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How diverse is the tech industry, anyway?

It’s an industry renowned for forward-thinking, but tech is slipping behind when it comes to DEI.  Here’s how some organizations are overcoming the challenges to build an ethnically, gender, age, and neurodiverse workplace — and how you can join them. 

Diversity in tech: the current reality

In 2014, tech’s major players — Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft — announced they’d go public with their employee diversity stats and invest millions to address the disparities. 

It was a move designed to incentivize change; shaking off tech’s reputation as being white and Asian male-dominated. But today, tech’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI for short) rates still remain too low.

While gender diversity improves, ethnic diversity stands still

There are some signs of hope. Gender representation at Facebook has improved: its technical workforce is now 23% female, up from 15% in 2014. And Google reports a similar change.

Progress in ethnic diversity, however, has been shifting at a glacial pace. In the US, black and hispanic employees make up just 4% of Google’s workforce (as of 2017) — that’s compared to 53% white and 39% Asian. At Facebook, the proportion of the workforce who are black has inched up to 3.9% in 2020.

Worse, some companies seem to be moving backwards in DEI

These numbers paint a disappointing picture. And it’s no surprise that the technology industry has been criticized for its lack of commitment to DEI. 

But there’s a lack of commitment, and then there’s actively dismantling the DEI initiatives that have managed to succeed. Here, we’re talking about Google. Having recently fired Timnit Gebru — the co-lead of its ethical AI team and someone who co-authored papers about inherent racial bias in Google software — the tech giant seems to be moving backwards. And people are taking notice.

Gebru’s dismissal prompted a social media backlash, including a string of candidates retracting job applications in protest. 

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Why can’t tech close the diversity gap? 

There’s a DEI issue in tech, despite the huge financial investments, the promises, and the plans. So what if the core problem isn’t to do with recruiting and developing more diverse candidates at all? What if it runs much deeper than that?

Here are some of the obstacles limiting diversity in the technology industry today:

Lack of diversity in tech starts at school

STEM subjects become gender and ethnically inclusive from a very young age. 

Research cites many reasons for this. Peer pressure, poverty, lack of support from parents, and textbooks full of while, male faces can all deter or demoralize. And what starts in kindergarten has an impact further down the line. Females of color are seriously underrepresented in grad schools. In 2012, African American women earned ten times fewer PhDs in STEM fields than white women, while Latina women held only 3.5% of STEM bachelor degrees.  

Corporate culture plays a damaging role too

What have you been told about working in the technology industry? 

That it’s super competitive? ✓ That employees are often under immense pressure, chasing individualistic goals? ✓

These cultural cues are yet another obstacle in the way of achieving DEI. 

Case in point: Uber has been publicly called out by a former employee for its “aggressive and unrestrained” culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. According to the whistleblower, Susan Fowler, Uber prioritizes results over teamwork, caring for each other, and — let’s face it — decent corporate decorum. 

Such a ruthless focus may help boost the ride-share app’s commercial success, but it has a detrimental effect on recruitment and retention (risking the bottom line as well). Amazon’s reputation for being a fast-paced, “brutal” workplace — where employees are praised for working long and late — fails to cast the company in an appealing light either. Certain talents will enjoy and thrive in these kinds of environments, but not everyone will. And when your corporate culture is exclusive at its heart, you’ll always be playing catch-up with DEI.

Unchallenged biases create division, not unity  

Conscious and unconscious biases need to be recognized and challenged in any sector — technology included. If not, they become embedded in an industry’s culture or a sub-culture and become the cultural norm. 

Not only does this negate the benefits of diversity, but it undermines an organization’s brand and strategic intent too. 

What active signs of bias and discrimination do we find in tech? More than we’d like. For one, there’s a distinct lack of funding for underrepresented tech founders. In 2018, just 2.2% of US venture capital dollars were brought in by female founders. When you pull back and see that  less than 10% of decision-makers at US VC firms are women, it’s apparent the bias and inclusivity is occurring on a macro level as well.

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Bringing tech back up to speed with diversity and inclusion

Despite the doom and gloom of the status quo, there are some tech companies getting it right — and there’s no reason you can’t be one of them too. Here are some practical ways to put your organization on track to embrace DEI and its benefits. 

1.

Make diversity your design brief 

Tech companies provide solutions to the world’s biggest challenges, why should DEI be any different?

diversity in tech - stylish women working on laptop covered in technology stickers

“As tempting as it is to start with hiring, the first thing I always recommend, start with diagnosis and strategy.”

Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of the diversity, equity, and inclusion, ReadySet. 

There are plenty of resources online to help you get a grip on everything from the differences between D, E, and I to who’s accountable. With a solid understanding of the basics, you can move towards a solution — but you’re not ready to hire just yet!

Take a step back and do an audit: how diverse are your teams right now? Employee demographic data is important, but you need to go in-depth too. Engagement surveys, absence levels analysis, and industry benchmarking are all worth exploring. And double check your internal tech — like recruitment tools, which too often have bias built in. This will give you a stronger foundation on which to build your diversity goals. 

2.

Hire self-taught tech minds 

The American education system fails to bring enough diversity into the field. But that’s not necessarily a barrier to hiring the best people. Steve Wozniak learnt code from home. So too did Margaret Hamilton and Fran Allen. Instead of looking to college certifications, forgo your old frameworks and look for pure, raw talent, instead.  

Where will you find it? Try coding bootcamps and other fast-track programs. Bootcamps are far more affordable than expensive degrees — empowering a wider range of people to break into tech.

3.

Think beyond your four walls

Recruitment is one way to increase diversity, but there’s many more opportunities to partner with, and learn, from a diverse group of minds beyond your four walls too. 

Reach out to minority-owned suppliers. Add flavor to your teams with remote-working freelancers from all over the globe. The more diversity you embrace across the business, the faster you’ll see your internal culture change.

Diversity is the fuel of innovation. Why starve your teams of it?

4.

Embrace DEI from start-up 

If you’re still in your start-up or scale-up lifestage, now’s the time to act.

Companies should think about DEI as early as possible, by including DEI objectives in their mission statement and being vocal about it. Read our blog, ‘Real talk: Communicating DEI (Properly) in 2021’ to get up to speed. From there, ensuring DEI-focused recruitment is the most simple, effective way to establish the correct culture early on.  

“It’s so hard to course correct once you go from 50 people to 150-300.”

Wayne Sutton, co-founder and CTO of the D&I consulting group Change Catalyst. 

Is your company a little further along into its maturity? ? That’s no excuse for admitting defeat. The technology sector has a long way to go to promote diversity and inclusion in a holistic way.

We each play a role in making that happen — what will yours be?

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