The HSBC Tech Connections event was staged this year in San Francisco, one of the most heterogeneous cities in the US and yet one that still struggles to reflect that diversity in its famous technology sector1.
That matters because the way Silicon Valley views the world impacts all our lives. From Google Translate and selfie-enhancing photo apps to AI in the criminal justice system, if the people building the tech are selected from a narrow bandwidth of society, numerous studies show that the IT products we consume are likely to contain unconscious bias.
As Marc Randolph, co-founder of Netflix, observed during an interview on the perimeter of the HSBC event: "Most people when they hear the word diversity are thinking about superficial diversity – about what gender somebody is, or what colour their skin is, or where they're from. Certainly, that counts as diversity but the fundamental value of diversity in any industry or any decision-making body is bringing in people with totally different approaches to the world than you have."
The most telling metric in Silicon Valley is that still only around 30% of employees are women1. Technology giant Apple released its first diversity report last year, which showed its workforce was also 54% white, 13% Hispanic, nine percent black, 21% Asian, 3% multiracial and 1% other2.
Numerous studies demonstrate diversity is good for the bottom line. Just one by McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.3
The World Economic Forum says research shows that diverse teams perform better. "Individuals from different genders, races, backgrounds and experiences bring different perspectives that can lead to innovative solutions," it says. "Given the changes being brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), we can't afford not to have all hands on deck." 4
And yet the evidence is clearly not enough to alter hiring practices to actively target minority groups, including those with personality traits that have found it difficult to even get on employers' radar.
Many workforces in the tech sector are still predominantly white and male, let alone neurodiverse.
"People who have social anxiety disorders, ADHD, people on the spectrum, people who are autistic – research has shown they have higher than average abilities in so many areas that are critical to today's companies' success, especially [those] that want that IT advantage," says Kym McNicholas, writer, radio host and Executive Director of the Extreme Tech Challenge, who contributed to the HSBC Tech Connections event. "They are great when it comes to pattern recognition, mathematics and just picking out things and doing things that those of us who are neuro-typical really can't do as effectively as they can."
Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, and software company SAP, are among a well-known few who are reforming their HR processes to recruit neurodiverse talent to IT. The MD of HPE South Pacific told Harvard Business Review recently that no other initiative in his company had delivered benefits at so many levels.5
Such talent management to ensure that a broader set of experiences is represented within an organisation should eventually lead to a very different set of people sitting around the boardroom table. That said, such has been the lack of women's progress to boards that many countries, including the UK, have resorted to target setting and quotas. Ultimately, pressure for change might have to come from an even more powerful quarter – the investors.
Talent management firm Green Park commissioned research examining institutional investors' perceptions of boardroom diversity which revealed that "by 2022 the ethnic composition of company boards will be an important consideration when determining investment strategy, while more than half (56 per cent) believe the diversity of company boards will be a key factor in determining an investment case".6
Netflix co-founder, Randoph, believes that, as an industry, tech is still struggling with 'the cluster effect' – the human desire to be with 'people like us', who share the same cultural and career backgrounds, perpetuating tech's own stereotype and potentially putting off an important pipeline of talent.
Ore Adeyemi, head of strategic innovation investments at HSBC, believes you need to go right back to before that talent even enters the workforce.
"Within the tech industry people tend to focus on diversity on the surface level – not looking at 'how do you build a pipeline?'. We have to go back to the foundation, even schools – and funding STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) programmes," he says.
Women – the largest minority in tech – made up 14.4% of all people working in STEM industries in the UK at last count.7 And yet 48% of girls might be expected to study STEM subjects based on their science ability alone.8 So, what's stopping them going for jobs in tech?
The Campaign for Science and Engineering says the STEM workforce needs to be deconstructed. In its Improving Diversity in STEM report it put it this way: "Increasing the diversity of those choosing to study or begin working in STEM is only part of the challenge; there is still change required to ensure that STEM working environments are inclusive and places where individuals have an equal opportunity to participate and advance." 9
Adrian Joseph, a partner specialising in artificial intelligence, analytics and big data at EY, which is also looking at ways of improving neurodiversity in its own recruitment, says the signals for change must come from the top.
"In the end, it's about leadership," says Joseph. "It's not about outsourcing diversity to the diversity team, the D&I teams, the recruitment teams. It's the business owners that need to take responsibility for driving diversity and show true leadership in establishing that."
REFERENCES AND FACT CHECKING
- 2018 Center for Employment Equity report: Is Silicon Valley Tech Diversity Possible Now? https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b205de896e76fd6f1b8fdd3/t/5b315a22352f535d36ead46f/1529960995326/2018-Diversity+in+Silicon+Valley+Tech-Final.pdf
- 2017 Apple Diversity Report https://www.apple.com/diversity/
- 2015 McKinsey Report: Why Diversity Matters https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters
- World Economic Forum: Why We Need More Women In Tech By 2030 – And How To Do It
- Harvard Business Review: Neurodiversity As A Competitive Advantage
- Green Park Broardroom Diversity Critical For Institutional Investors https://green-park.co.uk/2018/02/28/ethical-boardroom-boardroom-diversity-critical-institutional-investors
- Leeds Beckett University/Missouri University Study: The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797617741719
- 2014 Campaign for Science in Engineering Report: Improving Diversity In STEM http://www.sciencecampaign.org.uk/resource/ImprovingDiversityinSTEM2014.html