Opening up the D&I agenda in tech with Sarah Atkinson


Louize Clarke | March 18, 2019

This week’s Connect Talks is set to be a deep dive into the D&I agenda here in the Thames Valley. Sarah Atkinson, Chair, Diversity & Skills Council, techUK, will be joining us, to share how all businesses can develop their D&I strategy and how excited she is about the D&I agenda opening up in tech industry.

We caught up with her for a sneak preview ahead of Wednesday’s session.

Tell us about your role as chair of the Diversity & Skills Council at techUK

techUK is a collective voice for its members- approximately 900 digital start up, scale up and large FTSE enterprises.  Our role is to drive connections between government and business to create a flourishing commercial environment. 

The future of work is changing: automation opens the door to incredible economic and societal opportunities and with digitization spreading across all sectors of the economy, more businesses are realising the benefits of new technologies such as IoT and AI.  Therefore the need for diverse tech talent will only continue to grow.  The UK may not reach its full potential if the skills gap cannot be closed.  

 How did you become a champion for D&I?

From an early age really. Equality has always been important to me and was a key driver to me becoming a journalist. In my early tech career, I started asking, why am I the only women in the room?  It soon became evident that there was much work to do, starting with helping to drive awareness and understanding of the importance of diversity and equality in the workplace.

You’ve had an amazing career in tech. How have things changed since you started out in the industry?

Thankfully a lot! Today, most companies recognise the importance and benefits of a diverse workforce both from a business perspective but more importantly, from an equality viewpoint. Of course, every organisation is at a different point in their journey, the key thing is they have started and are committed. Setting goals, milestones, clear strategy and driving accountability are key.

As digital is at the heart of every business today, it is critical to ensure that the technology which will shape our lives in the future like AI and machine learning does not contain inherent bias – hence diversity is imperative. 

You’re a huge champion for girls choosing careers in STEM. Why is there still a barrier to this? What needs to shift?

Typically girls are interested and inquisitive about STEM subjects in primary and we need to somehow nurture and encourage this to continue, as in secondary school, we see interest drop off.  STEM subjects can be seen as “for boys” or perceived as “too hard” which can dissuade girls from taking STEM GCSEs.  Although the data shows that girls have long outperformed boys in STEM GCSEs, fewer girls go on to take maths and physics at A-level, and fewer continue with those subjects at a higher education level. 

It’s an issue that requires a multi stakeholder approach.  More female role models are needed – I often say, “if you cannot see it, you cannot be it.” Teachers and parents are, of course, a huge influence but often are not aware of the fantastic and exciting careers available to their daughters/students so there’s further education and awareness needed.  Industry has a role to play too; showcasing more female role models and offering work experience so students can discover new careers are just two simple things to get started.  I could go on!

From your perspective, where are you seeing leadership around D&I issues?

There are several great examples – from industry wide programs such as the Tech Talent Charter which now has over 300 signatories and is supported by DCMS, to individual company initiatives such as Vodafone offering employees, who are victims of domestic violence, up to 10 days of paid leave.  They all contribute to creating inclusive, safe and equal working environments where employees can truly be themselves.

What’s the one thing you would do to open up the D&I conversation?

That depends on the audience.  If an organisation is starting out on its D&I journey for example, I would encourage them to engage with an industry partner like the WISE campaign who has a simple ten step program to get them started.  

And for a growing tech company, here in the Thames Valley. If they, as employers, could make one change to their D&I strategy, what should that be?

First of all, it is important to start with a clear understanding of your current situation so data is critical.  Organisations need to be transparent and open about their intentions. Trust is critical before you can embark on your D&I journey.  Once you have data, you can set goals, strategies and measure against your progress.  I would also say that leadership buy-in is critical if you are going to drive any business improvement program.

What’s next for the D&I agenda in terms of achieving true equality and inclusion in the workplace?

I am excited to see that neuro diversity is finally coming onto the agenda – so more inclusive of people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. Positive attributes commonly associated with this group include creativity, lateral thinking, bringing a ‘different perspective’, development of highly specialised skills and consistency in tasks once mastered. Forward thinking employers are recognising the benefits and even the competitive advantages that may be realised from having employees who think differently.

To join Sarah at our next Connect Talks session, please go to www.connecttvt.co.uk

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