ScotlandIS chief on gender ratio in Scots technology

The ScotlandIs team, from left: Tommy Laughlin, Jamie Duncan, Ross Murray, Polly Purvis, Kelly McErlane and Karen Meechan. Picture: Chris Watt

The ScotlandIs team, from left: Tommy Laughlin, Jamie Duncan, Ross Murray, Polly Purvis, Kelly McErlane and Karen Meechan. Picture: Chris Watt

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In partnership with ScotlandIS

ScotlandIS is the trade body of Scotland’s digital technologies industry. It champions the ambition, talent and experience that Scotland has built up. Clare Baillie finds out what its chief executive, Polly Purvis, thinks can be done to encourage more women to consider a career in the sector.

Clare Baillie (CB): What is the current state of play when it comes to the gender balance within the technology sector?

Polly Purvis (PP): In terms of the technical side of the workforce – so areas like software development – the numbers aren’t great. We’re sitting at about 15 per cent being made up of women. Clearly that’s a major concern.

Across the industry more widely, we don’t have reliable statistics and so this is an area where we’d like to do more work.

You get women in non-technical jobs, but still within the technology sector; for example, someone doing product management or digital marketing.

We have a higher proportion of women in non-technical jobs – do we get to 50 per cent? I don’t think so. But do we have 30 per cent? My gut reaction is that we do, but we don’t have good evidence to support that figure.

As chair of CodeClan, the digital skills training academy, I’m encouraged that 25 per cent of those learning to code on our courses are women. The percentage of women applying is even higher and we’re looking at issues like access to finance to enable more of them to join the courses to gain these valuable skills.

CB: Why are women only occupying 15 per cent of the technical roles?

PP: We haven’t had enough women in the workforce since the turn of the century. The number of applicants for university computer sciences courses fell following the dot.com collapse and the number of female applicants never recovered. Some women are now reluctant to go into what they perceive to be a male-dominated industry, particularly at university level.

What we have failed to get across to women is the wealth of opportunities available within the sector – good salaries and the potential to work throughout the world.

The technology sector in theory should also be family-friendly for women – and indeed men – later in their careers when they choose to have children because it is able to offer flexible working hours, the opportunity to work from home and the ability to work part-time.

When Hearts football club chair Ann Budge was building Newell & Budge – now part of Sopra Steria – she went out and targeted women to work in the industry and made the case that they would be able to work flexible hours.

Encouraging more women to study computer science at university or college will take time, but the industry should also look at recruiting women from related disciplines, like mathematics, physics and psychology. Their skillsets are in demand.

CB: Is the situation different when it comes to large and small companies?

PP: Many of the multinationals have recognised that they have a wealth of talent among the women in their workforces and that they haven’t capitalised on that as they ought to.

Positive reinforcement is going on inside companies like Cisco, Dell and IBM. There are mentoring programmes to support young women and there’s recognition that women don’t put themselves forward for promotion to the same extent that men do. That’s being driven from the head offices in the United States. That will pay dividends over time.

The bigger Scottish businesses, like Craneware and Skyscanner, are beginning to adopt that positive methodology to support women in their workforces.

For smaller companies, it’s a mixed bag. The vast majority of companies within our sector are small, but wherever I go people are talking about this – not just the women but the men too.

There’s an increasing recognition that women are users of technology and of the services that technology provides and so simple market economics says that if you don’t include those people in your workforce then you’re not designing products or services that they will use.

CB: How do we go about changing the situation?

PP: That’s a difficult question. One way is to promote role models in the industry, highlighting women holding interesting jobs, both on the technical side but also in non-technical roles. Women could enter the industry in other roles and if they want to, then undertake training to become a software developer.

We also need to debunk some of the myths – ten or 15 years ago there was a myth that software development companies were dark places with people hunched over keyboards. That’s simply not true. Last year, when we ran our digital technology awards, we filmed short videos of each of the finalists in their workplace and there were 30 or 40 small to medium-sized companies, all of which were bright and modern and hi-tech places to work. There’s a lot of emphasis on fun in these businesses – they work hard, but they play hard too.

CB: Are there lessons that can be learned from other countries or other sectors?

PP: I sit on the Information & Communications Technology Skills Group, which is monitoring the implementation of the Scottish Government’s ICT skills investment plan and women in technology is one of the group’s biggest challenges.

We’re doing research into some of the economies in which women make up a greater proportion of the workforce. So, for example, in places like India and Vietnam, women make up more than 50 per cent of the technical workforce, but then the numbers start to drop off as women reach their late 20s because, in those societies, women are expected to give up work when they start a family. So there are some answers that we can draw from those economies.

When it comes to other sectors, I think we can learn a lot from the legal and medical professions. The Law Society of Scotland mounted a big push for equality of opportunities 20 years ago and now we’re seeing the fruits of those labours.

CB: Is there a need for companies to “lead from the top”?

PP: At a strategic level, owners of companies need to make sure that they have equal number of men and women in their managerial teams and equal numbers on their boards. They need to lead by example to show that they’re not just paying lip-service to equality for women but that it’s true throughout their workforce. That could be done relatively quickly – within three-to-five years – when you look at what’s being done with FTSE100 companies and now FTSE350 companies. It’s about putting a flag in the ground so people have something to rally around.

CB: Are you in favour of positive discrimination to help bring about gender balance?

PP: I know it’s not popular to say it, but yes I am. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been, but I am now. I very much agree that women should be promoted on their merits, I’m not suggesting otherwise, but I think that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to do this organically and those attempts have not been successful so positive discrimination is now one of the ways forward.

Women on board at ScotlandIS

Polly Purvis

After starting her career with Royal Bank of Scotland in the City, Purvis returned to Scotland and held various roles with Scottish Enterprise. She worked with Matrix Management and then the Scottish Software Federation, before being actively involved in the merger that created ScotlandIS. She is also chair of CodeClan and a director of dotScot the top level domain name registry for Scots the world over.

Alison McLaughlin

McLaughlin’s remit as sector director for regional and local government at Sopra Steria is to “sustain and grow the company’s business in Scotland”. Her focus for the past 15 years has been on digital services for the public sector, spanning central government, local authorities and the health service.

Frances Sneddon

Sneddon joined simulation technology company Simul8 in 1999 as a graduate management consultant and has worked in a variety of roles across the business, including software development and product management. She has risen through the ranks to become the firm’s chief technology officer.

Caroline Stuart

Having studied technology and business studies at Strathclyde University, Stuart worked in the City as an investment analyst with Crown Agents and Charterhouse Tilney. She is currently director of Oracle Scotland, the national arm of the world’s largest software company.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.

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