Why we need to encourage more women-owned businesses

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting for Women & Enterprise, along with my colleague Graham Roberts. It was exciting and inspiring to be surrounded by so many women leaders and entrepreneurs, even more so because we were brought together to contribute to an important challenge: how to unlock the estimated £10.1bn of economic growth potential in women’s proactive participation in our economy. More on that in a moment. First, a pop quiz:

Name five well-known female entrepreneurs

If you’re like me, you’ll find that difficult. The names we tend to hear about most – Zuckerberg, Musk, Jobs, Gates, Brin, Page – all men. Where are the women?

These men in Tech are inspiring. We admire them. We hold them up, along with sports, movie and rock stars, as aspirational figures in society. And some of us, especially kids and young adults, might be dreaming of becoming like them some day. But what happens if you’re a girl or young woman and you don’t see very many women in business or tech to aspire to? I think it puts you at a disadvantage. People tend to believe they can do things if others like them have already done them.

Of course, women entrepreneurs are out there. Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce Knowles…and in our (Tech) industry Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, Ann Budge and Alison Newell (all of who form part of the Sopra Steria story, by the way). We just tend to hear less about them.

Visibility matters

Just as with the number of women in top executive positions, the number of women-owned businesses is still too small, and those that do exist don’t seem to get the same visibility and attention. I love chocolate and have been a fan of Montezuma brand chocolate for a while. But I didn’t know Montezuma was co-founded by a woman, Helen Patterson, until she got up to speak at the APPG reception about her experience starting the company.

Does it matter that my chocolate is made by a company co-founded by a woman? Not when I’m eating it, no; but in the background, somewhere in my subconscious mind, it does. It contributes to the unconscious ideas and beliefs I have about women. The concept of unconscious bias is an area of study that’s getting a lot of attention, and focus from corporate diversity programmes. It suggests that we all develop beliefs about the world we live in that we may not even be aware of on a conscious level: what certain groups of people are like, what people who look like that are like, what people like us and what people who are not like us are capable of. For example, if someone tells you they have been to see their GP, you are likely to imagine that they saw a man, not a woman, even though there are many women GPs. So knowing that my chocolate comes from a woman-owned business might help me chip away at the unconscious biases I have and build up a picture of women running businesses.

Sopra Steria is an example of a company that has seen real business benefits to increasing the number of women in more senior positions, and improving their visibility. In the last few years, the number of women on our UK board has jumped to just under 40%. At the same time, many of our senior women are getting involved in gender equality initiatives within and outside the company, raising awareness of the issue and seeking to improve it. And we have noticed something occurring simultaneously: more women are coming forward, asking for career advice from the women they can now see at the top, and joining in the conversation about diversity in tech and business; many are saying,

“I have something to offer and I’m ready to do more.”

Women entrepreneurs – and would-be entrepreneurs – would benefit from a similar increase in visibility of role models. Right now in the UK, women start new businesses at half the rate that men do, and the gap widens as businesses grow. There are a lot of reasons for this – unequal access to finance, the persistent cultural expectation that women will continue to bear more caring and domestic responsibilities than men are but two. Giving women more entrepreneurial role models that look like them will not solve everything, but it’s worth including it in the mix of initiatives that we need to start on now.

The UK economy is missing out on over £10bn by not addressing the challenges women face in starting their own businesses, according to a recent study by Facebook. We can’t afford to lose out on that growth. Let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can to inspire, encourage and practically support the women who will create new businesses – as well as the next generation, the girls in school and college. Shouting about the examples of successful women entrepreneurs already out there is a good start.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me  by email.


The meeting of the APPG for Women & Enterprise took place on 12 September 2016.

Sustainability rolls on at Rio 2016 Olympics?

The Olympics has the accolade of bringing nations and cultures together with a backdrop of sporting disciplines. When my home town, London hosted the summer games in 2012, I wanted to be part of the action and celebration, so I volunteered as a Games Maker in the Athletes’ Village. What a great and successful event it turned out to be and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience to the extent that it spurred me on to volunteer again, this time for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Buildup to the Rio 2016 as we all know from the media had been mixed with questions being posed on whether the country could have spent ten plus billions of US$ on more vital infrastructure and services to its citizens and whether the stated legacy would ever be realised. Facilitating Sustainability (Environment, Workplace, Marketplace and Community) for Sopra Steria in the UK meant that my desire was to find out for myself what the locals thought on the ground.

