You can’t be what you can’t see: why diversity matters in tech
The UK tech sector is estimated to be worth a massive £764 billion. However, with women making up less than 20% of the workforce, and only 15% of workers coming from black and minority ethnic groups, the industry still faces a massive problem with diversity and inclusion. But is there reason for optimism? We spoke to the Co-CTOs of Coding Black Females, a UK-based non-profit that’s on a mission to empower the next generation of developers – and build a community of black female role-models for the future.
The University of London, in partnership with member institution Birkbeck, offers a postgraduate programme in Computer Science that you can study fully online. With the flexibility to study part-time while you work, and to choose between a postgraduate certificate, postgraduate diploma or a full master’s, the programme provides an accessible route into tech, whatever your background.
The tech industry has long faced criticism for its lack of diversity and inclusion. According to a 2022 survey, 93% of software developers worldwide are men. In the UK, despite women representing 49% of the national workforce, just a fifth of the tech workforce identifies as female.
And the gap only widens at senior management level with only 16% of leaders being women, less than 10% having a disability and less than nine per cent coming from black and minority ethnic groups.
Established in 2017, Coding Black Females is a non-profit organisation that aims to support black female developers by creating a community and providing opportunities to network, receive support and mentorship, and learn and inspire each other.
Coding Black Females Co-CTOs, Efua Akumanyi and Tanya Powell, had very different routes into their own tech careers. But they share a passion for opening up the sector to other black women.
“What I really want to do is encourage as many women as possible, who didn’t know tech was an option, to get into it and understand it’s a space for them,” explains Efua. “It starts at school. I was lucky – I had an older brother who was into gaming and my dad was a technology journalist so he was always bringing stuff home and we always had a computer. But there wasn’t a big focus on IT at my school, it was only for the nerdy few.”
Efua’s interest led her to study a BSc in Computer Science and AI and then begin a more than 20-year career as a software developer, engineer and founder of her own ecommerce start-up.
However, the stereotypical image of the nerdy white man put Tanya off considering a career in tech until her late twenties.
She says: “My career started in media – I worked for the BBC, first in post-production and then in scheduling. But the software we had to use to schedule programming had so many issues with it. I started taking notes and doing my own research and then I ended up spending a day a week with the software developers acting as an informal analyst and tester.
“They were amazed at how I worked given I didn’t have any tech background, and asked if I’d ever considered software development. I was quite cheeky, I said: ‘that’s for nerds, I’m too cool for that!’”
But with her interest piqued, Tanya decided to complete a MSc Computer Science part-time while still working for the BBC and was soon recruited to a graduate scheme at an online gambling company.
Both Tanya and Efua have a lot of experience being the only woman, let alone the only black woman, in their teams.
“It wasn’t fun,” Tanya says. “I was fortunate because I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy and once they realised I wasn’t going to be offended by their jokes the men in my teams felt more comfortable. But there were a lot of egos.”
Efua adds: “When I started contracting I realised how many teams are predominantly men. There certainly weren’t any women like me in senior roles. Lots of the men were lovely and I was fortunate. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about companies screening CVs to remove any that don’t have a British-sounding name. They’re losing people who are potentially fantastic.”
Far from being a tick-box exercise to fill quotas, diversity and inclusion has been shown to have a significant impact on the bottom line. Research from McKinsey found that companies who actively encourage diversity are 35% more likely to outperform competitors, while Boston Consulting Group reported that having a more diverse management team led to 19% higher revenue.
Tanya explains: “We all use apps, we all use software in some way. So as black women we should be creating tech along with other people – we can’t just be reliant on other people to create tools that we and future generations will use.”
However, Coding Black Females doesn’t just work to get women started in tech.
“I’m also really excited about helping women who have been in tech for a while who are facing those ceilings and barriers,” says Efua. “I want them to become visible: to be influencers, change-makers working at C-suite level. Too many women are moved away from coding roles and because those are the roles that normally lead to management team positions it’s then really hard for them to progress as developers. They just don’t have the experience or the sponsors you need to succeed.”
Building a network is one thing both women advise for anyone considering a career in tech. “Before you even apply to a programme or a course reach out to organisations like us,” says Tanya. “Find out what it’s like. Hear about different people’s experiences so you understand what your options are.”
One thing is for sure: both Efua and Tanya are optimistic about the future. “We need a change and we’re in the middle of that change,” Efua explains. “I’m seeing more women starting their own companies – it’s exciting! Ultimately we want to do ourselves out of a job, because having more black women in positions of influence in companies would ideally lead to more organic hiring, retention and progression of black women in tech."
Find out how you can take the next step towards a rewarding career in tech with the University of London’s MSc Computer Science.