Why a diverse workforce builds better products

From avoiding AI SNAFUs to increasing revenue, greater diversity means greater business benefits

It's the very tail end of 2019 and we are still writing articles about the lack of diversity in the tech sector despite clearly understanding the benefits that it can bring. Can you believe it? But the facts speak for themselves. Survey after survey shows that the sector still lacks diversity, not just in the big companies, but across the board. 

So, the problem remains, and the time is right as we ring out the old year and ring in a new one, to take another look at what’s going on and why diversity is such a good thing for the tech sector.

Are we there yet?

A major report from Inclusive Boards, which encourages organisations to develop more inclusive and representative boards and senior teams, found that the tech sector’s senior leadership is woefully lacking in diversity. 

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The report revealed that 65% of boards in the top tech firms had no female directors, while over two-fifths of executive teams had no female representation and just 8.5% of senior leaders in the sector were from a black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME) background. Additionally, 35% of board members and 26% of senior executives in the top tech firms attended Oxford or Cambridge universities, compared to just 1% of the general population.

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The makeup of the workforce is similarly problematic. Research from Tech Nation has found that just 19% of workers in tech are women and 15% are BAME. When it comes to age found that 72% are over 35 years old, giving the lie to the fact that this is a young sector. The BAME figure is 5% higher than the proportion across the UK workforce as a whole, but is still not reflective of the country’s demographic makeup and in general it seems both the tech workforce and its board directors are a long way from being representative.

A cautionary tale

Joy Buolamwini from the MIT Media Lab has researched bias in facial recognition technology, and found that the darker a person’s skin, the less easy it is for the technology to tell the difference between men and women. The much reported work cites facial recognition databases populated by mostly white, male faces as the cause of errors in recognition in wider, more diverse real world situations.  

Would a more diverse workforce involved in developing the facial recognition AI Joy Buolamwini investigated have spotted the problem before it was let loose on the world? Well, it is certainly a possibility

Diversity breeds success

Where diversity is in evidence in a workforce, it can really breed success. Deloitte’s Fast 50 programme celebrates success in technology companies. In its 2018 report, Deloitte paid particular attention to diversity, and the report notes that almost 70% of its winning 50 companies see diversity and inclusion as “extremely important or very important to the growth of their company.”

The companies don’t just talk the talk either, but put this into practice. For example, in a survey of the Fast 50 companies around half have a more than 20% BAME, which is 5% higher than the average as reported by Tech Nation. Where women are concerned half the Fast 50 survey respondents have a workforce that’s over 40% identifying as female, up from a third of companies in 2015. 

Reap the business benefits

The Deloitte report found three areas where diversity plays a big part in driving a business forwards: enhancing products and services, business development in new markets, and hiring and retaining talent. The Deloitte report is also clear in its correlation between diversity and profitability, saying “The diversity and inclusion among our survey respondents drives diversity of thought and has helped them to achieve outstanding revenue growth.”

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Revenue benefits don’t just come to the high fliers like the Deloitte Fast 50, but they can come to all tech companies embracing diversity. Tech Nation’s report identifies a £70,000 turnover premium for directors on boards with gender diversity, for example.

Drilling down into the reasons for this revenue premium, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) lists five business benefits from a diverse team: increased creativity and innovation, better problem solving and decision making, increased profits, higher employee engagement and better reputation. 

So, a diverse workforce can help a company eliminate conscious and unconscious bias in its products, and that means everything from product design right through to marketing and after-sales.  It can help companies find the most talented people because talent isn’t the exclusive domain of one group of people. Diverse teams produce better products, they are more creative, more engaged at work, and a company’s reputation is enhanced through its diversity. 

What’s not to like? Isn’t it time more firms in the technology sector step up to the plate to embrace diversity and reap the rewards?

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