Debbie Forster, Co-Founder and CEO, Tech Talent Charter
Debbie Forster is an award-winning leader and a recognized person in the areas of diversity, tech, innovation and education. She is CEO of the Tech Talent Charter, an industry collective that aims to deliver greater gender diversity in the UK tech workforce. Debbie was awarded an MBE in January 2017 for “Services to Digital Technology and Tech Development” and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) named her Woman of the Year for 2016, describing her as “an exceptional and inspirational woman… an extraordinary role model.” She has also been named on Computer Weekly’s list of “25 Most Inspirational Women in UK IT” in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Women in tech: It takes focus, data, collaboration, and intention
How do you create a more diverse tech industry with greater numbers of empowered women? According to Debbie Forster, you stop talking about it and take action by engaging companies to recruit women to tech, collect data, and share best practices. Debbie co-founded Tech Talent Charter which now includes 300 organizations of all sizes and sectors intent on achieving greater diversity. Best practices allow these organizations to learn from one another and improve the diversity of their workplaces.
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Women in tech: It takes focus, data, collaboration, and intention
Debbie Forster, Co-Founder and CEO, Tech Talent Charter
Jon Mertz: 00:02 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:20 Today we are speaking with Debbie Forster, CEO of Tech Talent Charter, which is focused on gaining greater gender diversity in tech. Debbie, we’re glad that you’re joining us today and tell us about your background.
Debbie Forster: 00:31 Right. So, thanks very much. When I begin talking on things like this, and I think particularly to your audience, I don’t speak very long before people are puzzled about the accent and that is part of the story. So, I’m originally from the U.S., I was born and raised there and I trained as a teacher and worked as a teacher for one year in the U.S., but then I moved to the UK. I’ve lived here for 30 years, so to my American family, I sound British, and to the British I sound Canadian, and the Canadians who know me shake their head and walk away.
Debbie Forster: 01:03 But while I’ve been here in the UK, I first started through education. And while I wasn’t trained as a technology person, in the ’90s, if you used the computer and you were in education, you were seen an expert. And for me, I always saw how technology opened doors for young people, not just through their learning but through jobs.
Debbie Forster: 01:24 So as I progressed in my career and became a principal of a school, I was increasingly involved in programs that were giving young people skills, particularly girls. Because what we found is that girls were finding themselves left behind in some of those. From there, after being a principal for six years, I was asked to join an organization that worked with UK policy, people in government, and big business, again to try and find out how we could equip young people and get them into those tech jobs, which needed them so desperately. There was a startup called Apps for Good that was teaching young people skills on how to go from a problem to a prototype to markets. They were learning coding and development skills with entrepreneurial skills.
Debbie Forster: 02:18 And when I did that for seven years, we had fantastic success with girls. If you look back then, that was about five years ago, that is really where, not just in the UK, but I think globally, companies were waking up and starting to realize that there was no diversity in tech and diversity in general, but particularly women. Then three years ago, when I was just beginning to finish my work at Apps for Good, someone approached me called Sinead, she is my co-founder, and she was really passionate about doing something with industry, with employers to move the dial on diversity.
Debbie Forster: 03:03 I think my first comment to her was, “If I go to another roundtable event on why there’s no women in tech, my head’s going to explode. And if I have to sit and watch people re-invent the wheel one more time, I’m just going to scream, if we don’t do those things. I’m in.” So around three years ago, on top of our day jobs, the idea of the Tech Talent Charter emerged. So, the premise of the Tech Talent Charter is relatively simple. We are about diversity in tech and moving the dial on that diversity.
Debbie Forster: 03:41 When I say diversity, this is diversity in its fullest sense. We start with the lens of gender. We also know that it’s more than that. It’s beam, it’s disability, it’s neuro diversity, it’s socioeconomic backgrounds. We say tech in its widest sense, we know we need greater diversity and developers, but we also need it in UX, we need it in data scientists, we needed in cyber. And we work with companies. Any company for whom tech is essential. So I keep joking that there will be some company that doesn’t need us. I’ve not met them yet.
