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Exclusive: Fiona Sweeney on bridging tech's gender gap
Fri, 26th Jan 2024

Fiona Sweeney, Partnerships Director at Women in Data, brings over three decades of experience in the Data and Tech sector to the table. Her career has been marked by significant achievements and a deep commitment to fostering gender equality in a field that has traditionally been male-dominated. Sweeney's decision to join Women in Data was driven by a personal goal: to contribute positively to an industry that has been a significant part of her life and to ensure that the industry exploits the opportunity that increased gender representation brings. Her aspiration, rooted in a desire to build a more equitable world for her children, underscores the importance of her mission.

The current state of gender representation in the Data and Tech sectors is a cause for concern, as highlighted by Sweeney’s insights. She presents startling statistics that illustrate the extent of the gender disparity: for every four men who join the industry, there are only 0.68 women. This figure reflects a systemic issue that has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. The proportion of women in these sectors dropped to 20% during the pandemic, and as of early 2024, it stands at 25% - a figure still lower than when Women in Data was founded nine years ago.

Addressing this gender imbalance requires a comprehensive and long-term approach. Sweeney emphasizes the need for collaboration between different sectors, including educational institutions, governments, the IT industry, and advocacy organizations. She firmly believes that the IT industry cannot tackle this challenge alone and that systemic changes are necessary to shift the demographic landscape in the data and tech sectors.

Sweeney also discusses the business implications of gender diversity. Citing a report by McKinsey, she points out that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have above-average financial returns. Furthermore, companies with female leadership teams outperform their less gender-diverse counterparts by an astonishing 48%. These statistics underscore that addressing gender imbalance is not just a matter of social justice but also a business imperative.

The role of government in this endeavour is crucial, particularly in promoting STEM education. The UK's National AI Strategy and the anticipated creation of 149 million new jobs globally in Data, AI, and Tech by 2025 underscore the importance of this issue. However, attracting women to these fields remains a significant challenge. In the UK, fewer than 17% of girls take STEM subjects at school, and more than half of the women in the tech industry leave by the midpoint of their career, a rate more than double that of men.

To combat this, Women in Data launched 'Girls in Data,' a charity aimed at developing a curriculum for girls aged 14-15. This initiative involves ambassadors from the Data and Tech community who serve as role models and educators. The curriculum is based on cutting-edge neuroscience research, focusing on girls' emotional responses rather than traditional questionnaires. This approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of the attitudes and motivations of young girls towards STEM subjects.

For the IT industry to support women effectively, Sweeney suggests creating environments where women feel valued and can thrive. This includes providing opportunities for mentorship, leadership skills development, and technical training. Women in Data’s annual State of the Nation review sheds light on these aspects, highlighting the importance of such initiatives for women's career advancement in the sector.

The gender pay gap is another critical issue. In 2023, the tech sector in the UK experienced a 15.6% gender pay gap. This gap is indicative of broader structural inequalities within the industry, such as fewer women in leadership roles and a concentration of women in lower-paying roles. Sweeney notes that this gap reflects the significant inequality in the demographic structures of tech organizations.

Sweeney acknowledges the challenges ahead in achieving gender parity in the Data and Tech sector. However, she remains optimistic about the potential for change. She believes that if government, educators, businesses, and advocacy groups work together, the sector can attract and retain more women, harnessing the full potential of technology for the benefit of society.

Through Sweeney’s insights, the path towards achieving gender parity in the Data and Tech industry becomes clear. It is not only a matter of fairness but also a necessity for maximizing the sector's potential. Her call for collaborative efforts across various sectors serves as a crucial roadmap for making tangible progress in this important area.