What is there to say about the future of diversity in tech? It feels as if there can’t be much more to say or add to the discourse, because, rather obviously, it must improve.
In truth, the future of diversity in tech is an honest conversation about equality more broadly. Without diversity of thought, experience, gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences, physical abilities and social classes, there will be no equality among those different characteristics and there will not be tech products, services or platforms that serve everyone equally and fairly.
But before attempting to tackle equality, we must continue to work on increasing representation and diversity within the tech sector itself.
It’s been a long-standing thesis of mine that over time we will stop referring to ‘tech’ as its own sector. I fully believe that in time, all industries, commercial undertakings and businesses will become tech-enabled if not fully tech-centric. Everything else will become obsolete. Because this technology will empower society at large, it is incredibly important that our sector reflects society as a whole.
This applies to everything the sector touches, including delivery platforms, distribution channels and user interfaces. It doesn’t even have to be something as sophisticated or novel as artificial intelligence or facial recognition — where we’ve already seen the perils of homogeneous engineering teams developing algorithms that are unsuitable and inadequate for non-white men. In order to properly provide these products and services, our delivery and development teams must be diverse.
Some small assurances can come from the fact that improving gender representation has become a properly concerted effort within the tech sector. After years of asking why there is an all-male panel at an event or conference, or whether there are any female candidates on a short list for an executive role or non-executive appointment, the tide has turned. It’s finally acknowledged that having an all-male panel, executive team or board of directors is a sign of a tone-deaf organisation, inattentive leadership and, fundamentally, an obvious problem.
We don’t seem to have to ask those questions anymore, thankfully. Everyone has finally understood the problem of a lack of gender inclusion. And it is refreshing to be at the point where it would take a concerted effort to not have any women on a company’s ‘About’ page, on a company board or involved in a conversation — whether at a product team meeting or a panel session at an event.
Being the other
And it’s about time. I’ve been working with IT since 1989 when I started pursuing my computer science degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I recall another student once teasing and calling me out, saying “You weren’t at the lecture last week”. While I didn’t understand why that was any concern of his, I was naively baffled as to how he knew and managed to catch me out. After all, ours was a lecture hall of at least 150 people.
But his response was as straightforward as it could be: “Well, there’s only five girls in the entire lecture, so it was pretty obvious that you weren’t there.” Before then, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was an outlier.
I’d briefly considered pursuing an electrical engineering degree, so by comparison computer science was less male-dominated. Even then, I still didn’t think of myself as a ‘woman in tech’ until I started my professional career.
More than 30 years later and I’m glad that I no longer need to think of myself with that qualifier anymore. And while I’m still quite often the only woman in the room or on a call, at least there’s acknowledgement that it shouldn’t be the case.
For example, I was recently on a company board call with 14 attendees, and thanks to the grid-view gallery of participants, it struck me that the entire grid, minus me, was made up of white men. It made at least two other non-executive directors so uncomfortable that they commented on it. It used to be the case that if I didn’t call it out, no one would. Now in 2021, either no one needs to or everyone else does — that’s meaningful progress.
As another example, it used to be the case that we’d have ‘Women in tech’ panel sessions at events in an effort to spotlight women who were making contributions. Thankfully, we don’t have that anymore (except for during International Women’s History Month or on International Women’s Day), because we just have women on panels alongside men — or once in a while, a panel that just happens to be composed of all women. We have certainly come a long way.
Diversity must include everyone
However, for as far as we’ve come on the gender axis, we are woefully behind in other areas.
I’ve often said that I didn’t consider myself as a woman in tech because I was always far more self-conscious about being from an ethnic minority. I grew up knowing that life would be far less complicated and easier if I was a white girl. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests of summer 2020 helped put racial inequality and lack of diversity at the forefront of the broader conversation, which was both long overdue and sorely needed.
And recent increases in the rate of hate crimes against east Asians in both the US and in the UK have brought about another conversation. The future of diversity in tech has to be one which reflects the world at large. We know that that world is not just white and we, as an industry, need to reflect the society we live in. We have a lot of catching up to do, and I wonder if it will take the same long arc that we did for gender diversity and representation.
Will we have to go through a phase of all-black panel participants or specific days and events to shine a light on ethnic minorities making contributions, or can we learn from the past and avoid the same drawn-out process?
Either way, what’s painfully clear is that tackling ethnic diversity won’t have a ‘job done’ moment either. We won’t have achieved legitimate diversity in tech until we also have social class diversity.
We can’t have everyone in tech from “the best schools” — something I assert with full awareness of my own privilege having attended one of the best computer science degree programmes in the world.
And we can’t have everyone in tech from a certain social class — one in which parents were able to afford laptops, iPads and iPhones for their children. The gulf between the ‘One percenters’ and everyone else is even wider than ever thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, in order to reflect the world we’re servicing and living in, we need to do better.
I recognise that I raise more questions than I propose solutions, but you don’t get answers without asking first. I can only hope that the momentum behind gender diversity will expand to include diversity across the board. And only then will I take comfort in equality within the tech sector and for what the tech sector can provide.
Eileen Burbidge is a founding partner of London-based early-stage venture capital fund Passion Capital.
This article first appeared in the April/May print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.