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Overcoming stigma and challenges facing women the tech industry

This Women’s History Month (WHM), we spoke to four women from BenevolentAI’s Leadership Team, explored the barriers, biases and unfair challenges that remain for the next generation of women in STEM, and asked our leadership team for their advice on how to overcome them.

‘Speak up, speak out’: getting yourself heard

Having an open work-culture where employees feel they are able to voice their opinions, concerns and fears without backlash is key to cultivating an environment that encourages innovative and progressive thinking. The Center for Talent Innovation research shows that employees are 3.5 times more likely to contribute their full potential in “speak up” cultures where diverse perspectives are welcomed. Yet, women are often either pushed aside by interruptions and doubt, or are perceived to be overly aggressive when they speak up. 

Q: What are the different ways organisations can build “speak up cultures”?  

A: “Women can sometimes feel less empowered in situations where they are in a minority or when they don’t have confidence in the topic. Throughout my career, I have experienced environments where my ideas were not taken seriously, ignored or re-articulated. With time I learnt to deal with this by working on my confidence when talking about topics I was familiar with or not being fearful about asking questions when I was in a domain I was less sure about. Today, as a leader, I am conscious about passing this advice on to junior women colleagues to help them feel comfortable and bring forward their best work.

Organisations can create “speak up cultures” by creating a space where teams feel comfortable sharing their ideas or challenging the status quo. BenevolentAI has put a huge amount of effort into improving diversity within the business, and as of January 2022, the company was made up of 49% women. We need diversity of thought in order to approach problems in innovative new ways, so the company has very intentionally created a culture in which everyone’s opinions are welcomed, respected, accepted and heard. In my experience, when the organisation has been able to create the environment and culture that welcomes ideas, whilst also providing mentoring to more junior colleagues, then you’ll be amazed by what kind of ideas people will bring to the table.”

Rosalia Vega, VP Technical Programme Management 

‘OK, I’ll do it’: better distributing non-promotable work

Most jobs include having to perform behind the scenes administrative tasks that are essential for maintaining businesses, but are not recognised as “real work” that will lead to promotions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research by Harvard Business Review found that these time-intensive tasks often benefit the organisation but not the individual performing them. What’s more, these tasks disproportionately fall on women, who are more frequently asked to complete such tasks, and when asked, they are more likely than men to say yes.

It’s important to recognise how spending a disproportionate amount of time on low-impact and low-visibility work stymies women’s potential, meaning it will take much longer for them to professionally progress in their careers.

Q: Every organisation has essential, but ‘non-promotable’ tasks that need doing, but how can managers ensure they are distributing this work more equitably?

A: “I remember being the first to volunteer to do the tasks that no one in the team wanted to do because it just meant things got done. The bigger problem was that I used to be reluctant to highlight this work to my manager or in my reviews, which meant this work often went under the radar. So my first piece of advice centres around recognition and reward. For individuals, don’t assume your manager is aware that you’re doing extra work; proactively highlight it to them so it can be acknowledged and included within your performance review.  As a manager, you need to be more aware of tasks that are picked up and/or assigned to individuals.  Irrespective of gender, managers are responsible for creating a fair team culture. When you see individuals in your team volunteering to pick up ‘non-promotable’ or ‘low profile’ tasks, you should specifically acknowledge their contributions.

My second piece of advice is to not be afraid to say “no” or delegate such tasks to more junior team members. This can create ‘win-win’ situations; tasks that might be lower profile for one person may represent increased responsibilities for more junior colleagues. Equally, managers should also be aware to remind people who regularly volunteer to pass the baton on to someone else. 

On an organisational level, change does not happen passively; it requires thoughtful planning and targeted frameworks set-in place to ensure that women don’t stay stuck in a work-cycle perpetuated by gender bias and stereotypes.” 

