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Diversity and inclusion in tech – how can we do better

Posted 2 years ago in Advisors by Beeny Atherton
Posted by Beeny Atherton

Not long after the tragic and violent mosque attacks in Christchurch on 15 March 2019, I received an email from Neil Hamilton, CEO of Canterbury Tech and our local cheerleader for all things tech. He wanted greater participation in Christchurch for Tech Week, a series of events taking place nationwide.  

Talking to people in the tech community, it dawned on me that while many people felt strongly about the attacks and wanted to see change, they felt unsure about how to support this.

While I submitted other talks at Tech Week that were more in line with my background in product management, I kept finding myself coming back to the same question: how could I learn from, and make a difference to, well-documented diversity challenges in the tech sector? The words of Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world” helped propel me into action and I decided to run an event on diversity and inclusion myself. 

Not being an expert in this area, I was very lucky to have people on the panel who had experience in areas like hiring and people leadership. I’m also lucky to work for Xero, who lent a huge amount of support to the event and provided information on how participants could build their own diversity strategy. With a vocal and enthusiastic audience, the conversations were interactive and engaging and I felt that we all left knowing much more than when we’d come in. 

I found the research and discussions in this area eye-opening. There are numerous studies showing significant advantages in having a diverse workforce and leadership. And these aren’t just ‘feel-good’ benefits – there are significant improvements in innovation and culture, as well as professional and personal growth for employees and organisations. Even more compelling is research showing that diverse organisations are 35% more profitable than their non-diverse counterparts. 

So why is it that discussions about increasing employee diversity always seem to end up with words like ‘tokenism’, ‘pandering’ and ‘quotas’? Or assumptions that hiring for diversity means you won’t get the best person for the job? 

This is, of course, a many layered issue but here are some of my thoughts:

Don’t hire for ‘culture fit’

Hiring for ‘attitude’ or ‘team fit’ predisposes privileged and dominant groups in society. The majority of people are biased towards positively rating the performance or potential ability of certain groups. 

These habits are hard to break without deliberate and mindful deliberation about talent and skill. You also need to actively reflect on any ingrained biases in yourself or those who influence hiring and people management. 

Hiring someone for ‘culture fit’ means you’re just hiring someone with more of the same ideas – another version of everyone else on the team. 

Hiring someone outside the ‘culture fit’ means you’ll have to work harder to ensure the team is working together, communicating, and has trust and respect for each other. But if that means a high performing team and ultimately a better team culture, then isn’t it worthwhile?

Learn to understand and appreciate differences

Society has conditioned us to act in specific ways in certain situations, like interviews, performance reviews, and salary negotiations. ‘Winners’ are confident, quick-witted, personable and unflappable.

So where does that leave the smart but introverted? The knowledgeable and creative person whose culture says it’s inappropriate to look someone directly in the eyes? The person who is hard-working, reliable and results-oriented but isn’t great at articulating ideas on the spot? 

Maybe you’re a progressive company that’s stopped using words like ‘rockstar’ and ‘ninja’ in your job ads because you understand they send the wrong message to potential employees. But what do you do in your interview process that still follows the old rules? Interview panels, on-the-spot questions, whiteboard presentations? These favour particular personalities and people, and set others up to fail.

Being truly mindful about hiring the best fit for the team means considering more than just technical skills. It includes thinking about personality, culture and life experience, and expanding your thinking and interview techniques to consider how someone might be able to show their best self.

Diversity simply won’t work without inclusion

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” – Verna Myers

Tania Armstrong, who recently ran a regional diversity and inclusion survey in Canterbury, revealed an unexpected result of her data analysis. Workforces are becoming increasingly more representative of the general population in terms of gender and ethnic diversity, however senior leadership continues to be overwhelmingly unchanged.

While it’s great to see organisations actively hiring more diverse employees, true inclusion means creating an environment where all employees feel a sense of belonging, see potential for unlimited growth, and feel comfortable contributing to and leading change. 

When people don’t feel included, respected or heard, then they leave or they stop doing their best work. For example, there is plenty of data that shows women leave tech careers at a 45% higher rate than men. They are paid less, denied advancement opportunities, and their family commitment is seen as a negative – why would they want to stay?

If organisations want all the great benefits that diversity brings, then all voices need to be given a forum and all employees given an equal shot at success. 

Valued employees not only bring their best selves to work, they also bring their most talented connections. They make brilliant brand ambassadors and they invest in the success of their workplace. Don’t you wish your employees were doing that?

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