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Diversity in tech debate: will tech ever reflect society?

Tim Green

Experts convened at Hot Topics' London event to discuss diversity. Here's what they said.

In the last few days, the website Information Is Beautiful published a graphic showing the demographic breakdown of the US’s top tech firms’ staff. Predictably, it confirmed every pre-conceived notion.

Where women are 51 per cent of the US population, they typically comprise around 30 per cent of employees in tech and social. Meanwhile Latino and Black people comprise 16 and 12 per cent respectively of total population, but don’t get past four per cent of those working for the big social firms.

Diversity remains a big issue for a sector as critical to future prosperity as tech.

Which is why it was the subject of a panel session at Hot Topics’ most recent event in London. Specifically, the question asked was: Is there a genuine need for more diversity in tech? Do diverse teams win and if so, why aren’t more tech businesses addressing this problem?

The panel comprised:

Kathryn Parsons, Co-CEO Decoded
Tim Griffin, CEO of Dell UK
Alex Depledge, CEO of Hassle.com
Annelies Van Den Belt, CEO of DC Thomson Family History

Unsurprisingly, the panel agreed that casting the net wider is a ‘good thing’. Who could disagree with that? But there were some frank admissions amid the consensus.

Alex Depledge, CEO of Hassle.com, stressed the need to be brave and hire people who don’t look and feel like you do.

She said: “We all have a tendency to want to work with people we’d like to have a pint with. And when you’re trying to build a tech business, you tend to build for the majority. But it’s very important to hire people different to yourself. Really, it’s not about diversity in tech, it’s about difference.”

Of course, that approach requires a leap of faith and the confidence to ignore standard hiring practice. Depledge added: “I used to work at Accenture, and we dismissed applicants who didn’t have certain qualifications. But on the rare occasions that these people got through, they became the high performers the company had ever seen.

“If you look under stones you will find gems.”

Tim Griffin, CEO of Dell UK, stressed the need to go beyond talking about the issue to acting on it – and then go beyond acting on it to ensure the actions genuinely work.

“I’ve seen first hand the multiple steps needed to tackle this,” he said. “At first you have to accept there is an issue. Then you recognize the issue, but not the problem. Then you see the problem and think you’re solving it. Finally, you look at the metrics, and see it’s not improving. Then you change it.”

In terms of female participation in tech, Annelies Van Den Belt, CEO of DC Thomson Family History, agreed that more could be done by high achieving women in terms of mentorship. She said: “Women need to make a change. We need to do more role modeling. You give up so much to become successful, that it’s easy to become competitive towards other women and not so empathetic. I think we can show other women that it’s not impossible.”