Podcast: exploring the latest Diversity in Tech insights and trends

In this episode of in:tech, Debbie Forster MBE, co-CEO at Tech Talent Charter, talks to Theresa Palmer, Head of DE&I at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. As an accomplished tech leader who contributed to the launch of the Tech Talent Charter's latest Diversity in Tech report, Theresa discusses the challenges and progress in gender diversity, the importance of data-driven DE&I strategies, and the pressing issues of social mobility and neurodiversity in tech.

Theresa also provides practical advice on how companies can make their workplaces more inclusive and equitable. Find out more about BAE Systems Digital Intelligence and their DEI work here.

Listen to the podcast episode here or on Global Player



The transcript of this episode

Note: in:tech transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.

 Debbie Forster:

Welcome to a special edition of in:tech, the D&I podcast brought to you by the Tech Talent Charter. This is aimed at business leaders, DEI leaders, people leaders, anyone who's looking for some insight, some inspiration, or some practical advice on [how] to drive things forward in your organisation. Let's get started.

We're proud to have the latest edition of our annual Diversity in Tech report. This year we've gathered insight from over 700 organisations from 90 different industries. It is one of the largest, broadest, and most up to date analysis of its kind. This report gives you insight, not just into the makeup of the tech ecosystem, but also the DEI practices that are working, alongside the barriers, to the progress in the tech sector.

Now, [I'm] excited today to be joined by one of my oldest friends within the Tech Talent Charter, Theresa Palmer, Head of DEI at BAE Systems for Digital Intelligence.

Did I get all my letters right? 

Theresa Palmer:

It's a mouthful and you got all of it right. 

Debbie Forster:

Okay. Test complete. You know, Theresa, we've been around this space for a while and we know that of all of the lenses, gender is often that first starting point. It's an area of greatest concern. It's a bit frustrating because women and gender minorities are remaining drastically underrepresented despite years of effort to improve compared to last year. Slight improvement, 29% of tech employees are women or gender minorities.

We also look at the senior positions. Based on a sample of nearly 9,000 senior tech roles, that comes down 8%. That means only 21% of women and gender minorities are in leadership in tech overall. That gap has grown by 2%. Things aren't where we'd like them to be. This is coming from what we see in the newspapers as well. Hiring freezes, difficult economies, women's careers stalling, and women leaving tech.

Theresa, you've been in tech for a long time. You've seen how the talent pipeline has changed. What are your thoughts? 

Theresa Palmer:

You know, I never talk about fixing it, if you will, before I talk about what continues to make it drag a bit.

When we met in 2017, we were looking at a very similar issue. I was new in my role back then, and one of my biggest challenges was showing data to leaders across my business and then showing them the change - which was slow. It was painfully slow. And them just wanting it sped up, sped up, sped up, sped up, move the dial, move the dial, move the dial. I really got sick of hearing that phrase. How are you going to move the dial more? And it was you, how are you going to move the dial more.

It's about six and a half, almost seven years later now, you almost have businesses, and it's not just BAE, it's everyone saying it's a slow burner. These things move at these 1%, a little bit less than 1% [increments]. What can you do? We know what it is. We're still moving up, so we must still be getting it right and changing those.

Now, mind you, they're saying we know, so that's a good thing. But what you don't want is this complacency to set in because then you can't do the bigger changes that you want to do right around. And I'm not going to say recruitment because those things are already there.

Debbie Forster:

Because we can't, we've been saying this for some time. You cannot hire your way out of this and then...

Theresa Palmer: 

You can, you just do it wrong. You can. 

Debbie Forster:

...and then you get to places now where people, we have some companies saying to us, we have a hiring freeze. So how can we possibly improve? 

Theresa Palmer:

Right? Look at your people. Look within, you know, you don't have to hire into senior roles. You can promote there.

You don't have to lose women at a certain grade. Start looking at your data, start digesting it, understanding where you're losing them, and then go ask them why. Ask them ahead of it. Ask them two grades before you're losing them. What could we be doing more to support you? What are you looking forward to in your career?

Put in development opportunities, put in learning opportunities, mentorship opportunities. There's tons of things that you can do if you find out that it's right for your organisation, or if you know that it's right for your organisation, or if you don't, go try something.

