Why Diversity is Still a Problem in the Tech Industry

Lessons from “Lesbians Who Tech” conference

I’ve joined Busbud as a backend engineer in December last year and it still feels a bit dreamlike to tell people what I do. The path to become a developer was a tortuous one and it took me a long time to get here, mostly because of the lack of opportunities and representation for women at the time I was choosing my career. So it was a particularly inspiring experience for me to attend my first tech conference since I started this job.

The conference was called “Lesbians Who Tech” and it focuses on bringing together LGBTQ women working in tech. Still new to industry, it was interesting for me to hear an outside perspective from other women in the field about the reasons why diversity is still a problem. Since Busbud already has initiatives to tackle diversity, I thought it’d be interesting to add to the dialogue by sharing what I’ve learnt and felt at the conference.

The pipeline problem

For those who are not familiar with the concept, the “pipeline problem” in the hiring context speculates that the lack of diversity in the tech industry exists because there aren’t enough qualified candidates to fill open positions. There are already many articles on the web debunking this myth (you can read more about it here and here), so I don’t need to go deep into it. It became clear to me while attending this conference how wrong this hypothesis is. In fact, I was able to watch talks by powerful, intelligent and capable women while at the same time being surrounded by 5000+ LGBTQs folks eager to learn from them.

It seems that the underlying problem may be that we’re always looking for talent in the same places and the result is always the same: mostly cisgender white straight men applying to the job openings. If that’s the case, perhaps it could be worth considering to look for talent “outside the box”. For example, in initiatives that support social minority groups, in meetups of women that want to learn to code, or even depending on the size of your company, creating your own initiative to teach the skills you’re looking for in a candidate.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Transform diversity into data

Data is the law in today’s business world. It may be used excessively at times, but we can’t deny that it’s part of our work dynamics. So why are companies still not measuring diversity? Leanne Pitsford, founder of “Lesbians Who Tech”, shared her experience in building her company and she revealed that one of the five most important lessons to achieve diversity she learned was to create a sense of urgency.

At first, the concept doesn’t seem to be related to data, but she goes to explain that the reason why most companies don’t take concrete action about diversity is because they are not setting goals, and thus have no sense of an urgent “problem” that needs fixing.

Very early on, her company had a quota with the goal of having 50% people of color, 25% latin and 10% transgender/non-binary in their team, and ever since these numbers have been established, they’ve hit them. Her argument is that quotas allow you to transform the abstract notion of diversity into actual data and consequently allows you to keep track of how you’re doing.

Bozoma Saint John, Uber’s Chief Brand Officer, went a step further in her interview and said that we should even make sure that diversity is part of the responsibilities of senior executives. Indeed, since there are usually many KPIs tied to bonuses, we should be adding diversity to those numbers as well.

Whether those suggestions appeal to your company or not, what was clear from the two suggested approaches is the need to start measuring what is being done related to diversity, otherwise we will keep treating it as this ethereal problem that will only be solved in the future. If we create goals for most areas of a company, why not create it for diversity as well?

Unconscious bias

Another interesting topic that was discussed in the conference was how unconscious bias can have negative impact on building a diverse tech team. This concept refers to the unconscious beliefs we have about certain groups, which come from our personal background and existing societal stereotypes, among other reasons (if you want to know more about the subject, this is a great talk).

Mindfulness expert Miriam Bekkouche speaking at Busbud

Leslie Henry, VP Specialist in System/Data Security in Bank of America, talked about this problem in her talk at the conference and she mentioned that we all have unconscious discrimination whether we like it or not. She stated that women are technically judged on performance and experience while men are judged by their potential, and that this reflects on who is given a chance or not during the hiring and even promotion processes. Another side to the bias is that we naturally tend to feel more comfortable with people that are similar to us. That’s why hiring managers may be unknowingly more impressed with candidates that look like them.

Truth is, it doesn’t matter from which side you look at the problem, it is extremely difficult for us humans to eliminate 100% of our biases. If the problem is our own human nature, an obvious solution is to use technology to try to minimize such bias. Stephanie Lampkin, CEO and founder of Blendoor, is doing just that. Her company is developing an app to help drive better hiring decisions by blindly matching companies with the most skilled candidate available, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity. This means that the details of the candidate are only revealed later in the process and even then the app continues to keep track of the outcome to later identify at which point there might be have been a decision affected by unconscious biases. If we think about it, this is such a “simple” solution that is difficult to understand why we’re not all doing this already.

Again, why diversity matters

The main message I learned from the conference was that diversity in a company is about giving voice to all the social and ethnic groups that you’re trying to reach with your product.

Each different voice is relevant because with it comes new concerns, distinct worldviews, original ways of communicating and even alternative solutions to the same problem. If you want to add value in every way you can, you need to make sure you have a diverse representation of the very same people you’re trying to connect to. And of course it’s also good for the business as it’s been proven again and again by multiple studies that show for example how diversity drives innovation and creates smarter teams.

Diversity is still a problem because we are not taking enough measures to confront it. This is not a problem for the next generations to solve, it is something we can solve in the present time. We all, both minorities and the people already represented, need to tackle this as we would any other business issue and give it the same importance. That’s how we’ll be able to successfully walk towards a more diverse and inclusive world.

The very first step is to recognize the importance of diversity, and that’s why I’m proud of Busbud for not only recognizing it, but also taking steps to improve it. We have a few internal initiatives related to diversity, but I’m particularly happy about our inclusive working environment, our goal of creating gender neutral job offers as well as our openness to bring talent from outside Montreal. I hope we can keep up with the great job we’re doing and continue to walk towards a more diverse and inclusive world.

Learn more about Busbud’s Diversity initiatives, or for current openings, check out our Careers page.