No matter whether if it’s in the boardroom or on the big screen, the issue of representation in our increasingly diverse society is a hot topic for discussion. And I’m glad we’re having this conversation, to be honest, especially in the tech industry, where the ability to be innovative and agile is incredibly important.
True, some critics consider talking about this issue to be just "virtue signaling" or a way to appear politically correct. However, a more diverse workplace isn’t strictly a moral issue … it's also good business sense. Here's why.
Diversity is good for business.
A homogenous workplace can be detrimental for a business’s bottom line. According to the American Sociological Association, gender-diverse organizations are 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than their less-diverse peers.
The contrast is even sharper when we look at data on ethnic diversity. Two-thirds of teams described as having “medium and high levels of racial diversity” report higher-than-average profitability. Ethnically diverse teams are 33 percent more likely to be profitable, while the least-diverse teams are 29 percent more likely to underperform.
So, clearly more diverse workplaces tend to be more profitable, but why?
The answer is that uniform groups tend to produce more uniform thought. When you have a bunch of people with similar identities and backgrounds, they’re going to think and see the world in similar ways. In contrast, diverse groups yield a wider range of experiences and perspectives. This enables more dynamic thinking, adaptability and creativity.
You can also think about the issue from a relatability angle. As mentioned earlier, the workplace is getting more and more diverse. If you’re going to try to reach consumers, you need to understand how they think and what they’re interested in. A more diverse team of people allows you to better connect with customers and form a more organic relationship with the public.
Tech has a representation problem.
Women identifying as Latina, Black or Asian represented 35.3 percent of the total U.S. female population in 2015. That number is projected to rise to 50.6 percent by 2060. Despite that fact, women of color hold just 11 percent of all science and engineering jobs. The problem is even more pronounced at upper levels of management, where nonwhite women hold just 5 percent of senior and executive management positions, and 4 percent of board seats.
Let’s compare that to China, for example. Although gender discrimination certainly exists in China, women there enjoy much greater representation in tech fields, especially at the leadership level.
To be blunt, other countries are leaving the United States behind in terms of diversity in tech. That will reduce our competitiveness in the long run, potentially costing us our position as innovators and leaders in the global market. Fortunately, more and more companies are starting to recognize that we have a problem, and they’re taking steps to address it.
Companies like Ernst & Young and Atlassian are putting a conscious effort into fostering a more inclusive workplace. This doesn’t mean lowering standards or passing over more qualified candidates. Instead, businesses are looking at themselves and trying to identify weaknesses in their practices and culture. As one representative from Atlassian put it at the Interop ITX conference in May, “Homogeneity is a sign of inconsistent or lower standards.”
There's a bottom-up solution to our lack of diversity.
Companies getting active about a more inclusive workforce is a good sign, but if we want to make real progress, we’ll need to take a “bottom-up” approach, rather than a top-down one.
As I discussed recently with Maribeth Kuzmeski for the Female Insight Zone podcast, there is a lack of diversity in our science and technology education. This eventually translates to a shortage of qualified candidates available to fill positions within tech companies.
If we go back to the example of China, that country has near-parity between men and women in tech professions. Why? Because technology is taught alongside other standard academic subjects in school, just like language or mathematics.
We need to start early and foster a greater interest in science and technology education among young girls and people of color. Many of them will end up discovering an interest in the subject they didn’t realize they had. In my case, for example, I studied technology in high school just because it was the only elective class available at the time, but I found I had a real passion for the subject. Just think: My whole life could have been entirely different if not for that one twist!
I suspect many other kids are in the same boat, with an aptitude they’ve never really been aware of. That’s why it’s so important that we start encouraging kids to explore options in scientific fields from an early age. We need more emphasis on STEM education in public schools if we want to provide opportunities to a more diverse group of kids.
Mentorship is the first step.
Of course, that investment will take years to payoff. So, what can entrepreneurs do now?
The best opportunity we have now to encourage more diversity in tech is for industry leaders to take on mentorship roles. Having an advocate who can show young people the ropes and open doors for them is an incredible advantage for newcomers to any industry, but it’s especially important in a field as competitive as technology.
We need leaders to use their positions of influence to help mentor and promote people from different backgrounds. This will help ease the transition from education into a career. Melinda Gates is a solid example of influence. Her Pivotal Ventures is an investment and incubation company that funds female and minority-led venture capital endeavors; it's making a push for women in finance.
Another example is Latinas in STEM co-founder Jazyln L. Carvajal, who leveraged her own career to encourage young Latina girls in high school to take an interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Mentorship also improves retention by preventing burnout, which can be especially challenging for people from minority backgrounds. If people in tech have support, they’re less likely to give in to their frustrations and leave. One route? For 15 years, L’Oreal USA has recognized postdoctoral female scientists with its Women in Science Fellowship, which awards grants to advance these scientists' research. The 2018 scientists each received grants of $60,000.
Of course mentoring can also be done via technology. An example is Tribute, Sarah Haggard's online mentorship community powered by an app.
Some other ways to get started:
Join a Women in Business group. Get to meet other women in business in your area. It’s not only empowering, but women in those groups are like-minded -- like you! There are many women looking for mentorship in those groups -- those who want to pay it forward and those who want to learn from women who have paved the way.
Seek out faculty at STEM colleges, universities and polytechnic schools on LinkedIn. Connect and inquire about mentorship programs or opportunities to speak to aspiring students. They will be grateful and most likely refer you to young women and men --it’s all about diversity and helping them make our society and economy better.
Join your local Chamber and get to know young professionals who are seeking assistance on how to get a real foothold into their business community and advance their careers. Many chambers have young professional groups that would welcome veteran business pros to speak at their functions.
Yes, getting active is an investment, but it’s one we need to make. Women who are mentors will take on more roles, positively leverage their intellectual capital and help other women.They'll find that their efforts pay dividends and that the more women mentored, the faster the juggernaut will build.