 Rio de Janeiro was somewhat a familiar territory for me. I had travelled through Brazil, Peru and Bolivia in 2014, spending time in the Amazon rainforest. My role for Sopra Steria Group as the Head of Environmental Sustainability had given that trip an added dimension to learn first-hand and share with my colleagues the vital role the largest rainforest making our planet habitable for us and generations to come. I had made friends with several Cariocas (those born and raised in Rio de Janeiro), so I arranged to live with my Carioca friends, walking, taking buses (an experience for the brave) and metros (lines 1, 2 & 4 – does anyone know where is line 3?), eating feijoada (a hearty stew of black beans, sausages and cuts of pork of varying quality – traditionally veering towards the lower end, with trotters, and ears all going into the mix!) and not forgetting my daily dose of Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça: sugarcane hard liquor with sugar, lime and ice).

It was great to see the first gold medal for Brazil going to a young lady, Rafaela Silva, from the notorious favela, Cidade de Deus or City of God who had to fight inequality, poverty and racism growing up. Perhaps this achievement was a tiny example of a positive outcome to mitigate human rights campaigners’ concern about the impact of the Games on the Brazilian city’s most vulnerable communities. Driving with my Carioca friends through several favelas (too dangerous to walk they say; a black belt in karate is of no value against a gun!) poverty is there to be seen with limited schools and hospitals. Most Cariocas with whom I mingled, spoke (thank you must go to Google Translate for rescuing me in a number of situations) and drank Caipirinha felt that money could have been more wisely spent on infrastructure (hospital and schools), than on transport – which by the way was a big improvement from two years ago – and to ensure planning continues to realise the long term benefits of sports and stadia without the risk of a repeat of Athens 2004.

To conclude on a positive note, my volunteer experience at the Rio Olympic Arena with gymnastics and trampoline was great and I admired the Brazilian skill of thinking on their feet and coming up with successful solutions to issues that develop due to a lack of process and training! I even managed to secure a new Rio 2016 volunteer shirt and trousers to auction at the Sopra Steria Community Matters week in October that champions community involvement and where all employees are encouraged to get involved in community activities, one day’s paid company time to volunteer, matched funds and enabling grants.

As I finish this blog, I gather the Tokyo games in 2020 are planning to use multi-lingual high tech robots. Does this mean my human volunteer skills (underpinned by Google Translate) have had its day?

What do you think?  Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

The Government workforce of the future

Government needs talented and high performing civil servants. Yet we know that the civil service has longstanding weaknesses in key areas such as finance, commercial and digital – a key finding of our recent Government Digital Trends Survey. And recruitment and retention is challenging when cuts are made to operational costs, wage rises are frozen and posts are cut.

The recently published Civil Service Workforce Plan makes the case for developing professional skills and expertise in government. There is a commitment to open up the civil service, allowing more external recruitment and opportunities for secondments in other sectors. And the benefits of diversity, reducing the dominance of people from a narrow range of socio-economic backgrounds, is also recognised.

The civil service will need to rapidly put these plans into action, especially as it expands its professional skills and expertise to deliver digital projects at scale across Whitehall and the wider public sector.

The civil service needs the right number of people with the right skills in the right place at the right time to deliver short and long-term departmental objectives. What might be the building blocks for this?

First, workforce planning requires alignment of departmental goals and objectives and the human resources available. The workforce implications of any programme need to be considered and planned for from the outset, both in terms of any anticipated staff needs or redeployment and in terms of managing the change so as to minimise disruption and protect capacity and continuity of service.

Second, skills and competencies gaps need to be identified. This means determining the current resources and how they will evolve over time through, for example, turnover. Then comparing this with the kind, number and location of staff needed to meet the strategic objectives of the department. This assessment will determine the existing gaps in terms of numbers and competencies between the current and projected workforce needs.

Third, defining an action plan to address the most critical gaps facing departments so that human resources can support departmental strategies. The more effort expanded in stakeholder engagement during the action planning stage, including consultation with industry, the greater the likelihood of a more coordinated approach to implementation. Depending on the gaps, the action plan may address recruitment, selection, compensation, training/retraining, restructuring, outsourcing, performance management, succession planning, diversity, quality of life, retention, technological enhancements, etc.

Finally, it is also critical – particularly in fast moving sectors like technology and digital – to secure an effective workforce now and in the future. This means identifying emerging skills that can support a high performing civil service, including leveraging technology better.

Are you a civil servant involved in securing an effective workforce now and in the future? Do you think the Civil Service Workforce Plan will lead to a more sophisticated process for workforce planning? Or are you an organisation in the private sector or civil society with an innovative approach to recruiting and retaining staff? Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below, or contact me by email.

