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For tech companies to flourish, diversity and inclusion needs to be a board level issue

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There is a wealth of evidence to show that diverse workforces are much more successful, have happier employees, build better products and services, and are more profitable.  Yet, many tech businesses are far less diverse than they should be.

Just five percent of FTSE 350 company leaders are women, yet it’s proven that FTSE companies with no female representation at board level are ten times less profitable than those whose executive boards have women holding a third of the positions. While BAME individuals hold just 4.6 percent of the UK's most powerful roles, with ethnic minority women being woefully underrepresented, taking up only ten of the top 1,097 roles currently in the UK.

Why risk setting your business back in this way, by not ensuring you have a diverse team at board level?

There has been significant attention brought to the subject over the past 12 months, due to global social movements such as Black Lives Matter, which resulted in the UK Government pledging to inquire into all aspects of racial inequality and to making tackling racism a “top priority.”

The tech sector is uniquely placed to be agile and move quickly in this area, and to take action to ensure real change throughout every working environment and day-to-day process. There is no shortage of young talent with the ambition to join the tech industry, and that talent needs to be welcomed and nurtured. Boards need to acknowledge their unconscious bias and take action to address it, to ensure that people don’t fall out of the sector because they are not welcomed and nurtured. Failing to achieve this will allow systemic discrimination to hide within the structures of the industry and will ensure the status quo remains. This is what will ultimately hold us back.

The impact of lacking diversity on businesses

A lack of diversity can have a huge impact on a business, yet research we recently commissioned uncovered that 50 percent of the UK’s tech sector admit they feel their employer makes token gestures that feel surface level when it comes to diversity and inclusion. While 49 percent stated they believe diversity seems like less of a priority in the workplace currently.

By all rights there should be no barriers to creating more inclusive environments, as it’s proven time-and-time again there are many benefits to both employees and businesses of creating a diverse workforce. A frequently cited study is one carried out by the Boston Consulting Group, which found that diverse companies generate an average of 19 percent more revenue. This substantial increase was put down to the practical impact of diversity in a number of areas, such as fostering innovation, helping to win new business and attracting talent. This is by no means a solitary finding. A 2019 survey of 13,000 enterprises by the International Labour Organization’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities found clear evidence that more diverse business cultures and equal hiring practices reaped the reward of higher profits and productivity, engagement, more creativity and better talent management.

Fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace culture is not just a ‘HR problem,’ it’s something that needs to be a board-level strategic priority to boost success. While there’s no doubt that the events of 2020 resulted in more tech companies tackling the issue head on and pledging to do better, there’s still a lot of work to be done. This was further solidified by our research, which revealed that more than one-fifth (21 percent) of tech employees would like training for the workforce on diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion is something that we at Culture Shift are determined to improve, and as CEO it’s my responsibility to lead on this, knowing it will result in a better business and better tech products.

Maintaining culture in a rapidly changing environment

Some companies will already have reporting platforms in place to enable employees to safely and anonymously report instances of discrimination and abuse – whether that’s online or in person. This can help track microaggressions and create a detailed picture of the company’s culture, which they can then use to make improvements. Without clear and safe reporting pathways, it’s very difficult to encourage people to speak up and so those problem areas will continue to remain hidden. Further to this, organizations should not only signpost to these platforms, but actively encourage employees to use them, with those that do speak out against bullying encouraged and supported for doing so, rather than perpetuating any stigma. It’s vital that you’re offering employees an online solution, preferably with an anonymous option, as there is still a long way to go to build up trust between employees and HR departments before everyone feels comfortable enough to speak out about what they’re experiencing face-to-face.

One of the most fundamental ways that tech firms can start paying attention to diversity is by ensuring everyone in the organization feels heard and know that if they do face discrimination, they can do something about it. It’s all well and good factoring diversity into your recruitment processes, but what happens to people after they’ve joined the organization? And how long will team members stay if the environment is not one where everyone can truly thrive and flourish? The recent shift to remote working creates a challenge here, as many of the issues of harassment or discrimination that lead to some either staying away from the industry or leaving it, are now shifting to digital spaces. In this space, issues can be more difficult to manage.

The anonymity that can come from sitting behind a screen can often lead to increased levels of bullying, whether from people who feel separated from the consequences of their words, or simply because people are unintentionally causing harm as they can’t see or properly understand the person they’re communicating with. Either way, left unchecked in a workplace, this can lead to significant cultural issues that will fester if not properly addressed.

On bullying and harassment in the workplace, our survey revealed that 25 percent of employees from BAME backgrounds have experienced unacceptable behavior, while one-in-five (22 percent) have witnessed it. Upon delving into how they’d approach reporting bullying or harassment either they or a colleague were facing, one-in-five (18 percent) of employees from BAME backgrounds said they’d report the incident to their line manager but would feel worried about the repercussions. Furthermore, 28 percent of BAME employees said they would report an incident only if they could do so anonymously. While 22 percent admit they’d be scared to report anything for fear it would impact their future career, they’d lose their job or they wouldn’t be believed, affirming there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure all employees feel safe and supported should they bear the brunt of problematic behavior at work.

Attracting and retaining talent

The last year has resulted in many organizations shifting the way they operate. Lots of businesses have completely pivoted their strategy and have taken the time to really look at what’s important to their employees, and what’s going to help them to not only attract but retain the best talent in the business. However, some are still getting it wrong when it comes to diversity.

Despite 79 percent of employees across the tech industry confirming that working somewhere with a diverse workforce is an important factor for their happiness at work, almost half (48 percent) think their employer could do more when it comes to diversity. Our research also revealed that 30 percent said their employer could improve workplace culture by recruiting more people from BAME backgrounds, while 25 percent said by recruiting a better gender balance, 23 percent said by recruiting more people of varying abilities and 18 percent said by recruiting more people from LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) backgrounds.

It’s essential that leaders start actively making these ideals a reality. Diversity is no longer a ‘nice to have’ - it can be the difference between having a happy and successful workforce, and a profitable business, which is vital as we head into a recession.

Looking to the future

Right now, we’re at a turning point in how we view diversity in the tech sector, making this an ideal opportunity to really set clear objectives for what we want the future to look like. To work though, this new understanding of good practice needs to be represented at every level - from the regulations of governing bodies, to the attitudes of business leaders, and the understanding of rights and reporting processes by employees. While this may seem like a big step for some, there’s never been more advice, experience, systems and support out there designed purely around changing the status quo and reshaping firms into more diverse and inclusive spaces that work for everyone.

Gemma McCall, CEO, Culture Shift (opens in new tab)

Gemma is the co-founder and CEO of impact software business, Culture Shift. Culture Shift’s mission is to positively change culture by building software that empowers organisations to tackle harassment and bullying.