But yeah, to me, it's about understanding that it moves slow. That doesn't mean you can't find ways to pick up the pace. So it's that balance between not becoming complacent, that it is a slow burner and trying to actually identify using data. Always use data, take a look at it over and over again. Is this working? And then go talk to your people to find out what more you could be doing. The best I get is when I go and speak to our employee resource groups and understand what they're doing. Sometimes they go out and do research that I haven't seen or find research I haven't seen and it just adds richness. And then, you're speaking to your community. 

Debbie Forster:

I think it's really important because we include in the report, the reasons women are leaving and they're not just leaving the workforce, they're leaving tech and staying in the workforce. There's some areas that are not a surprise: it's pay, but it's also looking at work flexibility, work-life balance.

But I think what you were talking about there is the career prospects. It's that idea of knowing where their career can advance, and those are things that companies can work on.

All right. Well, if we think about [it] a little more widely, you've talked about data and that is always the cornerstone. We need to discuss, organisations need to have a more structured data-driven and longitudinal approach to DEI. We're seeing growth and that is pleasing compared to seven years ago, as well as pronouns changing.

We asked companies, we asked our Signatories to understand what they're doing. Here's what they told us in order of response (a bit of frequency).

Number one, representation - the basic starting block. Number two was employee experience and scores and measures. As you said, getting that qualitative advice, diversity of talent in the recruitment funnel, of course, pay gap, pay gap, pay gap, leadership representation. Because it's both knowing what's happening to my career, but also do I see people like me who are advancing, retention, progression, participation in D&I training and events, and then the external awards or rankings.

Theresa, you've been at this for a while. How can we make our use of data really strategic when we're trying to maximise the effects of D&I?

Theresa Palmer:

It's awesome that people are starting to do more data collection.

To be honest, I was a dataphobe when I came into it. I always tell people I've worked in and around tech for over 20 years. I was never a coder and I'm not a natural, you know, data consumer. But I learned very quickly that you actually do lead hearts in this area with minds. And so, one of the key things that they need to do with this data is use it. 

That's what I see a lot of companies not doing now. I'm psyched that they're gathering it. I'm psyched that they're starting to look at it, but a lot of organisations think that's enough. Just putting their DEI data on their reports now and you see them pop up there and they're all pleased and we're tracking this now, that's not enough.

So they need to dig into it. They need to actually look at it, look for trends, the same thing they do, right? We're tech heads, you know, digest your data, look at it, look for trends, look for anomalies, look for things that you think you can intervene with and fix. That to me is the biggest thing that people can be doing. Don't just produce data, eat it. Eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Debbie Forster:

I'm glad you say that because a lot of times when we go beyond gender, we start going into self ID and self ID is based on trust. People will be looking and listening and wanting to know: What are you doing with the data? How are you using it?

It's about that sharing, but then acting on it and measuring impact, which increases that confidence, increases that buy-in and increases a self ID in that respect.

If we think about lenses beyond gender, because this is always about more than just [getting] posh, white, able CIS women into tech, one of the things that we've looked at is the different lenses and it's one of the areas, this year, that is my most frustrating. I mentioned it last year, and it's got no better [and that is] social mobility. The measurement of social mobility lags well behind. Last year, it was bottom of that league table of what people are looking at.

For the first time this year, we were able to look at what's the socioeconomic makeup. Only 9% of tech employees are reported to being from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Now let's measure that up against the UK population, [of which] 40% are from a lower socioeconomic status. Before we feel sorry for ourselves and say, what can a poor tech industry do in finance? That stat is 20% higher - 29% of people in finance are from lower socioeconomic status and 23% in law, even posh law has managed to start cracking this.

Theresa, what can companies do? What has BAE been doing to really change things in this area? 

Theresa Palmer:

Finance and law just got it right, probably, decades ago. You could see it. You could see the swell of it happening. Organisations really should be looking at what finance and law did to [achieve] that. 

Debbie Forster:

Don't reinvent the wheel.

Theresa Palmer:

We all need to do that. I think it's super important. As an organisation, to actually understand the people that we are drawing in, and that's across the board. We do collect self ID, we do use it. We try to let people know what we're doing with it, so that they know that they're giving it for a reason.

