about for the future.

Do you think that that is one area where direct action could help in terms of targeting areas like AI?

Yes, I think it's awareness and it all goes back to the same problem: education. That's where it starts, and to make sure that women want to work in these types of roles.

What do you think it will take to encourage women in this area?

What I have learned is that you really need to create a work environment that will accommodate women. That goes from adapting work schedules, leave policies, ensuring that you have the right leadership in place, mentoring programmes. And, that you make sure that there are career paths for women and opportunities internally.

SEE: How to build a successful career as a DevOps engineer (free PDF)    

And the opportunities internally need to be equal for men and for women. That's very important. Because I do see – even at Booking – that on data science, we have great women that are making progress, that are now in leadership roles, but you need to make sure that they are recognized internally. But to do that you need to help them, to make sure that they can make these steps.

Role models are extremely important and with role models it's not only having me running this business. That's not enough. It's on every level that you need to be building success and making sure that people talk about it.

How would you compare the situation in Holland in comparison to the UK?

I wouldn't see much difference between Holland and the UK, but if you look at Europe in general it has quite some challenges facing it. It is estimated that there will be 756,000 unfilled jobs in the IT sector in 2020 and a lot of these will need to be filled by women.

That's the challenge that Europe really needs to think about. That's the challenge. Industry and government need to come together. How do we get the investment to do the re-skilling of people that will be needed? How do we make sure we have incentive schemes that fit with the type of people we need? It's a very broad topic that needs diligence and a lot of attention.

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