Trecilla Lobo, SVP People

Wielding influence by building the right relationships

Networking is a necessary tool to build your career. According to Forbes, it can help enhance self-confidence, give access to support and provide avenues for new opportunities. However, research indicated that women tend to build less effective professional networks than men. A study published by SAGE revealed that this is not only the exclusion of women by men, but also self-imposed barriers that prevent women from effectively networking, such as gendered modesty. Additionally, “The Future Tech Workforce: Breaking Gender Barriers” survey identified that the top two barriers experienced by women in tech are a lack of mentors (48%) and a lack of female role models in the field (42%). 

Q: How can women find authentic ways to grow an impactful network?

A: “A lot of women think that networking is about self promotion but it is really a key enabler for growing your knowledge, expertise and career opportunities. If you have a team, it’s important to have a good network that you can also use to help your team and those you mentor as well. Networking can also be  important for finding partners for new collaborations and generating new opportunities to showcase your work and that of your team.

Importantly don’t network for network’s sake - you should always aim to be intentional about the network you curate around yourself. Think about areas in which you would like to grow and connect with people that compliment and inspire you. 

Equally, if you are in a position to be a mentor, take it!  What is the point of having experience and not sharing it? Female leadership and mentorship is lacking in the tech industry and we must work together to lift each other up and fill this gap. Anything I can do to help people learn from experience — including my mistakes — gives me real satisfaction. But I have also always learnt so much from my mentees, often in ways I wouldn’t have expected, such as gaining insights into the issues that earlier career researchers may be facing. One of the greatest things is seeing people achieve success and saying that I helped them in realising that potential.” 

Prof Jackie Hunter, Board Director

Representation matters: Influencing and inspiring the younger generation 

Research suggests that companies with both men and women in leadership positions outperform those with male-domintaed leadership teams. However, on this journey to leadership, women face barriers even prior to them entering the workforce. Statistics show that women only make up 26% of STEM graduates in the UK, with women going on to represent  24% of the STEM workforce. So, what can be done to improve female representation in STEM? Gender stereotypes and implicit bias have been shown to lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time. Exposing young girls to female role models and career opportunities in STEM has been shown to improve female retention, as has encouraging educators to promote gender equality in schools and in higher education. 

Q: How can leaders work to inspire the next generation of women entering STEM?

A: “The number of women embarking on careers in science is increasing gradually, yet we as leaders still need to do so much more. I see a world where my team has a rich diversity in every respect; nationality, gender, personality, experience - you name it. Yet, I am also aware that this diversity is still not represented across the rest of the industry, which has an impact on future generations looking to enter the field. Indeed, eight years ago, my 10 year old daughter was asked to draw a scientist, a hairdresser and an astronaut. Of a class of 30, only 2 of the children drew a female scientist. We have to do better!

Children learn by what and who they see. They accept diversity at face value, and as such they need to be faced with the widest possible range of inclusive and empowering role models. Female leaders need to be visible, leading by example, dismissing myths of what can and cannot be achieved, fostering an environment of opportunity. My career has benefitted from interaction with a number of female leaders from whom I have drawn confidence, support and inspiration in defining my own path. STEM ambassadors play a crucial role in introducing students to even the notion of a career in science and tech - something they may have otherwise simply not considered, or felt was just not accessible to them. We need to continue to support outreach programs to ensure that children from all backgrounds have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, leadership is about setting new standards and aspirations for those that are following in your footsteps.”

Anne Phelan, Chief Science Officer

Concluding Remarks

While progress has been made to close the gender gap in the tech industry, this progress has been slow and women are still faced with many challenges. Speaking to the female leaders at BenevolentAI highlights the impact a company and its leadership can have on retaining, promoting, and empowering female employees. At BenevolentAI all, we make a conscious and intentional effort to be diverse and inclusive, because we know that a diverse organisation brings forward more inclusive innovations. We know that an inclusive organisation improves our team’s wellbeing, engagement and satisfaction. But above all, we support diversity, inclusion, and equality……. Because It Matters.

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