We need more diversity in Tech: integrated solutions are key!
Diversity in Tech
We all know diversity in many tech workplace’s is low. Many of the reasons for this can be put down to social, not biological, conditioning1.
For example, research suggests that, regardless of their ability, women, people from working-class backgrounds and some ethnic minority groups struggle to see themselves in science and technology (tech) careers, believing that their backgrounds don’t necessarily ‘fit’ the standard profile of a tech worker2.
There is a raft of evidence to show that identity and cultural factors play a key role in shaping people’s perceptions of tech careers.
Evidence also suggests that families, teachers and schools play a part in creating gendered patterns of subject choice through, for instance, differential encouragement of boys and girls to pursue science.
For example, some researchers have found;
- Some parent’s attitudes can inhibit people from seeing tech careers as being particularly ‘for them’3;
- Teachers can favour boys, perceiving them to be ‘better’ (and more ‘naturally able’) at technical subjects than girls, even where attainment data indicates otherwise.
- Quite subtle differences within classroom cultures can profoundly shape the extent to which particular pupils (e.g. girls, minority ethnic pupils) feel that they are able to ‘identify’ with science and technology disciplines.
Consequently, much more needs to be done to make tech a ‘conceivable’ career option for a broader range of people in society.
It’s all about the economy, stupid
However, all too often, initiatives to broaden participation in tech careers are perceived as some form of ‘political correctness’ or attempt to ‘include’ a socially excluded or disadvantaged community.
That’s despite there being plenty of evidence to suggest a lack of diversity in tech workplaces also hinders economic performance. For example;
- Research by McKinsey and Company indicates that diverse companies outperform non-diverse companies by 34%4.
- 53% of Tech London Advocates (a group of tech leaders, experts and investors in London) observe a direct correlation between the diversity of a company’s workforce and its rate of growth5.
The same Diversity in Tech Report, by Tech London Associates, identified that “Creating a culture that gives people the freedom to express themselves and perform to the best of their ability is the empowering effect of diverse workforces. It speaks directly to all the biggest challenges facing tech companies at any stage of their growth trajectory – constantly innovating, attracting and retaining talent and understanding customer behaviour”.
So why is the tech industry so bad at delivering on its diversity goals? Well, as much of the evidence above demonstrates, part of the problem is that the industry needs to get in early, to try and redress social conditioning.
This raises the obvious question about whether that is really the industry’s responsibility, the education system’s or city leaders? Different cities and different businesses appear to have different views on this important question.
60% of the companies involved in Tech London Advocates admitted that their company didn’t work with any external organisations or initiatives to increase their diversity. This is a little disappointing, when you consider just how many great organisations there are out there trying to address these issues, many of whom operate at a national, international and local level. For example, the Tech.eu website identified many of the groups trying to promote greater gender diversity in the sector, in an article6 written in 2014, categorising them into four broad groups; Women in Technology Groups; Groups that support the Transition from Education to Employment; Support Groups; and Women in Tech Start-Up Programmes.
here is a need for greater integration in digital skills inclusion programmes
Two particular URBACT initiatives stand out as trying to tackle parents, teachers and learners’ attitudes, together with one other initiative which deliberately set out to deliver an integrated intervention, involving parents and teachers;
- In the city of Bologna, the Opificio Golinelli Foundation delivers integrated programmes, to try and simultaneously and individually tackle parents, teachers and children’s attitudes to Science and Technology. Inspired by American philanthropic science foundations and established through a generous investment by a local entrepreneur and philanthropist in 1998 (Marino Golinelli), the Foundation works with pupils, teachers and parents to try and overcome traditional ‘norms’ created by society about working in the tech industry. In addition to nurturing the intellectual and ethical growth of young people, they also help teachers understand more about some of the reasons why certain groups develop an aversion to tech, and seek to try and redress them;
- In Viledecans, the Educational Innovation Network brings businesses, schools, parents and teachers together to try and tackle these issues in an integrated way. The Network has recently been awarded an URBACT ‘Good Practice’ Label;
- In Ireland, Dogpatch Labs ran a Coder Girl Hack Day event for girls and their families during EU Code Week to celebrate International Day of the Girl and encourage parents AND their daughters to explore the STEM related activities on offer from grassroots ‘tech’ organisations. As learning in the presence of family members and female role models has been shown to impact how girls see themselves and engage new interests, parents were invited to join in the learning process as well. Coder Girl Hack Day was the result of Coder Dojo Girls, Coding Grace, Tog Hackerspace and University of Limerick collaborating with GitLab, Movidius, Intel and Python Software Foundation on a family friendly programme to expand the reach and strengthen the effect of introducing and encouraging girls to learn about and have fun with technology and engineering.
