Evidence has shown that diverse teams are more creative and dynamic than homogeneous ones, yet the technology sector continues to be dominated by white men. For an industry that wields so much power over our lives, what are the dangers of a lack of diversity in tech?
Before we go any further, it’s important to define what we mean by diversity, and why it’s important.
Often discussed in terms of gender or ethnicity, diversity also relates to age, cultural background, personality type, or any other such differentiator. The arguments for diversity can be distilled into the following two ideas:
- Performance – the idea that diverse teams bring tangible benefits to businesses and society at large
- Inclusion – the idea that diverse teams represent a fair, open and inclusive workplace.
Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
Diversity and performance
Whether you like it or not, your gender, age, social background and ethnicity play a key role in shaping your experience and attitudes, and as a result your way of approaching work. With this in mind, a diverse workforce isn’t just about diversity of people, but also of ideas.
To illustrate this, imagine two teams. One is made up of people of the same age, gender, ethnicity and social background. The other consists of men and women of different ethnicities, ages and walks of life.
Now imagine that both teams were required to make decisions that would shape the lives of real people. Which team would more likely understand the wider world and the needs of the people in it? Which would be better equipped to find creative solutions to problems?
The answer is simple: diverse teams are more likely to produce better results, because they can draw from a wide range of influences and experiences, allowing them to view problems from different perspectives and come up with creative solutions.
The absence of diversity, on the other hand, can result in a dearth of new ideas, or an inability to see a problem from more than one angle. A good example of this is the political world, which in the UK is dominated by wealthy white men in their fifties and sixties, most of whom attended a handful of elite public schools and universities. How can this narrow demographic possibly understand the lives of a diverse population?
Diversity and inclusion
In addition to matters of performance, diversity also relates to fairness, equality and inclusion. The truth is that many industries and jobs are still dominated by a particular demographic. This is usually the result of deep-seated cultural assumptions projected onto the world of work, resulting in there being more female carers, nurses and primary school teacher, but more male construction workers, programmers and pilots.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having more female nurses and more male mechanics, as long as the only barriers to work are an individual’s attitude, ability and experience. Industries and jobs should be open to all people, not just a small subset.
Many would argue that you can apply for any job you like, and if you are good enough you will get it, but this doesn’t reflect the subtle way that expectations and biases play out.
Take the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), for example. These have traditionally been dominated by men, but is there nothing about men that makes them naturally better at these subjects. This is purely down to cultural stereotypes perpetuated through generations, which put young girls off from studying these subjects from an early age. According to WISE Campaign, in 2017 girls represented 36.7% of those taking STEM subjects at A-level and only 10% of those who took Computer Science.
Diversity in tech
When it comes to industries that influence all aspects of our daily lives – such as technology – diversity is not only desirable but also necessary.
The tech industry shapes our lives like no other, determining the way we communicate, work, play, and consume. And with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), it will shape our future in ways we can’t even imagine. Yet women make up only 17% of employees in the UK tech sector and 20% in the USA.
While this is a scary statistic from the perspective of inclusion, it also represents a dangerous imbalance. If such an influential sector is dominated by one particular demographic, we risk shaping a world where bias and even prejudice are built into the technology and systems that dominate our lives.
While technology is essentially neutral, every tool has a creator, and so the potential for bias is always there.
Statistically speaking, most people at the cutting edge of new technology are rich white men, probably living somewhere on the West coast of America. This lack of diversity, particularly at the top, can result in technology projecting the view of this demographic onto the wider population.
For example, the algorithms behind Google’s photo app, as well as camera software by both Nikon and HP, have already had issues correctly identifying non-white people in images. This is not the algorithms’ fault – they can only work according to the data they are fed. But if the images they learn from are predominantly of white people, these mistakes aren’t particularly surprising.
While this example may be uncomfortable for those involved, it isn’t necessarily dangerous. But when algorithms used by the police or legal system are more likely to make mistakes in relation to non-white citizens, it becomes a different matter altogether.
Another example is in the increasing number of AI-powered intelligent assistants and robots. To make interactions with these AIs more natural, the designers attribute human characteristics to them – names, voices, even personalities. The type of work that an AI does and the persona it is given often reflect subtle gender stereotypes.
Intelligent assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, are more often ‘female’, reflecting the stereotype that secretarial or PA work is for women. Meanwhile, robots with ‘male’ personas, such as IBM’s Watson or Rethink Robotic’s Baxter, are beating chess champions, diagnosing diseases and loading goods on the factory floor.
The gender personas attributed to different AIs show a subtle form of bias built into the technology. It’s easy to see how a male-dominated tech industry could produce this, even if unintentionally, and how it could further perpetuate stereotypes around gender roles in society.
So what next?
Whichever way you look at it, the effects of diversity are positive – diverse teams are naturally more creative, and are more likely to be able to understand and connect with a broad range of customers. So how do we go about opening traditionally non-diverse industries and jobs to everyone?
First, employers need to step up by creating an environment that is welcoming and safe for all. This could mean being aware of the demographic makeup of a company, and targeting under-represented groups to create a workforce that better reflects society at large.
We also need to address the subtle stereotypes that tell youngsters what kinds of jobs they should do when they’re older. To do this, we need prominent role models from under-represented demographics for children to look up to.
This is critical in the tech industry, where a lack of diversity is a particularly pressing issue. Technology and the fate of humanity are forever intertwined; where tech leads, we must all follow. In order for the technology that shapes our future to be representative of us all, diversity is not only desirable but also necessary.