Don’t forget the lampposts 

I was recently reviewing a ‘complete’ checklist for testing web applications but at no point in the list was accessibility even mentioned despite being quite thorough in other areas. I would like to try to kid myself that this was just an oversight but it is sadly all too common even though it has been a legal requirement for well over a decade. Of course, a legal requirement where enforcement is practically unheard of is rarely a motivation for an organisation to spend more money on something. That being said, there is strong evidence of the real business benefit to accessible services and information being available to the ten million disabled people in the UK (two million of which have sight problems), but that would be a whole other article.

When testing for accessibility is carried out, it is done so to a set of guidelines. The W3C[1] WAI[2] WCAG 2.0[3] are widely regarded as the guidelines to use, with the middle road AA standard the most sought after level. While the AA standard is quite adequate for the majority (AAA is better and readily achievable with a little extra effort), testing relying solely on the guidelines does not guarantee the final product is accessible and usable. It is entirely possible to have an accessible website that is very difficult to use.

When I was a child, my mother used to paint the front door of our house a bright colour in the belief, unbeknownst to me, that this was necessary for me to be able to find my way home from school. When I asked about our door and this was explained to me I thought that it was a really silly reason and promptly told her, “You just need to count the lampposts”.

This may seem like quite a bizarre anecdote to throw into a web accessibility article. However, my point is that…

just because you expect someone to do something one way does not mean they have not already found their own preferred way to do it.

The same applies to people with disabilities accessing websites and applications. The developers may intend a site/app to be accessed in a specific way but, particularly for non-visual users, the content order and methods they use will be quite different and vary upon personal preference.

Your test team can ensure the site/app designs follow the WAI guidelines, and that your content authors are trained in how to maintain the accessibility standards of your site/app but until you perform real user testing you will not know if you have completely succeeded in your goal.

There is no substitute for having a couple dozen people test your site with various technologies and tell you all the things that annoy them about it, as they will all do so in a slightly different way.

Many of the issues that arise during accessibility testing come from developers not being properly trained in HTML features for accessibility and implementing them incorrectly, which only serves to aggravate the user and drive them away from the site. This has become a particular problem with the increasing reliance on JavaScript without proper alternatives in place and most recently the use of ARIA[4] in HTML 5. ARIA has many potential benefits, particularly for fast navigation using screen readers, but when implemented poorly it can render a site extremely unpleasant to use.

Having worked in accessibility testing for over 13 years and having a lifetime’s experience of visual impairment I can’t help but feel depressed at times at how little regard is given to web accessibility.

The need for systems to be fully accessible will only increase due to the growth in essential services being provided via web applications.

With a little training and care, it is simple to implement accessibility at early development stages, thus providing a superior product that will benefit the customer and users alike (and fewer headaches for myself will be a nice bonus too).

If you have any comments about this topic, please a reply below or contact me by email.

Footnotes

[1] World Wide Web Consortium
[2] Web Accessibility Initiative
[3] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
[4] Accessible Rich Internet Applications

Digital inclusion in the spotlight

Today (19th May) is the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) and therefore a good reason to celebrate positive developments in this area. Recently there was an announcement from the European Commission that a new directive has been successfully negotiated, which mandates that public sector websites and apps are made more accessible. The above agreement is expected to be approved soon formally by the EU parliament and council, following which the member countries will have 21 months to convert it in to national legislation.

While it remains to be seen how quickly the directive gets converted into legislation, what is evident is that the political will behind this topic is gaining momentum in the European region, which gives reason to rejoice for those rooting for accessibility as a topic. For those more used to traditional references about accessibility, it should be highlighted that it is now considered part of the bigger title of “Digital Inclusion”. This area is, thankfully, getting a lot more attention as part of the drive for a Digital Single Market for the European region. Reduced operational costs, increased user satisfaction and better customer reach are just some of the key benefits that the experts have found this realises – in every sphere of business. It is apparent that the concerned policy makers of the EU commission are convinced about it.

Of course the upcoming referendum on 23rd June might change the course for the UK and, as a result, the relevance of legislation proposed by the EU commission might diminish.

Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, the question we have before us is are we, or are we not, committed to being digitally inclusive?

We perhaps have a bit of soul searching to do as a technical / business community as to why we still have a strong prevalence of poor accessibility in websites. Why does this topic lack a voice in most discussions? Why is it so low down the priority list in every domain? Why does the disappointment for end users with disabilities not bother us? Why have we become comfortable with the inequality in this space?

