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Diversity Within the Digital Board

23 March 2018

When contemplating the composition of progressive digital boards, it’s relatively easy to draw up a wish list. You’d want a board to possess a mixture of managerial acumen and technical ability, fashionable youth and seasoned experience, specialised knowledge, plus a global perspective. Ideally, any successful board should be balanced where individuals’ personal strengths and weaknesses counteract those of other members. There should be enough passion to trigger tension and debate, but also enough unity to be able to drive decisions forward.

I’d like to use this blog to continue to promote another hugely important component of any board with power, particularly ones charged to deliver advances in technology: women.

Of course a lack of female representation on boards is not just a problem in the technology sector. In March 2015, the government’s Women on Boards initiative reported that the make-up of the top FTSE 100 boards consisted of 23.5% women. While this has improved of late, 23.5% is still a long way from equality. In addition, figures for board representation in companies outside of the FTSE 100 are not as readily available, so the issue could be even more serious a concern. When you start looking at women on tech boards, the situation is stark.

In Elena Kvochko’s Forbes article ‘Why there are still few women leaders in tech’, she states that: “Apple has 20% of women employees in technology; Google has 17% of women in its workforce, while Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have 16.6%, 15% and 10% respectively.” That’s shocking. When the general employment of women is so low, how much more difficult is it for female leaders to break through the ranks?

At Cardiff Business School, our Women Adding Value to the Economy project led by Dr Alison Parken, sought to recognise and realise the latent potential that exists within organisations by “understanding and interrupting the ways in which gender pay inequalities are consistently reproduced through occupational segregation in employment and self-employment, through the ways in which ‘women’s work’ is contracted and through the operation of pay systems”. In the case of technology firms, it would seem a failure to entice women to the workplace in sufficient numbers in the first place, i.e. ‘occupational segregation’ could be one of the contributing reasons for a lack of women in senior IT positions.

And yet women use technology just as much as men. Perhaps even more so in some cases, as the following graph shows:

Not only are we great users of IT, we are also great developers, too. In Samantha Maine’s article ‘Why women are better at coding than men’, she shares some, as yet unpublished, research from US researchers where analysis of 1.4 million users of the online code-sharing service GitHub found that “code written by women has a higher approval rating”. The critical factor being that the approvals only flooded in if the coder’s gender was not identifiable.

Of course, there are some notable female IT leaders trailblazing their way to the top: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, for example. In order to help women achieve similar success she wrote Lean In, a book about how she has done it, and then founded to help women and men follow in her footsteps. While well intentioned there have been many critics of the approach. Kate Heddleston, a female computer programmer in San Francisco, for example, has the following message:

“Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary. Lean in!’… Except the problem is that there isn’t enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.”

So ask yourself, if you are looking for fresh ideas and a dynamic new approach to how you manage your technological strategy could you benefit from an increased female perspective, and is the current board environment providing enough quiet breathing space to ensure that women’s voices are heard and able to be spoken?