We all know the statistics: just five per cent of leadership positions in the UK technology sector are women and only four per cent of the UK tech workforce is black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). Only a quarter of start-ups (26%) are actively trying to increase diversity within their leadership teams, according to Silicon Valley Bank. Less than half (43%) of startups have company-wide promotion and hiring goals for diversity, while fewer than one-in-five had these goals for executive positions (the C-suite). 78% of startup founders have no formal plans or policies in place to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, according to a 2018 First Round Survey. Only a few years ago, Twitter's only black lead engineer Leslie Miley quit the company over diversity issues. In 2019, Tech investors started including #MeToo clauses in start-up deals. forcing entrepreneurs to disclose complaints about sexual harassment in the workplace, as more women speak out about sexism in the industry. The technology industry has had to respond to the persistent lack of diversity. How does the lack of diversity in technology and its inherent bias reduce growth? What should leaders do about it to grow their business? Let’s discuss some key elements and solutions below.
Biased technology accentuates inequalities
Popular social media platforms such as Linkedin are using biased algorithms that accentuate inequalities. In a Seattle Times article, a study revealed that a search for a female contact may yield website responses asking if the searcher meant to search for a similar-looking man’s name. A search for “Stephanie Williams,” for example, brings up a prompt asking if the searcher meant to type “Stephen Williams” instead. Similar searches of popular female first names, paired with placeholder last names, bring up LinkedIn’s suggestion to change “Andrea Jones” to “Andrew Jones,” Danielle to Daniel, Michaela to Michael and Alexa to Alex.
In a 2020 Digiday article, Black anti-racist campaigners worried they were being censored. Diversity advocate Aaisha Joseph called out how office environments perpetuate racist inequity in a post on LinkedIn. It was viewed just 102 times and had only 15 comments despite Joseph having nearly 20,000 followers. Her LinkedIn feed is littered with these instances. Joseph recently urged LinkedIn to stop “wrongfully removing posts around issues affecting the black community” after her own posts were removed from her feed without knowledge.
In a 2020 Scientific American article, it was revealed that 'Speech Recognition Tech Is Yet Another Example of Bias'. In the article, it was revealed that Siri, Alexa and other programs sometimes have trouble with the accents and speech patterns of people from many underrepresented groups.
Technology services and artificial intelligence software including social media platform algorithms, voice recognition and even face recognition software have been discriminating against women, people of colour and more minority groups, which accentuates many pre-existing inequalities in our society. Tech companies have a big responsibility to fight inequality through artificial intelligence.
Bias in technology hinders growth for scaleups and big tech companies
A 2020 study, published in PNAS, revealed that speech recognition programs are biased against Black speakers. On average, all five programs from leading technology companies like Apple and Microsoft showed significant race disparities; they were twice as likely to incorrectly transcribe audio from Black speakers as opposed to white speakers.
A 2019 study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that none of the facial recognition tools from Microsoft, Amazon and IBM were 100% accurate when it came to recognising men and women with dark skin.
Technology services that do not serve minority groups will not be adopted by minority groups. Ultimately technology products with inherent bias will not sell, hindering revenue, slowing down growth and diminish business performance.
Apple HealthKit, which enabled specialized health tracking, such as selenium and copper intake, long neglected to include a women’s period tracker until iOS 9. As a result, 50% of the population (women) had a worse customer experience due to a lack of inclusion of their needs in the product.
What to do about bias in tech
There are many steps that can be taken to mitigate bias in technology, but let’s start with the basics ones:
1. Understand why diversity is important to your firm
2. Articulate how diversity ties to your mission
3. Set diversity goals tied to monetary compensation
4. Appoint a diversity taskforce sponsored by an executive
5. Assess how diverse and inclusive your firm is (or is not)
6. Be a change agent : take accountability personally and hold your leaders accountable
7. Proactively diversity your network
8. Host regular unconscious bias training
9. Construct a diverse board of directors and advisory board
10. Follow diversity and inclusion thought-leaders on social media
A few months ago, I wrote an article titled ‘A Practical Guide to Diversity for Startups’, which was read by more than 300 people. I highly recommend you read it to learn how to remove bias in tech. Watch how Fintech scaleup Salary Finance is leveraging diversity and inclusion as a tool to drive growth.
Bias in technology has always existed and has always limited growth opportunities for technology companies. With the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a growing social conscience and women’s right groups becoming more mainstream, technology organisations are starting to understand that they must act now to remove inequalities that persist in the technology industry. Business leaders have an incredible opportunity to leverage diversity and inclusion as a tool to boost growth, drive business performance and expand market share. Companies taking action now to invest in diversity and inclusion will reap the benefits and enjoy more growth, better performances and a better reputation.