In a completely separate move, the UK is about to launch Local Digital Skills Partnerships, to try and improve inclusion in the sector. Some authors are citing the work being done in Super Salford, a part of Manchester, to improve digital inclusion as their inspiration.
The Super Salford Project recruited Digital Champion volunteers from communities, the education system and private sector employers; and deployed them in the community to work ‘hands on’ to make digital inclusion happen ‘everywhere’ in the city.
They cite the breadth and the depth of the work as being vital, “by putting it everywhere …. driving a range of important economic and social benefits that go across health, employment, education, housing and other services ….. interweaving with other policies and programmes, the benefits can be realised more powerfully”
So, what can cities do to improve the diversity of their tech sector?
Well, there is no doubt that some of the major challenges are systemic. Accelerator selection panels, investment groups and conferences continue to be dominated by privileged white men.
Similarly, there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest the community outreach and engagement process is also incredibly fragmented, populated by lots of groups, some of whom are actually quite disconnected from the mainstream ‘tech’ industry/ecosystem (investors, accelerators, tech companies etc.). Many of the initiatives fail to deal with the need to tackle young people’s, parents and educators understanding of the ‘tech’ experience in a holistic way.
If you happen to be reading this because you are thinking about what more you can do to help promote greater diversity in your own tech workforce or looking at implementing a ‘tech’ diversity initiative, here are some ideas for you to try;
- Benchmark the diversity of the sector in your own city/organisation – to understand how well you are performing. Look around at your own leadership team and/or the key decision makers, to assess whether you need to start by making some changes in the way you operate so that you can lead by example;
- Audit how balanced and integrated local initiatives are – in terms of their target audiences (parents, teachers, young learner, adult learners etc.) and their stage in the learner life-cycle (kindergarten, primary, secondary, adult etc.). Examine whether there is sufficient diversity in the role models that potential career entrants might come across during their involvement in the current programmes;
- Consider their reach and impact – to better understand what kind of impact they have. Look at whether they are successful at delivering long-term change, or are just providing short-term experiences;
- Plug any gaps in provision – by stimulating the development of new initiatives or encouraging those already delivering to extend their provision. Try and reconfigure programmes, so they collectively address diversity barriers in a holistic way;
- Establish a place-based tech-talent partnership – to examine the potential of work together to integrate delivery and deliver greater impact. The examples provided by the three case studies above provide good examples of the benefits of getting people to work together; and
- Examine the potential of establishing a co-ordinated programme – to offer corporate partners a co-ordinated model to help them improve the diversity of their workforces;
Also, have a look at the work URBACT is doing in Gender Equal Cities and tell the URBACT Programme about any of your successes.
The scale of the challenge is so great, that cities are only likely to solve the issue if they get everyone pulling in the same direction.
1 Boys, Girls and Achievement. London, Routledge E.G. Francis, B. (2000).
2 Carlone, H. B., Huan-Fank, J., & Webb, A. (2011). Assessing equity beyond knowledge- and skills-based outcomes: A comparative ethnography of two fourth-grade reform-based science classrooms. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 459-485;
3 Lightbody, P. & Durndell, A. (1996). Gendered career choice: Is sex-stereotyping the cause or the consequence? Educational Studies;
4 Why Diversity Matters. McKinsey and Company, January 2018
5 Diversity in Tech, a Manifesto for London, Tech London Advocates, 2016
6 More ladies in tech: what is Europe doing to change the ratio?, tech.eu (2014)