Real Innovation: The Case for Diversity in the Tech Sector


Plagued by gender imbalance and a lack of diversity, is the technology industry heading in the right direction?

Illustration by  Rosa ter Kuile  for Are We Europe

Illustration by Rosa ter Kuile for Are We Europe


The digital revolution is well underway. Every day new technologies are invented that change the way our societies operate. But while there is much to be excited about, the tech sector has a diversity and inclusion problem that isn’t being talked about enough. 

“The uncomfortable truth is that the technology industry today is not a place in which everyone, of any gender, race, disability, religion, sexuality, and socioeconomic background can thrive and succeed,” said Francesca Warner, CEO of Diversity VC, in Diversity & Inclusion in Tech’s report. In November 2018, a Guardian headline pointed to a “worrying” lack of diversity in Britain’s tech sector. Only 15% of the tech workforce are from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds, while gender diversity lies at 19%—compared to 49% for all other jobs (Diversity in Tech, 2019). Meanwhile, the proportion of men and women appointed as tech directors has remained almost the same since 2000—only 22% of tech directors were women in 2018 (Tech Nation).

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And this isn’t just a problem in the U.K. The European tech community as a whole is dominated by men. Research by Atomico notes that out of the 175 large start-ups they surveyed, only one had a female chief technology officer. Even roles like chief marketing officer and chief financial officer that are often held by women were held by men 80% of the time. The report stated that the industry was failing to make any meaningful progress, and that there had only been a single percentage point increase in the level of female participation at European tech community events in the last two years. 

Check Warner from Diversity VC wrote in Atomico’s report: “Europe is not necessarily tangibly better or worse than other tech hubs. However, given that Europe has such a diverse range of geographies and people this should be a key strength.” 

All of the statistics show that companies with more diverse teams are more profitable, more sustainable, and more able to survive disruption.

While looking at how funding is allocated, the gender imbalance is striking. All-male founding teams received 93% of the capital invested in 2018, compared to just 5% received by all-female founding teams. The report notes that these figures have shown little to no improvement in the last five years.

Restoring gender balance to the tech sector

Today, technology is dominated by men. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the world’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace, was a woman. In the 1940s, Lovelace turned a complex formula into simple calculations that could be fed into a mechanical computer. She was also the first person to realize that a general purpose computer could do anything, given the right data and instructions. 

So how did we get here? And can we rebalance the gender gap in the tech sector? Tech Talent Charter—an initiative that drives organizations to deliver greater diversity in the U.K. tech workforce, is aiming to do just that. The CEO Debbie Forster said, “If everything is going to be digital and this huge disruption is coming in terms of artificial intelligence and machine learning, it is essential that the minds creating these technologies are minds that represent the whole population.”

Companies with high ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability.

The Charter has signatories ranging from tech giants like Microsoft, Salesforce and Cisco, to banks and organizations including Lloyds Bank, the BBC, Cancer Research UK, Domino’s Pizza, and a number of SMEs and startups.

“All of the statistics show that companies with more diverse teams are more profitable, more sustainable, and more able to survive disruption,” said Forster. “Companies are waking up and realizing that it’s not just a good thing to do, it’s not even just a smart thing to do, it’s essential.”

According to McKinsey & Company, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. And it’s not just gender. The same research showed that companies with high ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. 

“I’m not bothered to chase every company to join us because the market is going to reward those who do,” said Forster. “Diversity is bottom line profitability.”

Bringing women’s voices back into the sector 

Research conducted by PwC UK found that “improving the world” is an important career goal for women. Yet many of them don’t see technology as a vehicle to do this; only 3% of the women said a career in tech was their first choice. 

The report also noted that 50% of women say the most important factor while choosing their career is feeling like the work they do makes the world a better place and has a wider impact, while only 31% of the men surveyed felt the same way.

Referring to this as a highly significant finding, PwC added, “Technology now makes a huge difference to individuals and societies the world over, delivering dramatic improvements in people’s lives. Given females’ greater desire to have a positive impact, more understanding of transformational effects like these would encourage more of them to get involved in technology as a career.”   

Abbie Morris is one of the women who has built her business on this transformational effect of technology. She is the co-founder of Compare Ethics, a platform designed for conscious consumers, which scores products on their environmental-friendliness. During a team meeting which aimed to review the company’s percentage scores, Morris drove her passion of making a difference, further. “I’m the only woman in my team, and as a female conscious consumer I explained that I would love to see more detail about the product, instead of just a percentage score,” said Morris. 

This was something that had not been considered by her male team members. Compare Ethics went on to implement Morris’ suggestion, including details and the story of each brand that they listed on their website. 

Morris said, “This speaks of a larger conversation about women in the workplace and how their voice and opinion shapes the output. This is a very nuanced situation that ultimately comes down to power structures too.”

A person from a different background is going to see and approach problems differently. Quite often, great tech comes from people who have experienced or known a problem.

