Fostering DE&I and closing the data centre gender gap

As the industry struggles to continue meeting the growing pressures of global demand, can closing the gender gap resolve the data centre talent shortage?

The data centre market continues to grow at a pace that is unprecedented in both its speed and global scale. 

But one of the main factors holding this growth back – and, unless things change, will continue to escalate until it threatens to actually diminish the sector – is the talent shortage. 

Women, for one, are grossly underrepresented in the data centre sector. But, as recruiting new talent rises to the top of the priority list, how can we put diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) targets into meaningful practice? And can reducing the gender gap really be the win-win solution that we all hope it to be? 

The ever-pressing data centre sector talent shortage

In a sector that has no shortage of demand – and no trouble attracting new customers – issues have arisen from other areas, largely fuelled by the rapid pace of growth.

The talent shortage is, without a doubt, one of the largest threats to the future of the data centre industry. 

In the 2021 Uptime Institute Annual Data Centre Survey, 32% of respondents said that they were struggling to retain staff, with almost half (47%) finding it difficult to simply find qualified candidates for their open jobs. 

Furthermore, the disproportionately ageing talent pool indicates that talented individuals in the sector will retire, long before there are enough suitable candidates to replace them. 

All in all, these problems are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

The importance and value of diversifying the talent pool

Despite all of these glaring issues – the majority of which have been widely published for the best part of a decade -– the data centre sector has been notably slow to respond. And so, although things are beginning to progress, representation in the industry remains low. 

According to Uptime Institute reports, over 75% of surveyed data centre operators said that their workforce consists of a maximum of 10% women, while almost a quarter don’t have any women in their design, build or operations teams. 

“No longer can organisations simply expect to poach talent from their competitors – there’s a need to start thinking differently,” says Andy Davis, the Director of DataX Connect. 

“The data centres sector has a retiring workforce, and this creates two challenges: a talent shortage, but also a sector embedded in historic ways of thinking. We need fresh ideas in the sector, and this can only happen if we attract more candidates from outside of it.”

“Everyone likens it to the Einstein quote about the definition of madness – you can't solve a problem with the same mindset that created it. So, we need people from different backgrounds. We need different thought processes to drive change and make the world a better place,” agrees Samantha Humphries, Head of Security Strategy EMEA at Exabeam.

Expanding the variety and perspectives of those contributing to your organisation has been proven to improve business performance in a number of key areas. 

“Not only do businesses with a diverse workforce outperform competitors by 35%, but also, women in tech give you the competitive difference. One of my clients, by actually hiring more women, obtained more contracts and more partners; there are more and more companies out there who want to partner up with companies with the same values,” explained Paulina Laurie, Head of Women in Tech at the Frank Recruitment Group. 

The main blockades to better DE&I standards – recruiting more diverse talent

In order for data centres to attract new DE&I talent, there are a number of long-standing hurdles that need overcoming.

Although the issues are not present on a company-by-company basis, there is a lot of work that individual companies can do in order to help resolve the situation. 

The girls that haven’t been alienated from a technological career at school are often ousted during the recruitment process, where they are treated differently by management – largely through unconscious bias.

“Unconscious bias is a big topic right now, particularly in the workplace. 95% of our brains operate on an unconscious level, and that plays out in the recruitment process”, explained Angie Vaux, Founder and CEO of the Women in Tech Forum. 

For instance, affinity bias leads interviewers to lean toward candidates that look like them, share their background, or that are generally similar to themselves, who they think they have a high chance of getting on with.  

“So, if companies are looking to attract more diverse candidates into the company, they need to look at the whole end-to-end process, from the images that you are using on the website, through to the job descriptions, using inclusive language, the requirements of the job role, and then making sure that your hiring managers are aware of unconscious bias,” advises Vaux.

Pepper these values across your company branding, your company statements and all of the digital content that you publish. Explain your specific company benefits, and feature the stories of women in your team across your outlets. 

“Culturally, as an organisation, ask ‘What are you doing to attract women? What are the policies that you've got? What are your maternity benefits?’,” Vaux recommends. 

“What are your values as a company? What's your purpose? What are you doing around sustainability and social impact? If you're looking at attracting a particular group, look at what you're doing as a company to attract that talent.”

Implementing long-term DE&I solutions – retaining diverse talent

Then, arguably the most important question to ask is what is your company doing to retain talent?

Talent retention is a critical step that many companies fall short on. So much so, that 50% of women drop out from the IT industries by the age of 35. As a result, just one in 20 of women in tech will reach a senior leadership level. 

“DE&I should be part of the culture of the organisation, not simply something considered during the hiring process. You have to have a culture that identifies with the talent pool you are looking to attract,” says Davis. 

The absence of role models and mentors in the industry is one widely cited problem, as – alongside the gendered nature of the role, and its widespread label as ‘a boy’s job’ – this makes it extremely difficult for women to envision their future progression within the role.  

“I think the challenge that companies face today is to ensure that, once people are in the workforce, they are supported with the tools, the platforms, the mentorship, and the allyship to be successful,” added Vaux. 

“The more we can showcase role models and show that women can reach the top, the more we're inspiring the next generation and helping others to break through the glass ceiling”. 

So, how can we find mentors? Laurie advises businesses and individuals that, “if you are looking for a mentor, no one is too famous and no one is too high up”. 

“If you want to reach out to someone who is like driving an initiative in Silicon Valley, or is heading up one of the industry’s biggest companies, do it. Because they will be thrilled to get this email, and will often actually go on to mentor you,” added Laurie.

But these mentors and sponsors don’t necessarily have to be women. In fact, since men represent such a large proportion of high-level STEM roles, it can actually be highly advantageous – both for individual women and the situation as a whole – for men to step up as mentors, too.

“A lot of men, particularly white males, feel very much like the world's against them right now. But, actually, white male allies have a huge role to play in being an ally to the next generation,” added Vaux. 

“Think, ‘How can I, as a white male, be an ally to women and other minority groups, and how can I use my position of privilege to support others?’. And I think that when you flip that feeling on its head and use it to do good, everybody wins.”

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