Self ID, there's a risk, right? If you're not telling people what you're doing, your fear of "are they using it in a way that I didn't want them to?" sets in. "Is that why they're not telling me?" So it's a huge risk factor. The same is true for lower socioeconomic. There's a stigma to it.

It's scary for people to say there's a stigma because if I say there's a stigma against someone who was poor, right, that's a really scary word. Does that make me discriminating against them because I said that? Not if I'm using it right. I'm not using it as an insult. You need to take a look and understand that the makeup of people. Poor has lots of different meanings. You know, someone might've grown up a bit disadvantaged. Someone might be working for you and still in a bedsit. That's a big deal. I think that's a big hurdle for people to get over. We looked at this a lot during COVID [when] we sent people home. Because of that, you think, this is great. Now we work very hybridly

Debbie Forster:

"I built a garden office. It'll be fine". 

Theresa Palmer:

Yes, there must be a garden office. You must have been able to, you know, put a loft extension on. There are still a proportion, a great proportion of our organisation that work in a bedsit with a bad back, because they were sitting on their beds all day. You could see that people needed to understand that.

We did something that I think was really great. We've kept it in place because we've kept a primarily hybrid workforce now too. We have a hybrid working allowance. We have a whole tech area that people can go into now and pick out what screen and monitor they want, what mouse they want, do they want it wireless? What kind of headset do they want? They can pick out a bunch of different things. In addition to that, they have a fund where they can go get a desk and a chair, some simple things, very simple. I'm sure some organisations are doing way more, but there are some simple things that we can be providing for people that isn't just a, "well, if you're working from home and you're uncomfortable in your bed, get a desk". We have to be able to talk to people about it and understand as well, too. 

Debbie Forster:

It's creating that safe space where people can talk about past circumstances, current circumstances, and it goes across your career. There are entry-level barriers if we come from that background, but it doesn't just go away. The salary might be coming in, but we still have and carry that stigma around and it can impact us in a number of ways.  What are some ways that we can help with that later on in career? 

Theresa Palmer:

There are some simple things when you think about even just the ways that we send out invitations to fancy events. Who doesn't love to get dressed up? I can tell you that there's a proportion of your workforce that really hates it because they don't have anything to wear. It's a huge risk and worry that even if they try to get something, it's just not going to live up to expectations.

Inviting people out for a drink after work isn't always easy. It sounds silly to say, "can you not go out and buy a pint?" No, some people can't. Another nice thing that I look after with MBA is a sport and social budget, if you will, but it's sport and social communities. So it's anything from skydiving for some of our veterans that want to go out and do some skydiving, to book clubs to journaling clubs. There's definitely some football and things in there, but it is something that we either fully fund or depending on skydiving, obviously we subsidise a bit but it's to get people together. They might get a drink afterwards or a coffee, they might get a pint, they might get something. But it gives people the opportunity to actually maybe go socialise after work too.

It wasn't originally planned for that reason, but when you think about the socioeconomic barriers that you can break down for people, it's creating space and opportunity for people to do these things without the fear of that monetary hit.

Debbie Forster:

I think there's also the background that we can support through coaching and mentoring to break down those codes. If you've come from a different class, from a different background, to fit into those social situations, to understand the networking, break down that code. It's not just making them look like us, it's trying to talk and behave in a different way.

Theresa Palmer:

Well, people mask too, right? Everybody talks about masking these days.

You could have one of your wealthiest, most successful leaders who grew up disadvantaged, but actually because of that stigma, doesn't want to talk about it because they've made it now. So why talk about the difficulties they had? Well, because when you talk about role models as well, not just mentoring, but role modelling. If somebody can get up and speak about it.

One of the most powerful conversations we ever had was one of our past MDs who happened to go to the launch of our mental health ERG and everyone came out of it saying "did you see that?" He got up in front of the room and talked about the fact that years ago he had been signed out of work because of crippling anxiety and how he worked his way through it and how he still struggles with it sometimes.

The impact that's had long-term, people are still talking [about it], and it was years ago. People are still talking about how, what barriers it broke down for him to just say, this is something that happened to me. 