In my opinion, every website is a service and this side of technology is way behind when it comes to digital inclusion. The designs built, websites developed and tested without much thought or consideration to the full spectrum of users is actually a form of discrimination that we are all a part of – often in complete ignorance, or due to project pressures or a misguided attempt to save costs. Do we realise how many sales will be lost due to inaccessibility, or how difficult it gets to complete online applications for crucial government services, or how companies fail to recruit talented people due to inaccessible job adverts?

Hopefully decisions like the one above will make this a more compelling factor to consider for service providers. Perhaps it is now time for all of us to put our hands up and get behind this topic, make it a priority in our immediate environment, and try to influence the decision makers to think about it. Not because it is a call from the EU, but for our fellow disadvantaged citizens, to reach out to them and give them the full opportunity to be a part of the on-going digital evolution.

There has been a positive update closer to home on this front, with Sopra Steria Recruitment recently announced as the new sponsor of the Business Disability Forum’s Recruitment Service Provider charter. Here’s to such measures which bring hope, good will and inclusivity in the world of technology!

Why I signed the Digital Inclusion Charter

Like so many others, I spent most of my commute this morning in the digital world – powered by the smartphone technology in my hand and the invisible tendrils of communication in the air all around us.

As I left the house, I remembered my still snoozing son was collecting an award at his school this morning so sent him a message of support and a request for excited updates later in the day.  A quick check of the transport network showed my train was on time, but I was not – so I picked up my walking pace to ensure I didn’t miss it.  Once on the train, a reminder prompted me to pay an outstanding bill – a few clicks, then done.  Leaving time to review my diary for the day, coordinate a weekend outing with a few friends via Facebook (clearly I’m getting old) and manage a quick scan of various  news-feeds all before the train pulled into London.  Whilst walking to catch my usual bus, my Fitbit app pings me – I am close to hitting my weekly step target but need to push – so I ditch the bus and decide to walk to the office instead!

Many of us will have our own variations on this kind of journey – each with different apps, activities and platforms supporting the engagements we choose – but all with the common thread that being ‘being connected’ is now a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.

Being connected feels great…

Being connected feels like the future…

Being connected empowers us to make more efficient use of our time and more informed choices…

… and of course it now drives our expectations.  When our retailers began offering online services, we expected our banks to.  And when they did, why not our insurers, our healthcare providers, our travel agents,  our schools?  Now we expect it everywhere, including our Public Services.

Millions of people interact with government every year. We pay our taxes and apply for tax credits. We look for jobs and make benefit claims. We need passports and driving licenses. Last year over 1.7 billion government transactions were completed at a cost of £7.1 billion and over three quarters of those transactions were completed online.

This is great news for those who are connected… BUT there are over 7 million adults in the UK who are not. Over 7 million adults defined as digitally excluded, primarily because of a lack of access to the internet.

7 million people. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

There are digitally excluded people within all communities of the UK but older people and those that are economically disadvantaged are more likely to be so.  There are also 11 million adults in the UK who need some assistance to interact with government online.

The implications for government are enormous.  The estimated benefit to the UK economy of getting one million new people online (assuming 70% become regular internet users) is £1.5 billion. If we enabled the digitally excluded to change just one of the interactions that they have with government from a face-to-face or paper interaction to an online interaction the government would save £900 million a year.

The implications for society are equally significant.  Every consumer who is online saves on average £560 a year by shopping around and looking at deals.  The poorest families could save over £300 if they were online[4]. Children who do not have access to the internet are at a disadvantage – over a million children’s exam results will be on average a grade lower than their peers every year because they do not have internet access at home.

Severe implications. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

In our day jobs at Sopra Steria we deliver technology and business services across the public sector trying to help government make all our lives better and safer.  Across both public and private sector,  we have great staff with valuable digital skills and an in-depth understanding of the needs of their many users in many walks of life. Underpinning that, sustainability has been a core part of our ethos in Sopra Steria for many years.

  • We actively support local communities with initiatives including working with local schools to support their technology education programmes, encouraging girls to consider careers in IT,  offering technology and business apprenticeships to local young people, supporting communities and charities through our annual Community Matters activities, and in India, helping improve the lives of over 66,000 children by giving them access to education – including IT education
  • We’ve cut our carbon emissions by 48% in 6 years, made all our Datacentre services CarbonNeutral® by default since 2013 and scored a perfect score of 100A in CDP Climate Change in both 2013 and 2014 – joining the CDP’s  ‘A List Report’ as a result
  • We are also an active member and sponsor of Digital Leaders in the UK and work with that community looking at all aspects of the Digital Transformation agenda including the challenges of digital exclusion

All of our experiences and initiatives have shown us the real difference people can make when they work together – the digital inclusion challenge cannot be solved by any single person or organisation alone, but I believe it can be solved by many people and organisations working together…

We must fix it together. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

Are you signing the Digital Inclusion Charter? Leave a message below or contact me by email.