Debbie Forster: 04:16 So we’ve got a tech vertical that’s like Microsoft, Cisco, but we also have Sky. We’ve got the BBC, we’ve got Cancer Research UK, we’ve even got Domino’s Pizza. We have organizations who do stuff in the space. So we have people like Code First: Girls, and we also took the decision to include consultants and recruiters because they could either be part of the problem with a solution.
Debbie Forster: 04:47 So in this problem space, we agreed that it was so very broken that no single company could fix it themselves. And so what the Tech Talent Charter does, is we are a growing group of signatories who work collaboratively, who focus on the practical, and who are committed to share what’s working and not working, and to measure it through data to really move the diversity on tech in the UK.
Jon Mertz: 05:16 What kinds of entities are involved in Tech Talent Charter?
Debbie Forster: 05:19 It was great for us that when I did leave Apps for Good and decided to put my time full time into the Tech Talent Charter, we very quickly came to the attention of a governmental department here called the DCMS, it’s the Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport. And they very much got what this was about. They gave us some initial seed funding and began then talking to companies also on our behalf to join. The government itself made a commitment that all of its government departments would join. And it’s been great. We had our first annual reports on the data this year. And as what was the data of the companies themselves and the gender breakdown, we were able to really understand our membership. And I was delighted to see that there was this even split for us from the big multi-national companies formed about a third of who we are membership.
Debbie Forster: 06:17 A third of our companies would be those small and medium enterprises, but we also had a third that were those tiny and small organizations, including the micro industries, those are fewer than 10. And we also moved all the way across sectors. And that’s where the learning has been terribly exciting because you’re not just learning what people in your sector are doing. It’s organizations learning from companies of other sizes, and we’re finding that a lot of the tiny companies have a lot to teach the big organizations because they’re actually leading the way. For us statistically, our best gender breakdown came from the micro companies.
Debbie Forster: 06:57 But then you’re thinking across sectors. I’m having people from entertainment and broadcast sharing what they’re learning to people who are in government departments. I have people who are from the traditional tech industry who are learning from some of the engineering companies that we have involved. So it is very much people stepping outside their silos.
Jon Mertz: 07:17 I know that organizations that sign on signatories have certain requirements placed on them. Like it has to be someone that can make things happen within that organization. They have to have a plan and willing to share best practices as well as data. What’s your reaction to those requirements?
Debbie Forster: 07:33 You’ve memorized it. Well, you’ve got our pitch perfectly. So normally when I’m telling that and we boil it down to people, plan, practice and data, everyone’s nodding with a smile with people and plan and sharing practice. And when I say data, the smile freezes as a sharp intake of breath. Because it’s scary. I think here in the UK, it is slightly less scary because our government required the publication of the Gender Pay Reporting. So in doing that, that level of transparency and sharing data, it seems a little less terrifying, but still pretty scary.
Debbie Forster: 08:07 We re-assure our companies because for us, we’re not coming with sharp pointy sticks. We’re about equipping our companies. So they do share data with us, data that scares them to death. They are telling us about percentages of male, female and non-binary and their full workforce and their tech workforce. We’re asking them about Gender Pay Reporting for their tech team. We’re asking how often they have shortlisted and been able to have at least one woman on that short list.
Debbie Forster: 08:37 What we do is we anonymize it and we aggregate it and we turn it into a benchmarking report, so that suddenly companies have another frame of reference. To date at best, they can only compare with their own historical data. By being able to see what’s happening across sectors, they have more of a reality taste of they’re ahead of the game, therefore there’s a lot to smile about and share, or they’re behind, in which case is, they’re very focused on where they can go and ask questions.
Debbie Forster: 09:05 And I think data is an essential part of moving the dial. A lot of companies just sort of dive in and say, “We’re going to become more diverse,” without really looking internally. Because for some companies, they’re actually quite good at recruiting. What they don’t realize is they have a leaky pipeline. They’re losing their diversity at three years or five years or not getting them to board. Others are finding they retain them fine, but they can’t get them to the door. So having that data is an essential starting point of really moving the dial for your diversity.
Jon Mertz: 09:40 What’s your goal for continued growth?
Debbie Forster: 09:42 We really kicked this off in March, 2017, at that time we had 17 companies. As of this morning, we’re hitting 300 companies this week. I do want us to reach 500 this year. I think it’s important for us to have that base.
