As a roaming CEO, I spend a lot of time in shared working spaces, tech start-ups and tech businesses in general. I have a privileged insight into this sector, and, in terms of diversity and inclusion, there is perhaps no other sector that demonstrates such a huge cognitive dissonance.
The virtue signalling, conferences and PR is world class. The reality lags a long way behind. The problem is so many of the majority group in tech have drunk the Kool Aid they are oblivious to the now significant contradictions in their midst.
Since 2004, Netflix holiday policy has allowed its employees to choose however much vacation time they like. This sounds great, especially in the context of the US which has a measly 10-15 days as standard. However, look at who actually benefits.
Those already confident, privileged employees will gladly take more. Those who already feel less belonging are less likely to take leave. In fact, I know several who have taken none. What appears to be a cool policy actually falls into the ‘bro’ trap of just seeing things from a majority perspective. What appears inclusive can actually widen division.
It can be much more serious than holiday leave.
A recent Georgia tech study on driverless cars demonstrated how they were statistically significantly more likely to run down black people than white people. The camera-based AI simply did not detect darker skin tones as well as lighter skin tones. A lack of diversity in the research team led to immoral and unsafe outcomes.
All things being equal, a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study demonstrated that women were 47% more likely to sustain serious injury in a head on car crash and 17% more likely to die. The male dominated research team used male bodies as the norm, and we know that female bodies are significantly different.
These outcomes are a direct consequence of the lack of consideration given to diversity in the design process. The tech sector’s flexible holiday policies, soft furnishings and iced beer served in cool work environments act as a seductive distraction from the real cultural problem.
People in the majority group, can, by definition only see the world from a majority perspective. Unless, that is, they surround themselves with people as different from them as they can handle and are open to learning and being educated.
Here are five things tech companies could think about to create positively inclusive cultures and truly create a sense of belonging that empowers all employees.
Diversity & Inclusion is not something you do on a Friday afternoon. It’s a lens through which you conduct your day job. Rather than seeing inclusion as a segregated workstream, see it as methodology. We know that health outcomes are improved for all when diversity is properly considered. Tech could learn from this. How could inclusion benefit the core purpose of the company?
Kudos to Monzo who have led the way in sharing their diversity data, ahead of any legislative requirement to do so. Others should follow. But this goes way beyond diversity data, important though representation is. We need to measure inclusion, because that determines whether your diversity comes alive or not. At f(i), we have developed an inclusion diagnostic that ascertains aspects of culture such as psychological safety and perceptions of fairness. This is far more significant data if you actually want to give diverse people a sense of belonging and get value from a diverse workforce.
The Board should own inclusion and discuss as a standing agenda item. The Executive should be held accountable. A diversity council can help, but only if it reports into some structure that has power. The same goes for Employee networks or resource groups. More than anything, have a culture of transparency that acts as an efficient and fair check on decision making processes throughout the organisation.
The Bank of England introduced a policy of ‘author in the room’ to allow anyone of any level who was the most expert on a particular issue to be at the top table. If a central bank can do this to positively disrupt the hierarchy, tech firms surely can.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in tech is that majority group members do not believe inclusion is about them. They see it as a minority issue – I have white male clients who think that diversity is about “someone else, not them.” Leadership is about our behaviors. If we act more inclusively we lead in a way that will permit diversity and inclusion to thrive and contribute. Embed inclusion in all leadership development to help it become a behavioral norm.
Finally, debias the systems in a company. If algorithms can portray negative stereotypes in a search engine then they can be reprogrammed to debias the same issues. Tech Nation in the UK reviewed all their processes and implemented a series of recommendations to debias their online learning content to ensure accessibility to all.
Brilliant people work in tech and apply their brilliance to solving seemingly intractable problems. But that brilliance should also give thought to inclusion, rather than relegating it to a CSR activity and dumbing it down to make us feel comfortable. We could all benefit so much more if diversity was genuinely considered in the design process.