Revisiting the conversation about tech diversity and inclusion in Australia

As the sector enters a new phase of addressing issues that have long been ignored.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

For decades, minorities have long advocated for equality. Some of the most recent examples have been Hollywood's Time's Up and #MeToo movements, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.

In fact, the BLM movement has been so significant that even leaders of some of the world's largest technology companies have been involved in the conversation, addressing issues around racism and police brutality.

There was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who vowed to review ideas around specific policies on the social media platform and the decision-making within the company, including making sure "the right groups and voices are at the table", as well as taking initiatives to advance racial justice after it received backlash for the handling of US President Donald Trump's posts that glorified violence.

IBM, meanwhile, announced it would exit its facial recognition business in fear its technology could be used to promote racial discrimination and injustice.

"IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency," IBM CEO Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to Congress.

"We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies."

See also: 8 biggest misconceptions about women in technology (TechRepublic)     

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian resigned from the board of directors and urged the board to fill his seat with a Black candidate. There was also Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who used his Twitter feed to highlight statements from Black employees.

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai echoed similar remarks, announcing what he referred to as "concrete" commitments to build equality for the Black community, both internally and externally. Some of these include reviewing Google's product policies to strengthen them against hate and harassment, and improving leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30% by 2025.

So, is it time for the Australian tech sector -- an industry that has long been riddled with diversity and inclusion issues -- to take a closer look at where the conversation needs to go from here?

The (little) progress so far globally

The last time the tech sector collectively made such public commitments to diversity and inclusion was around six years ago. At the time, the spotlight was on gender equality -- or more like the lack thereof. Since then, the conversation around diversity has broadened to also include race, sexuality, age, class, mental and physical ability, and more.

Following their initial commitments, tech giants have published annual diversity reports that disclose the demographic of their workforce. Unfortunately, overall, all have shown slow progress.

When Google released its first report [PDF] in 2014, it showed how men made up 69.4% of its entire workforce, and almost two-thirds of them were white. Compare that to the Google 2020 Diversity Annual Report and the gains in representation for women and people of colour are modest. The company saw close to a 6 percentage point increase of women in leadership roles from 20.8% in 2014 to 26.7% in 2020. Men, however, still make up 68% of the total workforce six years later.

Microsoft's progress is not too dissimilar. Men still make up just under three-quarters of the company's global workforce during 2019. However, it's a 3 percentage point improvement on the numbers reported back in 2017. In tech roles at Microsoft, the representation of women increased by 1.4 percentage points to 21.4% in 2019.

At Salesforce -- a company that has spent over $12 million globally to close the pay gap -- the gender split for its current global workforce sit at 66.8% male and 33% female, a slight improvement on 2017 numbers when it was 69.6% men and 30.4% women.

Over at Twitter, women currently make up 42.5% of its workforce, but the company plans to lift that to 50% by 2025. Regardless, it's a significant uplift from when Twitter first released its diversity statistics in 2014. At that time, women only made up a third of its total global workforce, and 10% of all technical roles.

"We want women to be represented across our global business, so we've also set targets for representation across technical roles (42%) and leadership (41%)," the company wrote in a recent blog post.

Better than nothing

But some progress is better than no progress at all, or so that is what Google Australia and New Zealand managing director Mel Silva believes.

"I'm an optimist, so every action and initiative that we undertake to address and improve diversity and inclusion is a step in the right direction and is progress," she said.

"But there is no question that women and minority groups in tech are underrepresented. The pace of change is slow and it's not just limited to the tech industry."


Hopper Down Under conference

Image: CSIRO's Data61

However, others such as Sue Keay, CSIRO's Data61 Cyber-Physical Systems research director, are far less forgiving about the lack of progress the industry has made.

"It doesn't feel that it has progressed," she said.

"I brought the Hopper Down Under conference to Australia last year and I thought that was a good step forward to showcase the female tech talent that we do have here. But I know in my own area, we struggle to get beyond 10% of women in robotics … I think some companies do it very well, and some companies aren't at all."

For Salesforce Australia and New Zealand CEO Pip Marlow, she believes "we're pretty good at talking about it … the pace of change probably hasn't matched the pace of frequency of the conversation".

No time for complacency

Despite some concerted effort from the industry, there is no time for complacency. That is one thing Cisco Australia and New Zealand vice president Ken Boal acknowledged, after reflecting on how the company has gone about addressing diversity and inclusion so far.

"I would say on certain aspects of the diversity spectrum, we're in a strong place. I would say in Australia the ethnicity and racial diversity discussion is not as mature as gender and generation," he said.

"We've always had a strong participation in Indigenous affairs and programs at Cisco. It did actually drop off for a while there because we channelled our energy into other areas of social impact."

Boal highlighted that if anything were to change, it needs to be a joint effort.

"The last thing industry or companies need to do is that we all don't need to go out and create a new program. We need to create mass support and experts in these fields, and help some of those programs to scale," he said.

He pointed to how, for instance, Cisco -- which was crowned the number one best place to work in 2020 by Great Place to Work Australia and named inclusive employer by The Diversity Council of Australia for 2019-20 -- is a supporter of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Outreach School Program. The program is focused on developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education among school students.

