Testosterone, mental well-being and Robotics Engineer Barbie

UCISA’s recent Support Services Conference in Crewe saw a passionate panel and audience debate on a wide range of diversity issues including ways to increase the number of women entering and progressing across the sector’s IT workforce and how members can support colleagues facing mental health challenges. Supporting diversity is a key aspect of UCISA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan and here, UCISA Executive Director Peter Tinson reflects some of the key comments and learning from the SSG18 session.

 

TESTOSTERONE, MENTAL WELL-BEING AND ROBOTICS ENGINEER BARBIE

When De Montfort University’s Tim Ingham kicked off the SSG18 debate on diversity he led with some interesting statistics. Less than 20% of software roles in IT are held by women. Less than 16% of tech companies are founded by women. Only 18% of computer science graduates are women and across the IT industry only 17% of organisations have women in a Board role.
Despite many positive steps, including the fact that diversity is now an accepted priority for any forward-thinking organisation, IT still has an image problem. As a career destination, it doesn’t look or feel welcoming to women when, as one female audience member attested, you may well find yourself one of only three women in a department with 46 men. It’s sadly not surprising that another reported just two of 48 recent service desk job candidates were female.
Panel member and itSMF Director Barclay Rae won support for his summary of the driver of IT’s career destination perception as simply testosterone – an overabundance of masculinity that’s a challenge not only for women but also, as we heard when discussing mental well-being, for men.
One of Barclay’s earliest managers, a woman, impressed the necessity of what she described as a good mix of people in any successful team. He reminded us that most programmers were women in the early days of IT ­ – Margaret Hamilton, lead programmer of the Apollo 11 moonshot, being among the most notable.
So what can we do? Many delegates bemoaned the dearth of female candidates in the educational and recruitment pipeline and pointed to the importance of neutral language in job ads – and in the day job.  As one delegate noted, we can all, men and women, play a role in calling out inappropriate blokeish behaviour even when it doesn’t cross the line to illegal.
When it comes to recruitment, all of us can influence HR colleagues not to demote communication, teamworking and relationship building as afterthought soft skills. These are vital proficiencies in customer facing roles and why lead on technical skills when most young candidates have lived with, and used, digital technologies since childhood?
Indeed, why not reappraise traditional recruitment approaches in more radical ways? Blind recruitment can help eliminate unconscious gender, class or socio-economic bias in not requiring candidates to reveal their name or background until the final interview shortlist following a text-based interview and technical challenge.
Attitudes are shaped from an early age and while schools can do their bit, delegates suggested those of us who are parents can speak with our wallets. A two year old is well capable of interacting with an iPad and 50 per cent of youngsters playing Minecraft, which inculcates many of the skills and interests needed to work successfully in IT, are girls. Further, Mattel’s latest Robotics Engineer Barbie shows an acceptance that toy choice can make a difference.
But ultimately, what influences the study and career choices of women is framed by society’s expectations and wider culture. It’s not something UCISA or UCISA members can change alone. However, we should not overlook the incremental power of individual changes ‑ such as Barclay’s refusal to sit on any all-male panel.
The fact that the conversation on gender diversity is in full flow is positive for both men and women. Just as positive is the fact that open conversation around male mental health and well-being is also gathering pace. In England, more women than men are likely to have a common mental health problem according to the The Mental Health Foundation.  But it’s men that make up 78% of all suicides. Traditional attitudes to masculinity can make it difficult for men to admit or talk about such issues.
As one delegate related from personal experience, It’s easy to talk about the effects of a broken arm or leg on work performance and attendance but psychological injury is unseen and, for many in unsupportive environments, harder to disclose.
With Mind reporting one in four UK adults suffer a mental health problem each year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a large number of the panel audience acknowledged they’d faced a mental health challenge. What was significant, and encouraging, was the level of openness.
Managers can, and are, playing a key role here – having a strong relationship with their team, checking people are OK as well as their activity, being open enough to have trusted conversations, taking the time to read up on, understand and recognize common conditions.  Institutions can help too – by having mental health awareness days, making it easy for staff to access appropriate professional counselling and support and encouraging staff to tend to their mental well-being on an ongoing basis through approaches such as mindfulness and meditation.
The bottom line? Tackling diversity and helping colleagues overcome barriers is a duty on all of us. Male or female, everyone has a right to be treated with respect, empathy and simple humanity.

Key take-outs:

    • If you are leading a team, lead by example. Set the tone and contribute to a culture that’s appealing and welcoming to employee diversity.

    • The modern student body is diverse. Foster and encourage the mix of people and talent on your doorstep to consider a career in IT at your institution.

    • Reconsider your recruitment approach. What actions can you take to support applicant diversity?

    • Look out for news of UCISA’s new Mentoring Scheme and support progression of junior staff through use of UCISA’s Bursary Scheme which covers the cost of event and training programme registration, accommodation and travel for successful applicants who might otherwise miss out on such opportunities.

    • Take a look at the Tech Talent Charter. Can you persuade your institution or college to sign up?

    • Be human kind. Take the time to monitor the mental well-being of your staff as well as their workload progress. Deal with mental ill-health with the same empathy as physical ill-health. Understand different conditions and ensure access to necessary support.

 

UCISA welcomes blog contributions and comment responses to blog posts from all members. If you would like to contribute a new perspective or opinion on a current topic of interest, simply contact UCISA’s Executive Director Peter Tinson execsec@ucisa.ac.uk

 

The views expressed on UCISA blogs are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of UCISA.

 

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