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Insights #EmbraceEquity: 5 Reasons Tech Needs More Female Leaders

"Technology and innovation have frequently played a part in moving gender equity forwards. One of the pioneers of data science was a woman named Florence Kelley, who was one of the first socioeconomic cartographers. In 1895 her innovative work in Chicago documenting slum conditions was well underway, producing wage maps and recording factory and shop conditions, forcing improvements in employee welfare. This early data technology was instrumental in fighting child labour and improving gender equity. It also fed into the creation of the NAACP in 1909. Her work is a critical reminder of the difference data can make.

Now, with more powerful technology available than ever, we are in an even better place to produce insights into equity issues in the real world. Today, I'll be reflecting on how Florence and other gender equity pioneers of the past might take advantage of the digital age and how I can learn lessons and take inspiration for my projects.” –E. McIntyre

Photo of Elspeth Kayaking

Here are “5 Reasons Tech Needs More Female Leaders” by Elspeth:

1. Tech needs more talent in the pipeline full-stop

The Data Intelligence Team has been on a real journey in inclusive hiring over the last few years. While we've always strived to have an equity mindset, we really started targeting hiring changes when one job role attracted dozens of male applicants but no women.

We looked at the sector's wider landscape and began raising awareness of our postings by going directly to groups such as 'Women In Geospatial,' encouraging more women to apply. We also tweaked wording choices within job descriptions and reviewed interview feedback with a gender lens in mind. We had a big upsurge in female applicants. We were lucky enough to achieve an even gender split in 2020 for our Geospatial Team!

Moving forward, we're focusing our attention on our other capability areas within Data Intelligence and hoping for the same success for us and the sector as a whole.

2. Our industry needs balanced thinking to thrive

Historically and even today, much design and automation are created from data based on one gender. When only men are emphasized in the STEM and media sectors, the challenges women experience can go ignored and unsolved.

Women can bring a valuable perspective on bias issues in Artificial Intelligence, flexible working, the gender gap and skills women need to make their mark in tech. For example, our Women Transport Planners are spearheading the Get Home Safe initiative, using data to help transport planners make better decisions to create safer first and last-mile journeys for female commuters.

3. We must take down barriers to better design

One aspect that really stands out to me on our projects is that we're usually developing or delivering something that people will use in the real world, whether a software platform, a city centre master plan or a net zero roadmap. Having diversity in these design teams is a no-brainer. A wide mix of people will end up using the end product, so ensure you have a wide mix of people inputting into the design.

A case in point is the design of transport networks. We frequently analyze data to design strategic networks or core linkages to get people from A to B. It's easy to use data for this. Topography tells you whether a slope will be an issue, distance calculations indicate travel time, and analyzing surrounding air quality can instruct us on how many verdant natural elements to build in to mitigate.

However, while most people using that route may indeed be going A to B, work to home, there is a significant reason travellers may need to stop between – school drop off. We can design a key commute route that allows people to get from home to work in time for their 9am meetings. But we also need to ensure that women (who still disproportionately perform childcare tasks) can make that same 9am meeting, including a stop at a school or nursery along the way.

Ditto, there is no point in designing a beautiful park without appropriate lighting or cutting steps along a hiking route optimized for people 5 ft 7 and taller. Diverse teams will be more likely to spot these mistakes because they can envisage themselves using the end design.

Photo of Elspeth hikinh on a snowy mountain

4. Our sector needs more role models

Atkins is big on STEM outreach, and we believe that celebrating female tech leaders encourages more girls to pursue their interests in STEM careers. Being the only woman in tech isn't always easy and can put unseen pressure on us. We need to ensure young women have strong role models and see that we can have a seat and a voice at the table.

I really enjoy how working with our Young Professionals can bring surprises. For many, it's their first time in an office environment, particularly one involving so many projects. I started my own career within an early-stage net zero software start-up. It was a completely different environment, focused on a single goal, and I was the 12th employee.

It's fascinating to see how quickly our Young Professionals flourish within the more varied atmosphere of Atkins – lots of different tasks with different end goals and involving multiple disciplines. It's really encouraging to see the strengths which come from this variety of work. Graduates with key interest areas can pursue their passions, and many who come in as generalists find their paths by exploring areas which are new to them. It's a constant reminder not to get too stuck in a comfort zone but to keep developing!

5. Diversity is profitable

The well-documented increase in productivity, profit and innovation at firms with greater numbers of women in leadership is an interesting area of study. I think it's not an issue with any of the male leaders in the other firms, but simply that when there are only ten male leaders, they have fewer perspectives to bring to the table. This risks a 'groupthink' mindset, achieving consensus in the room due to similar thought processes without fully considering all angles of a problem or opportunity before taking action.

The same would be true of a board of ten women – individual personalities may be strong, and lived experiences may vary. But, in some core respects, they are likely to share perspectives. Equity is intersectional, so it's not only about gender but also about BAME and LGBTQ representation, neurodiversity, variation in the economic background, and many other vectors of experience.

From a data perspective, the levels of female leadership are still low, and I'm interested to see how statistical analyses evolve as representation grows.

Elspeth McIntyre is Principal Geospatial Consultant in the Aerospace, Defence, Security & Technology division at Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis Group. She's a member of the senior leadership team in Data Intelligence and an active technical member of the Geospatial Team. Her work focuses on spatial data, which could mean a complex analysis of topics such as social value or sustainable design. This could include communication tasks, using maps and other data formats to explain complicated scenarios to non-technical people.

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