In addition to this, tech leaders themselves have a substantial role to play when it comes to setting the standards around diversity and inclusion, Boal said.

"There's not a silver bullet and there's not one thing you can do that solves the problem or is a game changer. It starts with leadership, it starts with setting the tone at the top, but it really needs to be embraced, demonstrated, and lived every day in everything we do," he said.

Silva agreed and given her position as a female leader at a tech company, she holds herself personally accountable.

"It's a huge responsibility and it starts with me," she said.

"Building, nurturing, and motivating a diverse team is the top priority. I know how important it was for me when I started my career to see people from all walks of life lead -- it was particularly important to see incredible women lead.

"When it comes to creating an inclusive culture, I really believe the most important part is building trust so that all Googlers know they can speak up … I think it's also critical that diversity and inclusion are visible and reflected at the leadership level -- whether that's my own leadership team or an industry representative group. It's on us as leaders to demand high standards and hold everyone to account."

Image: Google

Similarly, Marlow said it's the job of leaders to ensure diversity and inclusion flows through an organisation.

"I have account executives but it's not their job to make sure the promotions are equitable. It's not their job to make sure we're doing diversity hiring. It is the leader's responsibility … we have to start it from the top. It is our job," she said.

Both Silva and Marlow believe alongside leadership, accountability needs to be tracked using data.

"We have to use data and lead with data to try and make sure we're driving the right views in our own accountability models," Marlow said. "The leaders in our business have monthly scorecards … and we can track the progress we are making all the time and hold ourselves accountable to improving."

Read more: Top 15 cities for women in tech (TechRepublic) 

Keay said it's also important to remember that the shifts don't necessarily have to be big picture-type policy changes, pointing out how some of the smallest adjustments can have huge impacts.

"We tend to immediately think women want flexible work arrangements and assume that all women will have children and that's something that's holding them back, but I don't think that's really the case at all," she said.

"Women have had to cope with flexible and inflexible work arrangements. The important thing is that they feel valued in the work that they do … it's super simple stuff that companies do well, like making sure their website has women on it … not advertising for ninja code warriors, or using expressions that are unlikely to find resonance with 50% of the population. It really is not complicated."

It is some of these basic but deliberate changes that IBM Australia and New Zealand have started to implement into their diversity and inclusion efforts, according to the company's inclusion and diversity partner Keri Le Page.

"I was really careful with the policies … and each one of them has a case study, and in each of those case study, there's a variety of males, females, different race names quite deliberately. There's a gay couple who are taking leave to look after their child," she said.

"Interestingly, that's what I got the feedback on was people from the LGBTIQ community going: 'That's the first time we've ever seen ourselves represented in a standard policy example'. It's those little things that add up to 'that's just life and it's normal'."


Pride at Cisco Australia

Image: Cisco

As the conversation around diversity and inclusion has broadened, so too have the various programs. For instance, both Cisco and IBM have each developed their own Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) to focus on improving Indigenous participation in the technology sector.

"Towards the end of last calendar year, we felt we wanted to reengage in the process reinitiating our RAP in Australia," Boal said.

"You often wonder what is the staff level of participation and interest, and I was very pleased when we alerted the team of our how intention to reinitiate the RAP and get people involved. We were overwhelmed with internal people who wanted to play a role, want to get involved, and want to influence the program."

Australia's Indigenous heritage is also top of mind at Google. The company recently published its second RAP, which focuses on a number of objectives to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

"Creating meaningful change starts within our company, so one key part of our plan is to increase awareness and education internally, for instance through expanding training opportunities for Googlers," Silva said.

It makes a whole lot of business sense

Making these step changes around diversity and inclusion, however, is no longer just a HR exercise. It also makes for better business. Countless studies have shown that diversity in the workplace can improve commercial performance.

The latest gender study [PDF] by the federal Workplace Gender Equity uncovered companies that appoint a female CEO increase their market value by nearly 5%, which is equivalent to AU$80 million on average for an ASX-listed company.

Plus, as Silva puts it, "in a country as diverse as Australia, we need a workforce that's representative of the users we serve".

"It's common sense that when different viewpoints and ideas are shared, you'll build better products, create better processes, and run things more smoothly," she said.

Marlow also warned of the potential danger if diversity continued to be absent in the tech sector.

"The absence of diversity in multiple ways had caused product design issues for a long time -- from facial and skin colour recognition in gaming … [to] the airbag being designed by male-only teams and not working very well for female and children … so the lack of diversity in product design has always been an issue," she said.

"But now we're using new technology to make decisions for us. The lack of diversity in technology that is making decisions can actually be just as damaging as a product not working safely in your car.

"It might make incorrect recommendations for people going through the judicial systems. We can take from history it can potentially discriminate against people of colour … or discriminate against a specific gender. These are real examples where the lack of diversity and inclusion in the design can have a serious impact.

"But it's all unintentional. What can be intentional though is bringing diversity into the design process."

Marlow advised that while it might not be practical to ensure every design team is equally diverse and inclusive, tech companies have a responsibility to make a conscious effort to consider underrepresented communities as part of the design process.

Even though there is still a long road ahead, being an optimist, Silva said, "it's encouraging to see more tech companies focusing and investing in this space." 

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