Zoe Amar: What it's really like to be a woman in charity tech

More women must be attracted into non-profit tech to bring about real change, writes our columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

As Third Sector’s recent diversity survey showed, there is still a way to go before the charity sector is truly diverse. It’s an issue that’s also rising up the agenda in the private and public sectors, with women accounting for just 27 per cent of the workforce in the digital industries. Only 17 per cent of technical roles are filled by women.  

You’d hope that roles in charity tech are free from the well-documented challenges faced by women working in Silicon Valley. But as Beth Upton wrote in her recent blog about being a woman in fundraising, it is naive to assume that this is the case.  

I spoke to leading women in technology in our sector to find out what barriers they have faced and what they think we can do to attract more female talent into digital roles in charities.  

Let’s be clear: to drive real social change, we must attract more women into the world of non-profit tech. Annika Small, co-founder of the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology, a charity that helps organisations put digital at the centre of what they do, points out that 68 per cent of the total third sector workforce is female. She says her charity is seeing a significant number of women, representing a range of charities, involved in our tech accelerator and digital fellowship schemes.

"This is exciting, partly because it brings a much-needed female perspective to the development of new social and civic products and services," she says. "And partly because it is seeding a new generation of female digital leaders in the charity sector."

Avril Chester, interim IT director at Scope, says she has found "the not-for-profit sector to be one of the most engaging and accepting sectors for women in technology". However, she advises young women starting out in this field that "sadly you will in your career face barriers and, though their frequency is getting less, don’t expect plain sailing". She counsels women to build a network of "people who can pick you up, but remember – just because the environment you are in is short-sighted and not ready for your talents, try not to take it personally. Focus on what you are good at and your confidence will grow naturally."

Many of the women I spoke to had largely positive experiences, though several had found it hard to get their ideas heard when working in male-dominated teams. Yet the culture in many charity digital teams is changing. Polly Cook, digital transformation programme manager at the British Red Cross, told me that "there’s been a real shift for women in tech, in what was once a very male-dominated space. When you look at the sector now, it's full of inspiring female role models in all levels of digital positions, from developers to chief information officers."

Yet charities cannot afford to be complacent about this, not least because of overall diversity trends and the need to attract talented young women into the sector amidst fierce competition from tech companies. Gillian Clyde-Smith, head of digital services at the anti-poverty charity Turn2us, thinks that part of the solution is to "be visible".

She adds: "The talented women I see both inside work and outside work at events and meetings make me feel, first, that I belong and, second, provide inspiration to carry on."

As women in charity tech, we all need to be out there flying the flag for charities and telling people why it’s the best sector for achieving social change at scale through digital.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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