Where are startups looking for staff… The men’s toilets?

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Yes, like everyone else, I am a bit sick of hearing about the lack of diversity in tech.

But it’s national Women in Engineering Day, don’t you know, and we’re all also sick of Brexit by now, so I thought I’d add a little angry voice to today’s other national party.

What luck, then, that the Mayor’s PR company London & Partners has just released some cringe-inducing stats for London Tech Week that suggest one in every 10 startup companies in London has no women working there. None.

Another half of those asked said that “less than 15 per cent” of their staff could plausibly join the Spice Girls.

Sucks to be outside the M25

There is, of course, no agreed definition on what headcount constitutes a startup – but it’s clear the majority of new companies in our great and diverse capital have between one and a half and zero women on staff.

And that’s from a research piece that suggested “London’s tech community offers the greatest opportunities for British women”.

Where are these people searching for their teams? The men’s toilets?

The survey of 3,700 people conducted by Mortimer Spinks and ComputerWeekly.com found that London employs the most women in tech startups of anywhere in the country. But that really shouldn’t be difficult considering five years of a government-backed effort to promote London’s Tech City.

Rather strangely, the stats hail the news as “progress”, despite there being no comparison with any previous figures.

Not to worry, though. According to related research from Tech London Advocates, almost a third of London tech companies, in a survey of just over 400 members, have “formal initiatives in place to recruit more women to the workforce”.

That’s commitment that’ll have this problem solved quicker than you can say “wait, didn’t Boris travel to Turkey once to invite them into the EU?”.

In the same TLA survey, conducted last month, 21 per cent of these tech companies said they have a female chief executive. Which means the industry looks something like this.

Artist's impression
Artist’s impression

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, makes less of an attempt to defend these rather poor figures, and calls out what is perhaps a “boys’ club” factor.

Guilty secret

But he also calls this problem a “guilty secret”, which is a bit like equating Brexit to a local council by-election.

Like pay discrimination, the lack of diversity of gender, ethnicity and class is an open joke. So is the poor representation of disabled people.

And while we all kind of acknowledge that it’s unfair and actually means your company is going to be less successful, it’d be nice if the whole tech community would put the same energy into diversity as they have into staying in the EU.

Especially since, while the economic predictions around Brexit have sometimes been quite sketchy, it’s pretty universally agreed that having diverse teams makes your company better.

A woman in tech, Janet Matsuda, CMO of flash storage specialist Nimble Storage, told NS Tech:

“The low representation of women in London’s startups is reflective of the wider trends we’re seeing across the engineering and technology industries.

“And with young women making up just 15.8 per cent of undergraduate students studying these subjects, Britain must look at addressing the more fundamental issue of getting more girls interested in STEM careers before it can hope to improve their industry representation.

“Supporting and championing women working in these industries will be essential to dispelling myths that STEM careers are a ‘boys’ club’ and inspiring more young girls to pursue careers in this sector.”

This is an image problem, a pipeline problem, a retention problem and everything in between. It’s also a problem we’ve all known about, for what seems like eternity, and we’re still making little real progress, even after three years of London Technology Week.

The reality is that increasing diversity means the technology industry has to change its culture and look outside the usual crowd. Which is actually inconvenient and uncomfortable, if you stand to ‘lose out’.

We might also have to admit that startups are hard things to do, but they’re significantly less so if your friends and family happen to be seriously wealthy.

For an industry that prides itself on disruption, and solving problems, this is a ridiculously old-fashioned challenge that remains embarrassingly unsolved.

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