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London's tech start-ups trump FTSE firms on diversity - but that's not saying much

Too many companies are still having trouble improving their gender balance - in spite of industry-wide calls for change.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 22 Jun 2016

Let’s face it, the tech world hasn’t exactly been renowned for being a guiding light on diversity. Silicon Valley, the hub of the action, hasn't exactly covered itself in glory and neither it seems has London's tech scene.

According to a survey from Tech London Advocates (which has a 3,000 strong network of investors and experts), nearly a fifth of companies in the capital’s tech community still have no women at board level. Less than a quarter of senior management teams have even numbers of men and women.

That's still better than the record of FTSE firms - not that that's saying much. While only 6% of the FTSE 100 and 4% of the FTSE 250 has a female CEO, 21% of the tech firms involved in the research had a female boss.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, says technology’s gender problem ‘hasn’t gone away’.

‘Female CEOs have been instrumental to the rise of London’s tech sector, creating some of the city’s most exciting businesses, but the lack of wider representation for women at senior level is shameful.’

According to the report, which admittedly only surveyed 433 people, 60% of the tech community said their business had actively taken steps to increase diversity in recruitment strategies. Clearly those aren't working well enough.

While some steps to rectify the imbalance will take time – filling talent pipelines won’t happen overnight – it’s notable that there are companies that haven’t had such problems. When MT met Julia Hartz, Eventbrite’s CEO, the other week, she noted that half of its 580 employees, 40% of the executive leadership team and 33% of the board were women. Perhaps most notable was the fact Hartz felt there didn’t have to be specific recruitment efforts made to create this balance.

‘I don’t think it [the gender balance] was a coincidence,’ she said. ‘But it has happened organically. Whatever it is we’re happy it’s grown in that manner and haven’t had to try and take huge strides to fix that disparity.’

Similarly, Daphne Koller, co-founder of another Silicon Valley company, online education platform Coursera, said she’d developed a team that’s 49% female. The fact these firms have women at the helm may well have played a part in how the balance came to be, but it also shows that the issue doesn't necessarily have to be the conundrum some see it as. 

A couple of months ago, Etsy (which has a male CEO) released a report showing around half of its employees are female. Now, half of the firm’s managers and top leaders are also women, while a third of board directors are too.

Read more: How other start-ups can follow Etsy's lead on diversity

If there’s something to be learned from these examples, it's that more action, less talk is needed. If other fast-growing start-ups – big Silicon Valley companies – have managed to cultivate a decent gender balance, there’s really no reason why others can’t follow suit.  

It's fair to say that attracting women into STEM in the first place is an industry-wide problem. The talent pool for women should be half the total, but for a range of reasons, it isn't yet. However, we shouldn't overlook the importance that seeing women in prominent roles has in addressing this.

'I'm definitely focused on how being a role model is the most potent form of influence for up and coming leaders,' Hartz said. 'Let’s say you’re a female and have all male interviewers, or you’re a male and have all female interviewers. People are coming round to the idea that you can’t be it if you can’t see it. If you’re not seeing something you can aspire to in that way, it does have an impact.’

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