Debbie Forster:

Safe spaces are founded by brave storytelling from people. If we can create the opportunities where influential people, powerful people within the organisation, if we can create the circumstances where they can feel brave enough to talk about those things, it creates safe spaces for others.

All right. So if we say we're still struggling to get companies to do something about socioeconomic status, some better news, maybe, in neurodiversity.

At the other end of the spectrum, we're seeing a real surge in interest for neurodiversity. A report found that according to employers, they are gathering data - that's good news. [However] just 3% of the tech workforce is neurodivergent compared to the UK wide estimates of 15 to 20%. And here's the other stuff...

Theresa Palmer:

I'm waiting for it. 

Debbie Forster:

When you ask tech workers directly, [the] rates of neurodiversity soar to 53%. What does that tell you, Theresa? 

Theresa Palmer:

It tells me what we all know.  We all know this. This is not a secret. Neurodiversity, I know, is a hot topic right now, which is a great thing in my field. I want hot topics. I want people to jump on and get involved and want to help change. I mean, when you think of what technology offers, it offers problem solving, ordering skills, all these things. Pattern recognition.

It's things that most neurodiverse individuals, not all, just because you met one means you met one, but you can generalise a little bit, it's almost like a dream career in that sense, if we can support them properly. That is what some organisations [do]. I think that's probably why this has gained some popularity too, by way of people getting on board. You can send out meeting agendas, you can encourage people to have their cameras on or off, should they choose, and you can give people an opportunity to have reflective thought to contribute or advanced thoughts to send things out in advance. [Offer] the ability to put down silent contributions. There are tons of different things. We're changing lighting in offices. There's really tangible things you can do around neurodiversity.

If people aren't doing it, definitely go have a look, you can find tons of resources on this but that to me is one piece of, again, talk to people, understand, create a supportive environment. Make sure that you're tooling up your managers so that they understand that we, sorry if I'm lumping you in into my my age range, probably grew up right in a timeframe when it was your manager's way. Well, if that's the way she likes to do it, that's how we do it. You make eye contact. If you want to be taken seriously, you should speak up. If you want to be heard. "Why did you let yourself get spoken over in that meeting? Why didn't you bring it up in the meeting? Why are you bringing it to me now? We had a meeting for that."

Your manager's style had to be your style and there's a complete flip flop on that. You have a bunch of managers that didn't grow up that way. So how do we give them the tools to understand that they can get the best from their people? Because ultimately that's what we want.

How do we get the best from our people? We get it by creating an environment that they can work their best in. That might be the lighting, be the agendas, but it could be other things. By understanding your employees and understanding how they work best, you get the best out of them.

Debbie Forster:

It's doing with, not to or for people. It is that discussion, which again, takes the safe environment to have those discussions. But then to really try and think, because across all of the things that we've been talking about is that intersectionality. [For instance] you can have a woman from a lower socioeconomic status who is neurodiverse.

It is about the quality of those discussions. And, you know, for those people that like to kick back and push back on this, "oh, that's just them taking advantage". But it's about removing barriers. This is tech. We should know, we talked and we grew up in user experience.

The companies who are most successful at this are flipping that into "what's the employee experience?" 

Theresa Palmer:

I've built my DEI career on that exact phrase. We went from technology companies [where] the kids today wouldn't even understand load and go, right? First technology company I worked at, we were sending out CDs and DVDs and they could send it back. It was the load and go.

But load and go meant they had a product in their hand. They put it in. That's the product you got. So when you had a problem, you call tech support, they open up a ticket, they solve it, they close it. What was your time to close? Then as it moved much more enterprise and bespoke and all those floppy discs went away, it meant that you had to build these long-term relationships with companies. You had to partner with them. It wasn't about, well, if you want to go get someone else's disc, it's about, wait a minute, we don't want to lose this as you know, it's about attrition of, you know, churn. Churn was the big word, right? And so for me, it was, how do you apply those same concepts of churn and partnership and platinum-level service to our external customers, right?

Those that buy from us to our internal customers, which are employees who actually are probably far better brand ambassadors for us when we get it right, because they make us a better product. They make our customers happier. Then they go out and tell people they love what they do and who they do it for.

