Who is writing our digital future? And why that matters...

clock • 5 min read
Who is writing our digital future? And why that matters...

Who is writing our digital future? And why that matters...

The world is not built for everybody - we must make sure every voice is heard and every body seen, says Jacqueline de Rojas

A doctor visited the gym, but frustratingly her swipe card would not give her access to the building. It was a mystery as to why this swipe card would not allow her entry to the women's locker room. It turned out, after much investigation, that it was a simple programming issue: 

The job title of ‘doctor' was designated as a male occupation and not a female one, so the machine was programmed to refuse her entry. Not perhaps a life threatening issue at the gym, but imagine if this was a female pilot with the same identity issue as she was trying to override the autopilot in a crisis situation. The consequences could be devastating - not because it is an example of conscious bias but because it is endemic and unchecked.

Let's be clear: this world is not built for everybody. And I am not just referring to the issue of gender - many minority voices are often affected by bias, both conscious and unconscious.

Our physical world is a world full of bias. Here are some astonishing examples from an insightful data driven must-read book by activist and author Caroline Criado Perez OBE, called Invisible Women. Please read this incredibly detailed book for brilliant examples of unseen bias that affects all of us:

Police stab vests are not built for humans with breasts. There are fewer loos for women even though we take 1.6x longer to pee than men and they are ALWAYS further away - we all know an event has been a diverse one when we have to queue for the loo! Why are offices and meeting rooms on average 5 degrees too cold for women? Why is is that we do not know that female heart attacks have different symptoms than male heart attacks and that women are more likely to die from heart attacks due to unequal treatment? Why is it that most drugs are tested on male mice versus female mice, leading to incorrect dosages being dished out to women? 

Hard hitting and little known facts that are pervasive in the offline world.

Contrary to my rant, I am more practical than I am angry. I advocate for change because I believe diversity is to be celebrated rather than tolerated or ignored, especially when building our online world...

Of the people working in tech, less than 20 per cent are women. In cyber, that's 10 per cent; and in engineering, six per cent. And yet 70-80 per cent of all economic buying decisions are made by women. Of the 10 million disabled people in the UK (a staggering 18 per cent of the UK population), a quarter have never used the internet, and most websites are not designed for those on the fringes. The colourblind and those with poor sensory perception are excluded from mainstream apps and websites, because we design for what we conveniently classify as the ‘average user'.


So why does diversity really matter? I will offer you three reasons:

First, diversity is a noble cause. It is the right thing to do. After all, who amongst us does not believe in equalling the playing field for all?  At the very least, we would all want to be seen to be doing the right thing for our companies, and for our moral compass.

Secondly, diversity boosts innovation. People across culture, gender, religion, physical ability, ethnicity and other individual differences bring enormous value. Diversity in teams can generate greater idea flow and has been proven to help make faster and better decisions. Diversity matters because it's an opportunity to be innovative, to leverage the gifts and talents of all of our people, and to take advantage of vast experiences and differences to create better outcomes for the customers and citizens that we serve.

McKinsey's analysis of 366 global public companies found that companies with greater ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to outperform their industry peers financially. Companies with more gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their peers. This is a fabulous reason to recruit and retain diverse teams.

And as if this wasn't enough, the third reason and the reason I personally care about diversity in tech is that if we don't have all of our voices around the table when designing, building, testing and implementing tech, then we are in danger of building a digital future that does not include everybody. Particularly critical as our dependency on tech increases exponentially.

Think about it: if an algorithm can now decide whether you get a place at university, a loan or even that job interview, we had better make sure that tomorrow's tech is built by teams that represent everybody.

A robot chooses a candidate from a selection of photographs

So let's all play our part and ensure that we are driving the inclusion agenda.

And if you are thinking that diversity is not your area of expertise or not your problem to solve, then think about this: the greatest threat to diversity and inclusion is the belief that someone else will fix it.

Every tiny shift you make in your own behaviour to be more tolerant or more inclusive when faced with someone who works differently, thinks differently, looks different and owns a different culture all lead to exponentially better outcomes for an inclusive future.

In the words of Dame Wendy Hall, "If it's not diverse, it is simply not ethical."

And on culture, John Amaechi: "Culture is defined by the worst behaviour that it tolerates".

Stark reminders that this is not the time to be passive. There has never been a better time to be a woman or a minority voice in tech.

We have an opportunity now to continue our focus on elevating the voices of those around us. By ensuring that women are supported in their roles and by creating diverse succession plans, we can make this a sustainable pipeline of talent that promotes inclusion and builds a strong digital future.

This is why events like the Women in Tech Festival Women in Tech Excellence Awards 2021 are so vital. They bring to the fore the many great stories and contributions of women who work in tech. These strengths and challenges are likely to have heightened during the pandemic that we are all struggling to recover from - which is why it is important to hear how they have risen to those challenges. The Awards are now in their fifth year and have already celebrated the achievements of over 1,200 women.

Let's continue this journey and celebrations and support #WomeninTechExcellence.

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