Artificial inclusion: why tech needs to get D&I right

Over the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at two diversity in technology conferences, both of which were attended by several giants of the tech world (Microsoft, Google, Uber etc.) as well as start-ups and SMEs looking to benefit from the sharing of best practice.

In both events I observed a clear trend emerging: unless there is a dramatic shift in the pace, adoption and conversation around inclusion, the tech sector is doomed to repeat the same cultural mistakes that have plagued every other sector before them.

That tech has a diversity problem is no secret. Since 2014 when major global tech companies first published their diversity figures, we have seen very little progress. Statistics on increasing representation in Silicon Valley have stagnated or in some cases even regressed. It’s not just the US — in the UK, women make up around 50% of gamers and social media users, and yet only one in six tech specialists is female, with only one in ten in leadership positions.

How is it that a sector that prides itself on its ability to challenge, disrupt and innovate, is seemingly making so little progress on one of the most critical issues affecting the future of the workforce?

Most of the larger tech companies we spoke to at these events either had a diversity and inclusion strategy in place or were in the process of implementing one. And yet, in a poll of the audience, it was revealed that the biggest perceived inhibitor to making progress on D&I was simply a lack of action, not a lack of strategy.

Most of the SMEs and start-ups we spoke to did not have active plans for any D&I initiatives. Emerging sectors and small businesses are not immune from discriminatory and exclusive behaviours, and nor will they be safe from making the same mistakes as larger, more well established sectors unless there is deliberate action.  Companies need to act from the start.

This sentiment is perfectly encapsulated by Judith Williams, who has led diversity programs at Dropbox and Google:

“If you wait, and you wake up, and you’re a 1,500 person company, and you look around and you’re like ‘whoa, we don’t have any women’, it’s very hard to fix it. If companies don’t start out recruiting and hiring a diverse workforce, they won’t know how women, black people and other minorities may use their products. A company should have the goal of building products for everyone. To do so, the company should have a diverse staff that reflects the world around them.”

Diversity and inclusion is not a nice to have – it’s fundamentally about customers.

Brian Welle, the researcher in charge of Google’s diversity initiatives, reported that in 2012, when YouTube allowed people to upload videos to their platform direct from mobile phones, they found that 10% of all videos being uploaded were upside-down. How could this be? As their designers started to look into it, they quickly realised that left-handed people tend to hold their phones in a different orientation to right-handed people. How could it be that a company with the talent and resources of Google had not been able to anticipate the needs of a tenth of their market? The common factor was that every designer and engineer of the mobile YouTube app was right-handed.

The opportunities diversity offers are huge and well documented. To give just one example, a study by Bain & Co. found that diverse teams make better business decisions 92% of the time, twice as quickly, and with half as much time spent in meetings. The opportunities to benefit from this are even larger in industries which traditionally suffer from a lack of representation, such as tech.

Similarly the consequences of ignoring diversity and inclusion, or assuming a newer business will not fall victim to the same issues as long-established companies, are also dire.

As technology plays an increasing role in our lives and permeates our homes and workplaces, we are increasingly dependant on technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. And yet, when we stop to consider who it is that is programming the machines which we rely on, we discover case after case of bias trickling through into the algorithms which power this revolution.

If we don’t act now to eliminate this unconscious bias, then we will find diverse consumers and talent increasingly left behind, resulting in blind spots which hinder innovation and creative thought.

Research by the software company Atlassian suggests that the tech industry is currently suffering from ‘diversity fatigue’, resulting in a decline in the numbers of tech employees who are observing or engaging in action on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Three reasons for this fatigue are cited. Addressing diversity is a complex problem with slow progress. Many existing programs focus on a very narrowly-defined category of diversity. Individuals are feeling helpless in making an impact due to a focus on creating company-wide cultural change.

So how can the tech industry hit refresh on addressing these challenges?

Firstly, tackle systemic unconscious bias which may be hindering inclusion. By removing bias in the talent processes that are acting as a concrete skirting board for all diverse talent (not just women), companies should start to see more opportunities for under-represented groups, resulting in a snowball effect on increasing representation in the industry.

Secondly, focus on team-level progress. Forget about trying to change the entire company culture overnight. Company-level metrics are too large a unit for individuals to affect. If we instead focus on creating inclusive teams and changing our behaviours on the individual contributor level to be more inclusive, then we can start to make a smaller, more noticeable difference which will in the long run add up to more meaningful change.

Finally, shift the focus away from diversity and onto inclusion. If diversity is about making the numbers count, inclusion is about making everybody count. Create a feeling of belonging for all, cultivate a speak-up culture and an open environment, where individuals can bring their whole selves to work. Underpin all of that with a shared respect for valuing differences.

Once you create the right atmosphere for inclusion, diversity will follow.

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