UN-tangling accessibility

On the occasion of 70th Anniversary of the United Nations, there has been an initiative to raise awareness about the importance of web accessibility. As a measure of immediate change, the organisation has started to improve all the UN websites.

Logo: accessibility guidelines for UN websites

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s thought-provoking article stresses the importance of eliminating digital barriers. This also includes a brief but highly effective video highlighting the importance of accessibility and this notable line:

Accessible websites benefit all visitors, not just those with disabilities. On an accessible website, the user is put at the centre of the experience.

This is a lesser known fact about accessibility. Apart from the obvious advantages of creating an inclusive environment and increased market reach, accessibility enhances the overall user experience by improved clarity and structure. One of the hidden benefits is improved search engine rating (in fact Google essentially is like a blind person looking for information). But above all, it is all about acknowledging the diversity in the end user community, accepting the fact that we are all differently-abled due to many factors.

I’m passionate about User Experience (UX) – improving the digital experience for the user, particularly for the disabled users. So to learn about the scale at which this is being taken up by UN is very energizing. It is high time that this topic garners the attention it deserves. It is legally, ethically and commercially important make technology a level ground for those with disabilities. A live example of its benefits is the legendary scientist Stephen Hawking who uses various assistive technologies to express himself. What a loss it would be for the world to not provide that opportunity to participate!

Today’s IT service providers have to sit up and think what they are losing by not getting their act together in terms of accessibility. In fact, it can be considered a discrimination for a service provider to host an inaccessible website and hence be subjected to legal action. However, rather than fearing accessibility for such reasons, there is a strong case for businesses to consider improving web accessibility because of the positives it brings with it. There have been glorious examples of businesses reaping benefits by making their websites accessible. There have also been some infamous stories about those who have paid a price for disregarding this aspect.

To be fair, there have been some examples where organisations have put accessibility on the top of their list, particularly where a new system is being built. For example, during the development of GOV.UK portal (Government Digital Service), I am told that the delivery would not get progressed to the live environment unless there was a complete approval on the accessibility aspect of it. However such examples are far and few between. Sadly, most seem to have chosen to push it down their ‘to do’ list. In some cases it is seen as too significant an area of impact on development processes and hence not to be taken too lightly. i.e., hold a lot of discussions rather than take any action. Why do they do that I wonder?

Existing websites, old technologies, ongoing business, impact on BAU?

Accessibility is not easy to understand. You need to involve people with disabilities to fully realise the problems. How easy is it to engage people from that community in the software development process?

ROI: is there really an audience or are we just going through a lot of hassle for a small minority?

We need specialist companies to do justice to this topic; can we afford to get them on board?

Well, let us face it, all these factors are actually very real. I very much empathise with the businesses in the challenges involved around accessibility. It is a long way to achieve the utopian idea of fully accessible websites across board. But to me, the first step is not the implementation – it is to develop the will to support accessibility, to include it in the thought process, to talk about it in meetings, to encourage innovation around it, to consider investing in it. In my opinion, there usually is not enough research done before concluding that it is not for now, it is a topic to be taken up some day in the future.

This actually calls for a change of perception and practices, a real determination to make disabled users feel more welcome. There are some immediate measures a business could take up to reflect an inclusive line of thought. For example, carrying out an audit on the existing websites to understand the current issues is a good starting point. Implementing easy fixes sometimes does not call for a huge investment. Publishing an accessibility statement on the website is another recommendable measure, to acknowledge that there are known issues and to offer the users a way to report the issues they are facing. There could be other innovative, technical solutions to accessibility issues. There is a lot businesses could do, if there is a will of course.

We might want to take a cue from the construction industry. In today’s age, there perhaps would be no new building without a lift or a ramp. Even in existing buildings, there have been excellent examples of creating an accessible route with minimal impact to the structure. It is perhaps very natural for architects and engineers to factor it in by default. It is perhaps a matter of time before accessibility in IT attains a level of importance it gets in building constructions. But we IT professionals can make it happen sooner – for the sake of 15% of world’s population, for the sake of equality and human rights, or perhaps for the sake of our own old age!

And how do we do that? By learning more about it, by raising awareness, by talking to our customers about it, by trying our best to include it in our proposals / web designs / user interfacing programs / testing activities. It is our choice to be just an audience to this initiative started by the UN or to be an active part of it.

Please spread the word!

What are your thoughts on web accessibility? Leave a message below or contact me by email.