Why There Needs To Be More Diversity In Tech
Written by Suzie Bird
In an interview on David Letterman’s new Netflix show, Melinda Gates passionately spoke about the great need to get women and people from different backgrounds into tech and computer science.
“Tech is no longer just for young men in hoodies who like gaming,” she said to a round of applause, while explaining the work that the Gates’ Foundation does to fund internships and programmes for women within the technology and science space.
Yet, despite efforts being made, venture funding for female founders has hit its lowest quarterly total in three years. Whether a result of family obligations, economic uncertainty forcing women to avoid taking risks by remaining in their current roles, or due to unconscious bias of investors, the disproportionate allocation of funding poses a disadvantage to female entrepreneurs.
It’s estimated that improving ethnic and gender diversity within the technology industry could present economic opportunities which could result in £490 billion in new value for the tech industry.
Goldman Sachs revealed that businesses with more women at the top have stronger shares, its estimated that this is due to diversity in these businesses fuelling their various approaches and attracting greater talent.
The need for diversity within tech is a no brainer.
Why we need more diversity in tech:
About 8.5% of senior executives in tech are from a minority background, according to a 2018 report from Inclusive Boards, while women make up just 12.6% of board members in the sector, compared with the 30% female representation achieved by FTSE 100 businesses. The stats are shocking, yet there is still little action taking place across the board.
We can’t forget the glaring instances of unconscious bias in tech, from Google’s voice recognition being unable to respond to female voices, to Amazon’s facial detection filtering out the majority of non-white and non-male users.
In our ever-connected global population, ignoring the hugely diverse product customer base will be detrimental for these businesses. The tech industry must react.
Tech companies need to cater to a global ageing population, consumers with a multitude of abilities and those from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, who are all seeking access to tech products.
Establishing a more diverse workforce will allow tech businesses to develop better products and reach a wider range of customers and ultimately drive greater success.
Diversity fuels innovation and creativity
Technology is designed to solve to problems faced by society and businesses, its aim is to overcome adversity. So, you’d think that having a whole range of ethnicities, genders and socio-economic backgrounds on a development team would be something tech businesses strive for.
“Think how comforting it is to be surrounded by people who think in the same way, who mirror our perspectives, who confirm our prejudices. It makes us feel smarter. It validates our world view… these dangers are as ancient as mankind itself.” – Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas.
As Syed illustrates, pooling different perspectives covers our individual blind spots, makes products well-rounded and leads to greater innovation.
This not only challenges the majority perspective of the existing technology demographic, but it also breaks down the adoption barrier by factoring in a variety of customers.
When thinking about this in relation to Big Tech, greater diversity will not only increase trust in these major businesses, but also contribute to their ability to innovate and ensure representation of the global population in their products and services.
According to the Financial Times, Facebook reported that 23% of its tech employees globally are female, up from 15%; Google reports a similar change.
The same is yet to be achieved for ethnic diversity. The share of black technical workers at Apple is only at 6%, less than half of the proportion of African Americans in the US population.
Fostering a greater variance of employees will improve biases in fact checking, face and voice recognition, and audience profiling algorithms.
Big Tech has a long way to go, yet the commercial benefits that greater diversity bring will hopefully propel their efforts. And within time, these investments will help to mitigate the harm that these business currently seem to cause at every turn.
Diversity improves new tech’s accessibility
With the current focus on the rollout of 5G and hyper-connectivity, the major barrier to achieving smarter cities and making tech more accessible to all, is providing this basic connectivity in the first place.
During a recent webinar hosted by Stylus, Phil Burrows, Senior Manager of Digital Growth at Verizon, spoke about the need to invest and develop connectivity services across rural areas before we tackle 5G-based smart cities. The reasoning for this is simple. With our current polarised societies, focusing efforts on city innovation drives a further disconnect between urban and rural dwellers.
The economic divide that this creates shows a disconnect when it comes to thinking about the accessibility of technology.
When it comes to tech, it builds as many barriers as it destroys.
Take digital health services, they provide instantaneous access to online medical support for all. That is, if you have a smart phone. On the other hand, autonomous vehicles will provide accessible transport for all, you may not even need a traditional driver’s license.
“It’s not always easy to convince someone a need exists, if they don’t have that need themselves.”
― Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
For big tech, innovation and development equal progress. Why would you want to slow this down while waiting for late adopters to catch up?
This is where the need for greater diversity within the industry becomes evident. For technology and products to be adopted by the masses, it has to be accessible for the majority, if not for all.
Getting different perspectives on board from the outset will empower businesses to factor in difference, preference and desires of a much broader customer base and ultimately drive greater success.
Different perspectives can increase value
Cognitive diversity goes beyond gender or ethnic representation. In order to overcome challenges we face in modern life, a homogenous team who’ve had similar upbringings, live in the same city, speak the same language (the list could go on), will rarely find a representative solution.
It is always helpful to bring different perspectives to the table when looking to innovate.
Without people from various socio-economic backgrounds, how can we find technological solutions to issues such as period poverty, or lack of access to free school meals? And without members of different religious and ethnic communities, how can we find realistic ways to tackle issues that affect these groups, that Western tech businesses may not be aware of?
Diversity helps to smash stereotypes
“The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience – that of half the global population, after all – is seen as, well, niche.” ― Caroline Criado-Pérez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
When developing new tech products, software or features, business can be very one dimensional. To really be innovative and create forward thinking technology that changes how we live for the better, diversity is key.
As Criado-Pérez explores, we’ve been historically surrounded by products that are designed by men, for men. This is not to say that there are not women in big tech companies or leading the charge when it comes to designing new products.
But the figures don’t lie. There is a lack of women starting businesses, receiving funding and innovating.
Are women held back due to industry bias? Is it more difficult for them to succeed in a male-dominated tech world due to societal or familial expectations? Or are men simply ‘better’ at tech?
Melinda Gates certainly doesn’t think so.
49.6% of the global population is female, yet only 37% of tech startups have at least one woman on their board. What is interesting to see is that in health tech, the split is roughly even between men and women.
Maybe the industry has factored in the need to represent the half of the global population that has previously been underserved when it comes to medical issues.
While there is work being done across the globe to encourage greater diversity in STEM or technology industries, not enough is being done to challenge the current status quo.
We can’t wait another twenty years for these children to grow into the industry, we need tech businesses to really invest in greater diversity now, particularly as the benefits of doing so are plain to see.
So, what are the key steps that tech businesses could consider?
How tech businesses can increase diversity:
Invest in the hiring process
It takes time to find the best employee for the job but investing in the process will ensure the best possible outcome. And try to steer clear of AI recruitment tools, as they often have unconscious biases programmed into their base code by their designers.
Challenge unconscious bias
Greater diversity counteracts unconscious bias, but in the meantime, tech businesses need to consciously address these issues throughout the hiring process and in their day-to-day activity.
It’s an organisational issue
One in which the entire organisation needs to feel invested in and care about. It’s not up to minority groups to force tech businesses to be more inclusive, it has to come from the majority groups within the organisations themselves.
Diversity isn’t a check box
It’s a work in progress, something that will evolve over time. Fostering diversity at the heart of an organisation is a step in the right direction and consistently challenging these efforts will make tech businesses stronger.
For startups, diversity and inclusion have to be factored in from the outset
Not only will it set businesses up for commercial success, but it will also improve their longevity, productivity, and creativity.
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