It is no secret that the tech sector is dominated by a white male workforce. In the UK, only 17&% of tech workers are female, while those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds constitute a mere 2%.
Despite tech companies increasingly signing pledges to improve diversity, they remain inconsequential promises, while much-needed action to improve access to opportunities is missing. Businesses facing turbulent financial times can regenerate if inclusive policies are embedded at the heart of their agenda.
There is a risk that the events of the past few years, the pandemic, Brexit and the current cost-of-living crisis, have concentrated tech founders’ attention on economic survival at the expense of progress around diversity. With tech stocks falling by more than 30% in 2022, more than the overall market drop of 20%, efforts to ameliorate diversity have been pushed aside.
The year of change?
2023 will be the ‘Year of Efficiency’ according to Mark Zuckerberg, the Meta CEO. While the mantra reflects current industry-wide trends of layoffs and budget slashes, there is a fear it allies efficiency too closely with ‘removal’ and disregards the need for innovative opportunities to stimulate growth.
Numerous studies reveal a strong correlation between diversity, innovation and improved financial performance. Diverse workforces are more likely to contribute unique perspectives and advance new ways of thinking, making better decisions and producing better results.
The reality is diversity is not just a corporate buzzword, or even only about gender, race and identity, but it is about power – the power to influence business strategies and decide what technologies are designed and for whom. A varied workforce is more likely to deliver technologies more suitable for our diverse society.
Exclusive work cultures
During the pandemic, the impact of the sector’s absence of diversity was clear, with reports that certain automatic hand sanitisers did not recognise darker skin tones. Likewise, only 35% of the newest facial-recognition technology can accurately identify dark-skinned women, according to a recent MIT study.
Women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals have much to offer to the tech industry. Still, our efforts to increase diversity must not be reduced to a basic numbers exercise. Though the sector is troubled by a diversity problem, it faces a greater challenge in retaining its diverse workforce.
Research from InnovateHer suggests 45% more women than men leave technology roles. Many complain of unfair treatment, unequal career prospects and an exclusive work culture. Wiley Edge reports that 48% of junior staff feel uncomfortable in their workplace due to their ethnicity, gender, disability or socio-economic background. The statistics paint a clear picture: to improve diversity, the tech industry needs to stop isolating diverse communities.
Solving the skills gap
The motivation behind businesses’ diversity drives needs to be reoriented; tech companies need to invest in their people’s inclusion as much as their workers invest in improving their profits and results. We need industry-wide, long-term commitments to implementing tangible changes that foster more inclusive and welcoming cultures, which value and involve individual differences.
Current fears circulating over significant skill shortages in the UK’s tech industry provide fertile ground to redress the sector’s culture and provide workers from diverse backgrounds with opportunities for a career in tech. According to Accenture, the UK economy could lose out on as much as £141.5 billion of GDP growth over the next ten years if the skills gap is not resolved.
Access to the tech industry for underprivileged and minority backgrounds could be provided through affordable training, apprenticeships, and work experience, focusing on the skills facing shortages and those in demand for the future.
Importance of belonging
To provide local people with the tools to learn digital skills and bridge the skills gap in East London, Here East, London’s leading innovation campus, offers scholarships and access to opportunities for residents from ethnic minorities, working class, disabled and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Belonging and inclusivity are part of the campus culture, with workers and businesses alike yielding impressive growth in an industry wounded by stunted results and poor opportunities.
Yet, we must not just hope that inclusivity becomes the industry norm, we must work for it. Businesses must strive to put inclusion policies at the heart of their strategies – and we must all continue to admit that we are not perfect but that learn and improve.
The growth the tech industry so desperately needs in 2023 must not just be financial, but cultural, and shared inclusively by all.
Onaba Payab is the Community and Partnerships Manager at Here East.