Jon Mertz: 09:58 Over the last few years, what have been some of the big lessons learned from those who have tried to improve on their practices around gender diversity?
Debbie Forster: 10:06 When we would go into adjacent region, we found nobody was completely clear of who was doing what in the space. And we are mapping what’s going on at a regional level, at the point in the pipeline, the cost model, et cetera, and we have over 300 initiatives. I think that the business benefit is that companies are finding out what’s happening. They’re finding collaborators in the space, they’re finding good PR because they can talk about what’s working and they’re really getting to work in a more innovative space.
Debbie Forster: 10:38 I think it’s that collaboration and thinking outside the box. And it’s something that I think our tiny companies are teaching our big companies. Whenever I do an event, I get very envious big companies looking at the small companies because whereas the small companies will say, “Yes, but you have huge budgets. You’ve got all the bandwidth to do this, this and this,” what we hear from the big companies is, “But so often you’re hamstrung by huge systems and organizations that seem to want perfectly formed policies dropping down from on high.” But one of the big take-aways that comes more often is this idea of getting companies to work like a startup. It’s a guerrilla inclusion. I’ve heard someone call it. It’s that idea of those small, committed, and build out from there because waiting until you find the perfect policies drop from on top, it just doesn’t get you anywhere.
Jon Mertz: 11:35 It seems like certain principles need to be at play in larger companies for the mission of inclusion to work. Can you talk about what those are?
Debbie Forster: 11:43 I call it the perfect three, the triumvirate. If this is going to work in companies, you need three key players that are on the same page. You need someone who’s senior at C level who buys in. This is somebody who from the top table is going to make this happen. But if that’s all you have, it never lasts. It gets announced in a company meeting and nothing happens.
Debbie Forster: 12:07 It’s also getting your tech team involved, and that’s your middle managers as well as your top managers. If they don’t see the purpose and value, the genuine business value in the diversity, if you haven’t made that case and won them over, even if you can recruit them, you’re going to have these candidates bouncing in and out rocket fast.
Debbie Forster: 12:27 And then the third piece is getting your HR department involved and really making sure they understand the processes, the why’s of what you’re doing as well as the how. If you miss any one of those three things and keep those three things connected up, you’re going to only have short term things.
Jon Mertz: 12:44 Going back to the Tech Talent Charter, at what point did you feel that the momentum was starting to pick up?
Debbie Forster: 12:50 So I think the first year that we were really getting things kicked off, things were slow, but we were very comfortable and deliberate in that slowness. And I think the important thing was because we were understanding the space, and also to really test our proposition with a few companies, so that by the time we reached into 2017, we had a good strong proof of concept and we also had some key players in the space who knew that we could demonstrate, we’re going to be working together and genuinely connecting the dots.
Debbie Forster: 13:22 And then we moved into 2017 and we moved into the perfect crisis. There’s an oft quoted saying from Winston Churchill about, “Never waste a good crisis.” And within the UK, if you lived across 2017 and globally, you had Winston, you had me too. We had an incident in the UK called The President’s Club, which was a real debacle in terms of diversity. We had Brexit coming and we had Gender Pay Reporting.
Debbie Forster: 13:53 So there’s lots and lots of pain points, but it was those pain points that made companies suddenly sit up and think, “What are we going to do about this?” When those difficult truths were coming out about Gender Pay Reporting, companies had nowhere to hide and it was a great catalyst for companies to say, “Okay, we’re on the journey, let’s do something.” And so for us to then quickly flick on a light and say, “Come work with us and work collaboratively.”
Debbie Forster: 14:22 And I think that collaborative message really resonated here. And then very exciting, and I think something that is going to be big in 2019, is that companies are also waking up and realizing it’s important to recruit right from your traditional graduate channels. It’s important to get into schools and change inspiration. But even if you could fix schools today and no one is, it’s going to take 10 years to get to the other side and feel the benefit.
Debbie Forster: 14:49 So our employers now, this year are doubling down on retraining programs, conversion programs, programs that support people back into work who have may have been in tech and left. That re-training, re-purposing group, I think is essential, exciting, and is really going to jet power what we do in 2019.
