Attracting and retaining women in technical roles

Computer Programmer

By Clare Young, head of delivery, dxw digital

One of the issues organisations often wrestle with is how to attract more women into technical and engineering roles.

dxw digital has made great strides in this area: as I write, the majority of our user research team, one-third of our operations engineers, more than a third of our designers and developers, three of our five delivery leads, one of our two product managers and half of our business operations team are female. Three of our leadership team of eight are also women. This is clearly still some way from being an equal balance, but we’re moving in the right direction, so I’d like to share some of the steps we’ve taken which others might find helpful.

The formal recruitment process begins with how organisations describe the roles available. Research has shown that certain words deter women from applying for jobs, so if we want to attract the widest pool of candidates we need to get the language right. Kat Matfield has a helpful gender decoder for job ads. We’ve also enabled a feature on our recruitment system, Workable, which removes candidate photographs from applications.

Panel interviewing should be representative to ensure a woman being interviewed feels that she is welcome and would fit into the company culture. Our interview process includes an opportunity to chat informally with as many members of the dxw team as are available, not just a few carefully selected people. We hope that this gives candidates the opportunity to see that we really do have a gender mixed workplace and they would enjoy working here.

One of the keys to attracting and retaining women is to build a working environment where they – and everyone else – feel comfortable, and which fits the different ways different people work. This isn’t just about the physical environment, but also about giving everyone a sense of control.

dxw digital’s founder Harry Metcalfe expressed it very clearly in a blog post last year, saying: “It’s unlikely that someone will feel comfortable working in a place where they have no influence over the environment or the way things get done. We make decisions about how we work together. And when someone has a request that they feel would make their job easier to do, we do our best to say yes.” This has helped us to create a workplace where women are comfortable, confident and treated as equals, enabling them to contribute fully to the business and develop their careers.

Another important factor in retaining women is the work-life balance. dxw is serious about ensuring a sustainable pace of work, and so while people may work late or out of hours occasionally if it’s essential to solve a pressing or short-term problem, working late in other circumstances is strongly discouraged.

As an organisation we have participated in events such as Women of Silicon Roundabout and Women in Digital Government, and many of our team, both male and female, participate widely in other industry events to encourage women into tech roles. We also ran a panel for Ada Lovelace Day both last year and this year. I describe it as ‘talk, share, show’. It’s likely that individuals both inside and outside our organisation are thinking similar things to us and want to learn, so we need to be out there sharing our ideas and working together. Events are also a good way of demonstrating to other woman what we’re doing and why it’s a good place to work.

On a practical level, many of our policies are particularly helpful in attracting and retaining women, although of course they benefit everyone in the company. These include:

  • A 10am start (which helps with school/childcare drop-offs), with flexible working hours
  • Wherever possible we’ll accommodate people’s commitments outside work e.g. by creating part-time roles, and working from home is supported when circumstances require
  • dxw is a member of the Tampon Club: an often neglected but highly valued ‘perk’ for women
  • we have a wellbeing room, enabling anyone to take time out if they need it
  • we have a women’s group (#dxwomen) and a Slack channel which is used to discuss issues, share interest pieces and community events.

Finally, although we’re moving in the right direction it’s important that we’re honest about our shortcomings and open about how we will address them. It will take time, and we know that we’re not perfect, but by having an open and frank discussion we will continue to make progress.

About the author

Clare is a specialist in agile delivery. She has a wealth of experience building high performing delivery teams in the public and charity sector. Clare is currently Head of Delivery at dxw digital, a digital agency working with the public sector. Her previous experience includes leading the digital delivery team at Comic Relief and looking after a large portfolio as head of delivery at the Home Office. Clare is used to working with organisations to help them create the right environment for successful agile delivery as well as coaching individual teams.

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