Diversity is a big topic in the press at the moment. In July, the UK’s BBC published data about pay, exposing a huge gender pay gap. But the question of diversity goes far beyond a simple pay gap. I caught up with Josefin Rosén to discuss how organizations can harness the power of diversity to access a wider range of skills and talent.
Josefin, tell me more about why diversity is so important.
"We’ve known for years that teams need a wide range of skills. Many people will have heard of Belbin’s work on team roles, and the importance of having different types of people on teams to help them function more effectively. There is also evidence from psychology about the effect of group norms on performance and decision-making. Since the credit crunch, there is also a growing realization that businesses suffer if every employee is from a similar background."
Is this a particular issue for tech companies?
"Certainly anecdotally that is the case. Tech companies, if you listen to rumor, are overwhelmingly full of young white males, especially in technical roles. But that assumption is supported by facts too. According to one source, the proportion of women engineers in software companies is just 16%. It’s only 23% in financial services, the sector with the largest proportion of women with software engineering skills."
You said ‘young white’. It’s not just about the male–female divide then?
"No, absolutely not. Age is also an issue, and nationality or ethnic background. Several studies show that socially diverse groups are more creative, innovative, and hardworking than homogenous groups. When interacting with individuals who are different from us, we anticipate alternative viewpoints. This forces us to prepare more thoroughly to justify our arguments and to consider alternatives even before the actual interaction, and we do better work as a result.
But it goes beyond that, even, to the working patterns that are acceptable. Remember Marissa Mayer banning remote working from Yahoo? That sent a very clear signal that only certain types of people were acceptable: maybe those working full-time, able to work ‘office hours’, without family responsibilities, and certainly living within easy commute of the Yahoo office. All those requirements are bad news for diversity, and also bad news for the company, because it hugely limits the pool of available talent."
What are companies doing to start addressing this problem?
"There are a wide range of potential responses. A lot of it is about culture. Amazon Web Services, for example, is actively recruiting older engineers, recognizing that experience is important. The company is looking for people who understand that trade-offs are important, and who take responsibility for their teams and themselves, rather than expecting everyone to simply work long hours, and ‘take one for the team’ from time to time. Amazon has always been a bit of an outlier in the tech world, not least because its founder, Jeff Bezos, was older than most of the other tech founders when he started Amazon.
There are companies taking diversity even further. The IT company Tieto was the first Nordic company to appoint an artificial intelligence, as a member of its leadership team. Her name is Alicia T and she is a full-fledged member of the management team and can also cast votes."
Is it just a matter of setting targets, then?
"Experience at Pinterest suggests not. The Head of Diversity there, Candice Morgan, wrote about the company’s experience, and suggested that targets help, but are not enough. Hiring managers also need to understand why it is important to increase diversity, and see that doing so will not adversely affect the hiring process. The company introduced a program to combat unconscious bias, with practical advice about how to avoid it in all practices, not just recruitment. That makes the company a better place to work, and therefore more likely to retain a diverse workforce. Morgan also noted the importance of increasing representation of diverse groups at all levels, not just junior employees. It comes back to culture again."
You talked about remote working too. How does that help?
"It’s quite simple really: remote working means that the organization is not confined to people living geographically close to headquarters. This is particularly important in specialties with talent shortages, like data science and data management. Small companies without much budget to spare, like start-ups, or those not based in desirable areas, or where there are large talent pools, can really struggle to recruit. But encourage and embrace remote working, and you can recruit from around the world, wherever you are based, and potentially have a much bigger talent pool."
There must be huge challenges in managing remote working though?
"Yes, it takes work, but the benefits are huge. Rainforest, a San Francisco-based start-up, uses the practice extensively. It has learned that it needs to recruit experienced remote workers, and also recruit remotely, rather than flying people in for interviews, as well as trying to share the friction so that nobody feels left out. But it is possible, and it is a very good answer to some of the problems of trying to increase diversity."