Morris isn’t the only one who has realized the need for bringing women’s voices and experiences back into the tech sector. A new book by Caroline Criado-Perez, “Invisible Women,” has been making headlines for highlighting the gender data gap in our societies. Through an array of fascinating case studies, Criado-Perez illustrates how the world is systematically built for and by men, with government policy, medical research, technology and urban planning treating men as the data default and failing to collect similar datasets based on women’s experiences. This data gap often leads to bad decisions, such as phones that are too big for women’s hands and doctors prescribing drugs that are wrong for women’s bodies.

Earlier this year, Criado-Perez called out on a start-up Superhuman which boasts of embedding tracking pixels in their emails. In her tweet which has now been deleted, she expressed her views on Superhuman. She said, “Just taking a wild stab in the dark here that this email start-up that reveals your location every time you open an email has close to zero women in their design team.”

Many women supported her statement, pointing out that women are disproportionately the victims of stalking and control-based violence, meaning that a feature that allows someone to find your location could prove dangerous. 

Following the feedback, Superhuman released a statement announcing that they would be removing location information from “read” statuses, effective immediately.

Innovation through disability 

Diverse experiences not only help eliminate overlooked aspects of design and software, but also spark innovation.

Attest, a consumer growth platform, experienced this firsthand when they hired an engineering manager with visual impairment. Will Lewis told his new employers how he had struggled with their website during the hiring process because of accessibility issues. The team rallied behind Lewis to begin improving the accessibility of their website and have now improved their website visibility. 

“The number of queries relating to accessibility has dropped drastically,” said Lewis. “The areas of the website that were improved with accessibility in mind are now also getting more usage from our customers, which is really cool to see.” 

Attest is not alone in this. Entrepreneur Srin Madipalli, who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair to get around, got an idea of a start-up based on his experiences struggling to find wheelchair accessible accommodation while travelling. In 2015, he created Accomable, a website that lists accessible accommodation for people with disabilities. In 2017, Accomable was acquired by Airbnb. Under Madipalli, Airbnb has gone from having one accessibility filter (a tick box for wheelchair accessibility) to 21 new ones, including features such as grab bars in bathrooms and accessible-height beds. 

“That’s what diversity does,” said Forster. “A person from a different background is going to see and approach problems differently. Quite often, great tech comes from people who have experienced or known a problem.”

Is tech empowering or harming minority groups?

When technology is created through diverse experiences, it doesn’t just create great technology, it also empowers communities. 

Mursal Hedayat, a former refugee whose family fled Afghanistan to come to the U.K., used her experiences to create Chatterbox, an online language and cultural training platform powered by refugees. Since its launch, Chatterbox has connected more than 800 people with refugee coaches who teach them languages or other skills from their respective cultures. The platform got Hedayat listed as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Leaders in Tech by the Financial Times

In an article titled “Could Refugees Help To Solve The Post Brexit Language Skills Deficit,” Hedayat wrote,“There are over 120,000 refugees living in the U.K. harboring a wealth of talent that is acutely underleveraged, including skills in languages. Breaking down barriers to employment for the refugee community could help to equip British commerce with the cultural capital that is so integral to its future success.” 

Although stories such as hers are uplifting, others have raised concerns about the dark side of the digital revolution, particularly when marginalized communities are left out of the process of creation.

Back in 2015, Google came under fire when software engineer Jacky Alciné tweeted about how image recognition algorithms in Google Photos had classified his black friends as “gorillas.” Google was forced to block categories such as “gorillas,” “chimps,” and “monkeys,” saying that image labeling technology was “nowhere near perfect.” 

These events point to a larger conversation around bias in technology, and how to code diversity into the algorithms that will soon define much of what we do. 

The challenge of biased data

Google Photos isn’t the only big tech company to have had issues with algorithms. In January 2019, research revealed that Amazon’s technology has a harder time identifying gender in darker-skinned and female faces. In 2016, a Twitter chatbot developed by Microsoft adopted racist hate speech

Earlier this year a report by the AI Now Institute blamed the lack of diversity in AI for flawed algorithms that enforce gender and racial biases. With AI being overwhelmingly white and male, there is a risk of replicating historical biases and power imbalances into this technology. 

“Inequity and biases are not to be found in a single place, like a bug that can be located and fixed,” the report stated. “These issues are systemic. The products of the AI industry already influence the lives of millions. Addressing diversity issues is therefore not just in the interest of the tech industry, but of everyone whose lives are affected by AI tools and services.” 

The report pointed to how large scale AI systems are being developed almost exclusively in a handful of technology companies and a few elite university labs—spaces that tend to be overwhelmingly white, affluent and male. The authors also note that these are places that have a history of problems with discrimination, exclusion and sexual harassment. They pointed to a quote by machine learning researcher Stephen Merity, who said: “Bias is not just in our datasets, it’s in our community.” 

