Interview with Debbie Forster of Tech Talent Charter
28 March 2019
This week we phoned up Debbie Forster from Tech Talent Charter to discuss her amazing work promoting diversity and inclusivity in the tech industry.
Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background?
I’m American, but I’ve been here for thirty years. I came over originally as an English teacher and moved up through the education system fairly rapidly, and that was in the ‘90s. If you used a computer in the ‘90s in education, you’d find yourself in charge of IT.
For the next part of my chapter I became head of department, then deputy head, then head teacher. I was teaching IT because I was enthusiastic about how it engaged and motivated kids and how it lead to good careers for them. I often dealt with kids from quite diverse backgrounds and I was looking for ways to open doors for them, particularly girls.
As a head teacher I was one of the first to be piloting a programme called Computer Club for Girls (CC4G). I saw quickly how women and girls were being left behind, shouldered out the way as boys were working on tech. Initiatives like CC4G were important to break down some of those barriers.
After being a head for a while I was invited to work at what was the Sector Skills Council for tech—e-skills UK. My job there was working with educators, policy makers in government and big business, who were trying to get young people in general, girls in particular, into tech. I was there for two years.
I then joined a charity called Apps for Good and helped to grow that from working in two schools with forty kids, to after five years, 75,000 kids and pilots in Spain, Portugal and the US. It taught young people to take what they cared about, select a problem in that space to solve and help them build an app to address that problem—it focused on both coding and entrepreneurialism, so they could learn how to go from problem to prototype to market. It was kids learning how to code but also how to pitch and take things to market. Of those 75,000 kids, 50% were girls. I found myself quickly being pulled more and more into these discussions – why were there no women in tech?
How did Tech Talent Charter come about?
One of my friends and co-founders of Tech Talent Charter, Sinead Bunting at Monster recruitment really wanted to tackle the problem. My first comment was - if I have to go to another round table event where we only discuss “Why are there no women in tech,” it will make my head explode! We also wanted to stop seeing everyone re-invent the wheel. So from there the TTC was born. We were a group of people who wanted to do things differently, but initially things moved a bit slowly because we were all trying to do it on top of our day jobs.
Five years ago you had to fight to get companies to even realise that there were no women in tech. Four years ago you had to fight to get companies to realise that solving the problem had a benefit, and not solving the problem had a cost. But then three years ago, some companies started to do something, and some initiatives emerged, but there was lots of treading old ground again and again. So we wanted to bring everyone together, focus on the solution and stop beating ourselves up about the why and focus on the how. We were going to focus on not having organisations try to solve this themselves; the problem was too big and too broken for any one single organisation. We wanted to connect the dots, not just re-invent the wheel.
Then in March 2017, we came to the attention of the government. They were interested in it and they gave us some funding. We had seventeen companies and we wanted to see what we could do. Roll forward two years, we just signed up our 300th organisation!
Can you explain exactly what Tech Talent Charter does?
The charter is employers, recruiters and consultants but also doers like Tech UK or Code First: Girls, people who are actually out there helping companies. We look at tech in its wider sense. It’s not just ‘tech companies’ whatever that may be; it’s just any company that needs tech. So yes I have HP, Salesforce and Microsoft, but I also have the BBC, Channel 4, Lloyds Banking Group, Cancer Research UK and even Domino’s Pizza. They come together to share their practices, what’s working and not working and to collaborate. We get data from them so for the first time we can publish benchmarking materials, see where they are heading and work out what to do to fix it.
We have events not just in London but also up and down the country. We have one in Leeds in June, in which we have Channel 4, Lloyds Bank and Accenture in the room talking about how we can work together for people in Leeds. For 2019 the big issue and opportunity is around retraining, how we help women who have left the workforce and want to get back in to tech or the ones who never got in. 40% of people are unhappy in their jobs, so how can we help them to do a career conversion to get into tech and how do we help women to re-train. So as well as going into schools and companies and working out how they recruit we’ve also got to go through side doors and windows to get women in as well.
Do you think Tech Talent Charter finds its success in that collaborative element – creating a dialogue?
Yes, I mean our biggest surge came in that terrible year in 2017. We had Weinstein, #metoo and Brexit telling us that there would be shortages and this was in a sector where they already weren’t enough people. And then the gender pay reporting tore the plaster off, so people had to talk about the reality of what was going on. By 2017, we got some great stats from places like McKinsey and Harvard Business Review and industry now has facts that say diversity improves the bottom line. So we’ve shifted from thinking this is something we ought to do, like a gym membership, to something that is essential.
What specific barriers have you found that women experience in tech?
First of all we have to show women the sheer diversity of roles with companies of every size and culture. We want to show women what a career in tech is. We have a stereotype that you have to have a beard, play ping-pong, and basically be a ninja in a basement with four smelly guys.
I think a barrier can also be a confidence issue, we’ve been taught to fear failure and that we have to be perfect. We look at job descriptions and a man will apply if he can do 60% of the role but we’ll wait until we’re at 80-90%. I also think there’s an imposter syndrome and I think some companies are still writing job descriptions in that old style with the bro culture and all that. We need to help women see that they can get in and that there are companies that are actually trying to find ways to help them.
How do you see the tech industry evolving in the next 5-10 years in terms of skills and recruitment methods?
Tech Talent Charter believes that tech should be more inclusive, full stop. We knew we needed to start somewhere, and started with the lens of gender. A lot of companies are using this in its wider sense, as it should be. So this year as well as talking about women we’ll be talking about intersectionality, BAME, neurodiversity and disability. We’re not all going to change in the next five years; it’s not going to be everyone, I’m not going to lose sleep getting every company on board. But for the companies that get it, the market is going to reward them. They’ll get better at getting talent, and with better talent they’ll have better services, products, etc.
More and more companies are interested in growing talent. So recruitment practices are beginning to change, and routes into tech are beginning to change. I do firmly believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle. We just need time and space to get them to all fit together.
Interested in the work of Tech Talent Charter? Sign up here. You can also keep up to date with their latest news and events on Twitter and LinkedIn.