Jon Mertz: 15:12 Yeah, that’s interesting because there was a 2018 report published by UK’s Tech City, where they found more than a third of young men aspire to work in the tech sector, whereas just 13% of women had the same aspirations. Are your re-training efforts aimed good impacting some of those statistics?
Debbie Forster: 15:30 Absolutely. Yeah. And I think you’ll feel the same and see the same in places like the U.S., there’s been a lot that’s gone wrong up until now in terms of inspiring women to think about a career in tech. And that’s both what’s happening in schools and what’s happening in society. And then you couple it with the horror stories. And I will not deny for a moment, that there are a number of really toxic tech companies out there. But they’re the only ones that are grabbing the headlines.
Debbie Forster: 15:57 They’re the only ones that we’re hearing about. And one of the things that we really want to work on in this year is to make sure our companies are becoming inclusive and they know how to do it, that they’re in a really joined-up, concerted effort to make themselves positive, professional, welcoming, inclusive workplaces. And that’s what we’re seeing happening. And then if they were also getting ready to think outside the box, to work in a different way, to look at this retraining and returning peace, to think in different ways rather than to always do it the same way. Now that we’re getting them to do that, what we’ll also be doing in 2019 is to look at a B to C campaign because we now need to get to tell women that there are good news stories, that there are good companies and that there are a number of ways into tech.
Debbie Forster: 16:41 We need to build more of these revolving doors, that people can see away into tech and to see the sheer diversity of roles that are available and companies that are out there, and the geographical range, the job type, the whole range, and that there are people who desperately want them in. We’re always hit with headlines about how diversity is going to push people out of jobs. But the tech industry is well placed to say, “And here’s how you can get back in.”
Jon Mertz: 17:11 How does pay equity figure into your mission?
Debbie Forster: 17:14 It’s got to be one piece of the puzzle and it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. So what we’re fortunate to be able to do is there’s already the national initiatives going through and raising that. For tech, it’s so very broken that you’ve got to deal with getting more women in before you can even start just focusing on pay, if that makes sense.
Jon Mertz: 17:35 What can other countries learn from your work?
Debbie Forster: 17:37 I think in the first instance, there’s a lot to be said with leading with data. So it was not necessarily a hugely popular choice by the UK government to require certain amounts of data to be published, but it was a great starting point on some challenging conversations and raised the right kinds of conversations, but I think in the midst of it, it was also trying to make sure there was smart reporting about it because it’s making sure that there is smart talk about data rather than jumping on things that instantly gets just proven and then ruled out.
Debbie Forster: 18:12 It is then I think in other countries, to start forming these coalitions, that any way in which that you can start moving companies away from this idea of the trade secret of the sharing of the best practice of coalescing and bringing players into the room and finding ways of working together, is the way of doing that. And I think it’s why I’m finding myself now being asked to talk in more countries is, every country would have a slightly different path because you’re going to start from a different ecosystem, different culture. But there was no reason you have to start from zero.
Debbie Forster: 18:51 We’re very, very open and we open-source everything that we do as a not-for-profit for Tech Talent Charter. And so we’re going to continue to do that as we expand in the UK beyond gender, into other areas of diversity, but we’re in the same way. We’re happy to open-source and talk to companies and countries about what they can learn to try and adapt it for their own environment.
Jon Mertz: 19:17 If you look ahead three years from now, what do you hope to see in the UK around diversity and equity within tech?
Debbie Forster: 19:24 What I’d love to say in three years’ time is we look back and smile to remember how hard it was to start it. And I want in three years’ time that we’re talking about diversity in its widest sense, not just gender, because we will have made those leaps forward in gender, but I’d like the conversation where we’re not even saying ‘diversity’, we’re saying ‘inclusion’ and where all we have a workplace in which people from any background, even white middle class males feel that they can bring their whole selves to work. That the sharing of data, the sharing of best practice, is hygiene in the majority of companies.
Jon Mertz: 20:02 Debbie, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and how you’ve built this movement within the UK. All countries and companies can learn from what you’ve done and I really appreciate your time and your efforts on making inclusion the norm.
Debbie Forster: 20:13 Brilliant. Thanks very much.
Jon Mertz: 20:21 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
How can you collaborate with companies in your community to share data and best practices in recruiting and retaining women in tech?
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Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World I’m Jon Mertz.