An example of bias trickling in from the community into algorithms was reported in Amazon in 2018, when they developed an experimental hiring tool to help rank job candidates based on their previous hiring preferences. However, the AI system started downgrading candidates who attending all-women’s colleges, as well as CVs that included the word “women’s.” Amazon eventually abandoned the tool when they couldn’t ensure that it wouldn’t be biased against women. 

The AI Now Institute report noted that gender-based discrimination was built too deeply within the system and Amazon’s past hiring processes, making it difficult to treat it as purely through a technical approach. 

And the big tech giants aren’t alone. A report by Capgemini surveyed more than 1,500 industry professionals from 500 organizations about ethical issues arising from the use of AI—including instances where outcomes were biased against a certain group of users. Executives from nine out of ten organisations were aware of at least one instance of the use of AI systems that resulted in ethical issues. 

In the report, a chief digital officer of a large European consumer products firm was cited as saying: “[AI] bias often comes from the data you feed into the system. This is because the data is basically historical data and historical data is not devoid of bias—it just shows you what consumers did in the past. Therefore, it is best not to fully depend on a historical view of data, but also factor in the socioeconomic context.” 

The report notes that 33% of survey respondents admitted that ethical issues were not considered while constructing AI systems, while 29% cited lack of diversity with respect to race and gender as a top reason for AI ethical failures. 

Christoph Luetge, Director of the TUM Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich, is quoted: “[Diversity] is very important because many of these systems will be implemented in different areas for people with different backgrounds. You cannot just assume that you are dealing with some specific group of people only. It’s very important to involve people with many different backgrounds right from the start.” 

Achieving diversity through data and collaboration

So how do we build these diverse teams? The Tech Talent Charter sees open data and sharing of best practice as key. 

“The data bit is what scares everyone and it should do.” However, Forster believes that “what is measured gets done.” Signatories submit a diversity dataset to the Tech Talent Charter, which is anonymized and used as a benchmarking report for members to see how well they are doing. 

The power of open data is catching on elsewhere too. In 2018, Tech Nation announced that they were making their data available to everyone, writing, “Some of the most innovative examples include using open data to save lives in humanitarian disasters, improving healthcare information or creating apps such as CityMapper. Closed data stifles innovation. Open data encourages others to collaborate and innovate with others.”

This is where the Tech Talent Charter turns to their most crucial commitment—the sharing of best practice. Forster spoke of the need to eliminate “replication” in what companies were doing about diversity, “The entire pipeline is broken—from what we do in schools to getting women on boards. It’s so broken that no single company, program or initiative can fix it in itself. It has to be through collaboration. The focus is on sharing practical solutions, rather than treating them like trade secrets.”

Now, signatories of the Tech Talent Charter can see what’s worked and hasn’t worked for other companies, as well as feed into what they are doing. Even competitors such as Accenture and Deloitte, Channel 4 and the BBC, and Lloyds and HSBC are coming together to learn from each other’s mistakes and successes.

Although collaboration is a step in the right direction, Forster cautioned against companies who are only interested in diversity for the tick box, “I worry about the companies that treat diversity like it’s a drive-through, ‘I’d like to order three women, one disability, and an ethnic diversity to go’.” 

She noted that companies who get it right are those who also get their culture right, “If you get inclusion right, diversity will follow. If you try for diversity and hope that you can become inclusive, you’re going to fall apart.”

As an example, she pointed to studies that have suggested that women are less confident applying for jobs where they don’t meet 100% of the job description. In response, companies such as Attest are editing the number of required skills after speaking to female staff members about it—and have found a significant uptake in the diversity of their pipeline. 

“By focusing on inclusion and what we can do to remove barriers, the benefits start swinging more widely,” said Forster. 

She also noted a side effect of inclusive cultures that goes beyond attaining gender diversity. Hearing from a neurodiversity organization, Forster realized that someone who is on the spectrum is very literal and will also face the same problem when encountering a job description where they don’t need 100% of the criteria, assuming they can’t apply. 

“By getting inclusion right, you begin getting diversity beyond just women.”

Looking to the future

When looking at the state of diversity in tech today, movements such as #MeToo and gender pay reporting have begun swinging the dial. 

“There are increasingly fewer and fewer places to hide,” said Forster. “Women and society at large are starting to ask challenging questions. Not all companies are coming up with good answers, but I am beginning to see change. It’s slow, but it is improving. We have grown from seven to 300 companies in just over two years. There is growth and hunger to do this.” 

As technology infiltrates more and more of our daily lives, people are realizing that excluding diverse talent from the tech sector means that we are heading into a digital future that is in the hands of an undiverse minority—one that is not representative of our society.

Forster concluded—“If we want to create great products and solutions, then we need to ensure that the people who are building it are fully in tune with and represent the users and customers who are going to be on the other side of that.”


This article appears in Are We Europe #5: Code of Conscience

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