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;

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;

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 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 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;

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. 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;
  5. 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
  6. 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?, (2014)