That's way better than the quote that we can put in our next bid that we got from, you know, customer X. Employee journey, customer experience, customer journey. I interchange employee and customer a lot when I'm working internally, because I want people to constantly see that our employees are our greatest customers. So, treat them that way and we get a great deal out of them. Off the back of it, they get a great job and a great experience, a great career. 

Debbie Forster:

It's a win-win [scenario]. It's a business imperative that needs business-level strategy built in, not just tacked on at the end of the quarter. A feel good point, built in, not bolt on. 

Theresa Palmer:

That's my other phrase for the last six and a half years: build it in, don't bolt it on. 

Debbie Forster:

Okay, now look, you and I could talk all day. I've been told you're supposed to go back to a day job. Who knew? So I'm going to sort of bring this to a close. In every episode, we finish with our three minutes, three weeks, and three months. What can we do?

So Theresa, if I'm a business leader, a D&I leader, and sitting and listening to you, what could I do after I turn off this podcast in the next three minutes? 

Theresa Palmer:

Go out and speak to your people. The key to this three minute advice is listen to them. Listen to them when they speak to you. That's the quickest thing you can do. Listen. 

Debbie Forster:

If you're already feeling smug because you are listening, you can also download the report. You can look at some data, take some outside things to look at, but it's that input - input the data in that piece. 

All right. Well, let's say that I've done that. I've listened to my people. I've got some data. Qualitative or quantitative, what could I do in three weeks with that? 

Theresa Palmer:

Well, exactly what you just said, go get data. That would have been my three week advice to go get some data. Go get some data, absolutely. Go look at a report like the Tech Talent Charter produces.

Biggest thing to do though, once you have all that in front of you, if you don't pass out from being overwhelmed, is realise you cannot boil the ocean. It's a huge risk. I think as people that try to do that and then they don't do anything well, and that's not to their discredits, because you can't do all of those things well while trying to do them at the same time.

But equally you need to go do something well. You're better off to do a few small things well, or one big thing really well, and then build on it. Because you learn from it, and you can do things a bit quicker once you start to get a process. You will get a process in place as you're doing it.

So, absolutely, go get data. Don't overwhelm yourself with it. Look at the reports. Don't overwhelm yourself with it. I would say three is the max, anywhere between one and three and you're in good place to just actually look at those things and say, these are the ones I'm going to do.

Debbie Forster:

Absolutely. And I [ask], because this should all make sense because we're tech, right? Isn't it minimum viable product? You gather your data, you iterate a product, you get out, you get user experience, minimum viable inclusion.

So what could you do? Two to three things. So if I've done that and I hit that three month point, what can I do to get long-term impact? 

Theresa Palmer:

If you didn't do all that in the three weeks, by the time you've done the three months, put a plan together and go do it.

If you are, start measuring against it. Measure and assess and go back and ask those people again and others, is this working? Because you have points of intervention. You can get something wrong. It's a big fear to get something wrong, but you're allowed to get it wrong. What you shouldn't do is set it and forget it.

There's like late night infomercials, wasn't it all those years ago? I can't remember which one it was. Some sort of cooking device - set it and forget it. People think that that's what you can do with DEI and that's that complacency thing I talked about. Don't set it and forget it. The best way to constantly enter, to continue those safe spaces and that trust that you're building up with people, that you're using the data right, and that you're listening to them and that you're trying to create a journey and an experience for them. Set goals. Go measure against them, assess them, and if it's not working, tweak it.

Debbie Forster:

Exactly. You have to be willing to do that tweaking. You have to be on that journey. That's how you build the trust. Theresa, thank you so much.

That brings us to the end of this episode, and it's just left for me to say a huge thank you to BAE, to DSIT, to HP, to Lloyd's Banking Group, PwC, Sky, Nominet, and of course, Global, in hosting this. These are the partners, these are the companies that ensure what we do at the Tech Talent Charter is free for everyone, and we couldn't do it without them. I want to thank you, our guests, for listening.

If you can, find the full Diversity in Tech report on our website. You can find us on LinkedIn. You can even find us on X, I mean, Twitter at @TechCharterUK.

Now, if you like what you've heard today, you can subscribe to this podcast on Global Player or your preferred platform. I'm Debbie Forster. Please join us at our next in:tech, and we look forward to seeing you again.