Reach The Mass Market By Mirroring Society

How can you create products and services for the mass market if your organisation is socially selective?

It’s common knowledge that technology has a diversity problem. It might be a broken record, but given the minority of women and other underrepresented groups in the tech community, it’s one that needs to be played again and again. Diversity isn’t about ticking the equality box – it’s about creating workforces that mirror society, and can therefore build more relevant propositions.

Addressing diversity isn’t just the responsibility of recruitment teams. Even when women do join a tech company, retention rates are generally low. Creating environments that welcome diverse people is just as important as letting them through the door. But even before all of this, at the very beginning of the employee supply chain, is education. In many cases, underrepresented groups simply don’t have the opportunity to learn. This is a global challenge, but one that a number of organisations are determined to overcome.

Redressing the balance

Named after computer scientist Anita Borg, AnitaB is a global social enterprise that supports women in tech at all stages of the journey. Crucially, the organisation runs events across the world to provide women with the resources they need to navigate what can often be a difficult career path. 

There is a heavy focus on education, and championing those who overcome the barriers that make the tech community a breeding ground for the great white male. In 2017, for example, the Women’s Engineering Society found that women made up just 15 per cent of STEM employees in the UK. Sadly, it’s the same story the world over.

“In the US, tech education is still considered to be something for the elite. There was no computer science in our school at all,” says Brenda Darden Wilkerson, CEO of AnitaB.

It wasn’t until university that Darden Wilkerson encountered computer science and decided to become a technologist, but when it was time to start a family, she knew first hand that maintaining her career would be difficult. She began teaching at a community college, working with students of all ages who had not yet had the chance to learn about tech. After becoming an entrepreneur, Darden Wilkerson again found herself in the education space. She created an initiative called ‘Computer Science for All’ with a view to democratising computer science in schools. At around the same time, the White House created a programme with the same name. Darden Wilkerson was invited to work within it, and it was from there that she was offered the opportunity to become the CEO of AnitaB.

Breaking down the barriers

Brenda Darden Wilkerson’s story is atypical, but it shows that the barriers for underrepresented groups can be overcome. And, as more women break the glass ceiling, more will follow. There are now numerous role models, she says, that female technologists can aspire to.

“Jane Margolis and Joanna Good authored an amazing book called Stuck In The Shallow End that looked at public education and how it did, or did not, support diversity in the classroom. Another person is Freda Kapor Klein, who is bringing attention to underserved groups in terms of who is founding companies and who gets funded. She focuses on gap closing companies – in other words, those that have an impact on the largest number of people from a non traditional background.”

Groups like Women in Machine Learning and Data Science (WiMLDS) have also had a big impact in shifting the status quo. WiMLDS helps to build local communities of female coders and programmers, organising workshops, open source sprints, networking sessions, and career events geared towards female inclusion. Over the last four years, the number of chapters has grown steadily.

More women are now finding the confidence and resources to start – and stay in – tech careers. The upshot is that companies in the technology sphere are slowly becoming more inclusive, and genuinely representing the markets they hope to attract.

Changing the ecosystem

Creating an inclusive tech environment begins with education, from the primary level all the way up to postgraduate study. It needs to carry through to recruitment teams, and be reflected in the culture of organisations. But how, as an organisation, do you make these changes, and maintain them?

1) Avoid tokenisation

“To me, you don’t hire one, you hire a percentage,” says Darden Wilkerson. “If you want to change the flavour of your food, you don’t add a grain of salt, you add a measure of salt. We also encourage companies to hire outside of their regular pattern. If you are hiring people from a subset of universities, for example, folks will match that narrow pattern. It is helped when you hire across the whole structure of the organisation. If you hire one woman, she will leave if she doesn’t feel her opinion is valued and respected, when she is getting the same sort of challenges and opportunities as her male counterparts.”

2) Walk the walk

Companies who claim to be inclusive have to show this to be the case, or be labelled hypocritical. Similarly, organisations like AnitaB need to demonstrate that they themselves are diverse before attempting to guide or advise other businesses.

“The first thing anyone who wants to make a difference should do is examine him or herself, and the organisations that they impact,” says Darden Wilkerson. “When I took over AnitaB, we were majority female, but we were not very diverse in any other way. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure we are representative of the society that we serve and that we understand the demands and issues of that society.”

3) Get uncomfortable

Innovation is as much about doing things differently as it is about improvement. As such, being uncertain about the ideas that someone contributes because they challenge what has gone before is a good thing.

The more uncomfortable you are about interviewing someone because you don’t know their background or experiences, should be an indicator that you have moved into looking at diverse candidates,” Darden Wilkerson explains.

To reach society, represent it

By working with organisations like Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Microsoft, and Visa, AnitaB ultimately wants to put itself out of business.

“We want all people to be able to move in and out of the tech ecosystem and make tech what it was meant to be: the great disruptor of all global human issues,” says Darden Wilkerson. “That is our vision – to create the workforce that mirrors the society it serves.”

Technology is hailed as a miracle cure for many of today’s daunting problems… But a tech workforce that mirrors society is better positioned to meet the multifaceted needs of global communities than one dominated by a certain social stratum. As the challenges faced by organisations become ever more complex, diversity is one of our most powerful – but as yet untapped – resources.

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