Talent + Gender + Ethnicity – Where are the Women of Colour in Tech?

Last week, during London Technology Week, Ada’s List was proud to organise a panel discussion on a topic close to our hearts: how to increase the number of people of colour (especially women) in the technology industry.

We state our ambition on this matter very clearly in our Agenda: the technology industry needs diversity of people and thought to make the products and services that emerge as successful as possible.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of groups and individuals talking about gender diversity. We decided it was time to focus on diversity of background in addition to this. We assembled a very talented (and yes, diverse) panel: Ade Adewunmi (Head of Data Infrastructure at Government Digital Service), Ade Oshineye(Developer Advocate at Google) and Arfah Farooq (co-founder of the Muslamic Makers meetup and Head of Marketing at Makers Academy), moderated by Ada’s List’s Kajal Odedra (Senior Campaigns Advisor at change.org).

Being a person of colour in tech

The panel started by discussing their experiences of being a person of colour in tech. On the positive side, it is easy for people to remember them because they are such a rarity. On the negative, there’s a lack of role models because there aren’t enough people of colour in the first place. Also sometimes, finding a safe space to be yourself at work is hard; for example, if you’re a practicing Muslim then you need a space to pray during the day. As a person of colour who uniquely experiences certain issues, they often have to decide whether to make a big deal of something or let it pass; as one of the panelists said, that is often exhausting.

On tokenism

With many companies committing to diversity in hiring these days, it is not unusual to think of ‘diverse’ hires as token hires, made simply to fill that quota. On the one hand, no one wants to be seen as a token hire, but on the other, that may be the only way to enter that company in the first place, from where you are in a position to change the status quo and get more people of colour on board. There is an assumption that the status quo is absolutely fair and there is no need for quotas, as one of our panelists said, but that is not the case – so quotas are not a bad thing. As she eloquently put it:

‘when you’ve never had to share, equity feels like oppression’.

On diversity in large vs. smaller companies

Lack of diversity is very often a structural problem – i.e a cultural problem, not a pipeline one. Humans have only so much empathy and sometimes they cannot see why a specific issue is a problem, especially if as a white male you’ve never experienced them. However, being a structural problem, structural solutions need to be put in place to tackle it as a matter of importance – otherwise no one does anything about it in a concerted manner. No doubt, for larger organisations it’s often easier to care because they have the resources to throw at the problem – also in today’s world they have to (witness how Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter all got called out when their diversity statistics were discovered recently). For smaller organisations, the key is in the founding team: if they are not empathetic, then cultural problems will pervade no matter what you do. It is important to remember, however, that having a diverse founding team does not automatically guarantee diversity of workforce: sometimes diverse founders are not very inclusive at all (and this is often seen in the media when senior people from different ethnicities in the tech industry say they believe in ‘hiring only on talent’ – whoever said that hiring a diverse workforce would mean you need to compromise on that?!).

One of the panelists made an interesting point on spreading awareness of your culture even if you are the only person of colour in your organization: though it is often tiring to have that burden, if you don’t do it no one will, and people often appreciate learning about new cultures. Another of our panelists added to that, and warned that if you get a reputation for being difficult, or worse, get fired, then you have no way of helping others in any way – that knowledge of how much to assert your point of view regarding diversity is a very delicate balance that you only learn to achieve with experience. It is also crucial to challenge senior people in companies who have clear prejudices, or make wrong comments. Sometimes the bias is unconscious, but it still needs to be called out, and again you can only have those conversations if you are at that senior level yourself and share a relationship with people at that level that will not put your career in jeopardy if you speak to them about these subjects.

Tactics to get a skilled diverse workforce

Go for structural solutions: for example, Thoughtworks sponsors free coding scholarships for women at Makers Academy, where they ensure candidates are from diverse backgrounds. These candidates then get the chance to be hired by ThoughtWorks. In a similar move, a few years ago Etsy sponsored female students at Hacker School in New York and increased the number of women on the team by 500%.

Give unconscious bias training to all employees: People usually think of themselves as good people who are not biased. Making this training compulsory might help people see that they aren’t bad individuals, but they need to be aware of their inherent bias so they can tackle it. This is particularly important for managers who are in a hiring position. Facebook and Google both offer this training, and Facebook’s Managing Bias training course is available for free online.

Managers, push back on shortlists that are not 50-50 male-female: I am increasingly hearing positive stories of enlightened, informed managers in the tech industry who are pushing back at recruitment and HR teams if they are given candidate shortlists that are not equally split in male/female representation. Managers are in a very strong position to make a difference, and pushing back that bit can really help the diversity of teams and companies in the long run – even if you have to keep a position open for a little while longer than you’d like when your own manager is asking questions.

Get diverse experts in to talk to your teams: A lot of companies organise events for their employees or the wider industry. Instead of inviting white men to take the stage repeatedly, make sure you get people of colour and women on a regular basis so that becomes normal, not unusual. This will of course be difficult but it’s important to send the signal because, as one of our panelists experienced, there are men who sometimes do not see women as experts in coding (for example) because they have never known or worked with a senior female developer in the industry before, and are not used to taking instructions or lessons from them.

All in all, an important set of questions and very interesting answers that I personally was proud to be a part of on behalf of Ada’s List. Thanks to all our panellists for a great evening.

December 3, 2016
Anjali Ramachandran
Co-founder