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When it comes to tackling diversity in tech, employers have set themselves up to fail

Despite the many benefits that diversity in the tech workforce provides, too many employers are still failing.
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Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor on
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Workforce diversity efforts continue to fall short as companies repeat the same old mistakes.

Image: Tara Moore/GETTY

Technology companies are spending more time thinking and talking about the topic of diversity than ever before, and yet progress remains woefully slow.

According to a 2021 survey by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, less than a fifth of IT specialists in the UK are women: a figure that has grown just 3% since 2018. Women and black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) individuals are also under-represented in tech leadership positions.

Evidence suggests that tech companies are especially prone to bias when it comes to recruiting, preferring to choose a candidate who reminds them of other candidates they might have previously recruited for the same role.

SEE: How Women Who Code is narrowing the developer gender gap

The typical hiring profile for a developer position is a man between 25 and 35 years old, who has more than two years of experience and has a higher university degree in computer science or engineering.

As a result, company culture is inherently not set up to welcome diversity. "It's hard to feel welcome when you look around a room and no one else looks like you or can quickly relate to you," says Amanda Richardson, CEO of developer recruitment platform CoderPad. 

Tackling the technology industry's chronic diversity issue is a crucial part of addressing a severe and growing skills shortage in the tech industry.

A November 2021 study by Skillsoft involving 9,300 IT leaders worldwide found that more than three-quarters have a shortage of digital skills in their department – an increase of 145% since 2016.

In the UK, data from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) found that 48% of UK businesses are recruiting for roles that require data-based skills, and yet 46% have struggled to fill these roles since 2019.

Clearly, technology companies – and businesses more generally – are missing out on a huge pool of potential talent by failing to take action on diversity. "There are a lot of companies who say they prioritize diversity in hiring, but then there is no onboarding or support network in the company," says Richardson.

The fault doesn't lie at the feet of corporations alone. Persistent gender bias from an early age, reinforced throughout schooling, leads to an impact on career choices and job opportunities, notes Richardson. This is likely why only 34% of those who earn bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are women.

Irma Olguin Jr is the co-founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries. Founded in 2013, the company is headquartered in Fresno, CA which is also the hometown of Olguin and fellow Bitwise co-founder, Jake Sobral. 

Olguin and Sobral are both descendants of Mexican immigrants, having moved to California seeking better opportunities. Olguin grew up the daughter of immigrant farm labourers. Sobral's father was an ice cream man, and his grandmother was a seamstress.

By all accounts, the technology industry was never meant to find them. And yet, it did. "Technology sort of found its way into our lives, and that really wasn't supposed to be part of our story," Olguin tells ZDNet.

"When you grow up in the way that I just described, a job like that doesn't just change your life: it changes the life of your family and the community that you're in."

Bitwise offers technology training programmes and consulting services for what it calls "underestimated" – and underrepresented – populations and demographics.

The organization focuses on removing the barriers that might typically prevent people from marginalised communities accessing opportunities in the technology space, including financial restrictions, family commitments, and a lack of access to technology.

Bitwise works with partners to provide this support, and offers paid apprenticeships that allow students to gain real-world experience as quickly as possible. "We create sort of the 'starter pack' for the technology industry and underestimated places," says Olguin. 

"We know for a fact that the things that stand in the way of that is survival mode – things like food and transportation, childcare, cash in your pocket. Those are the things that truly stand in the way of being able to take advantage of an opportunity in that economy."

Community thinking

The technology industry has one of the highest job multipliers of all industries. For every tech job that's created, between 4.3 and 5 additional jobs are created in other local goods industries.

This means that technology can play a huge role in levelling up the economies of more deprived communities, or towns and cities where the jobs market is predominantly made up of low-paid, low-skilled jobs.

To date, Bitwise has trained 8,000 students. According to Olguin, 60% of trainees are from black and brown communities, 60% are women, non-binary or gender non-conforming, and 41% are LGBTQ.  

About 90% of the students that Bitwise trains stay in the market that they were trained in, with the idea that they remain in the local community and give back economically. To help facilitate this, Bitwise purchases dilapidated buildings in Fresno and turns them into trendy workspaces where people can come together, collaborate, and socialise with people from similar backgrounds.

"We're not building talent to then export it to a primary market. This is talent that is staying there and buying sandwiches in our hometown, buying homes and building families," says Olguin, 

"The majority of the folks that we train come from restaurant, retail, factory and warehouse work, earning on average less than $21,000 U.S. dollars a year, and exiting our programmes earning greater than $63,000 a year. This is game-changing, life-changing money for these folks."

Even with initiatives like Bitwise helping overlooked and underserved populations get into tech, they still face significant stumbling blocks when it comes to the application process.

While technology is changing the way HR professionals screen applicants, many still assess applicants manually, which means the screening process relies heavily on human opinion.

"If tech businesses are committed to addressing gender imbalance, they need to honestly and objectively assess their recruitment practices to see if unconscious bias exists and look to adapt their recruitment practices," says Aude Barral, co-founder and CCO of developer recruitment platform, CodinGame.

SEE: Developers are in short supply. Here are the skills and programming languages employers need

Research has shown that human decision-making processes are often influenced by subjective factors that might not be relevant to the role. In other words, says Barral, we have a preference towards what we already know, or that reminds us of something familiar.

Barral describes this hiring pattern as a "recruiting of clones", which makes it even more difficult to promote ethnic, cultural, or gender diversity in an organisation. "What chance does a highly skilled woman have of securing a coveted tech position if unconscious biases are ingrained in the culture of many tech businesses and how they hire?" she adds.

The same applies for BAME individuals and those who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming, says Olguin, who also views resume-based hiring as a significant detriment to workforce diversification efforts: "It's being around people who look like you; it's seeing somebody in front of the room who comes from a story that's like yours – vulnerable populations, the formerly incarcerated, the LGBTQ community, the gender non-binary or non-conforming populations."

Olguin also argues that tech companies are failing to provide sufficient support to those marginalized or underrepresented individuals that do manage to break into the industry: "When you don't see yourself presented in the technology industry, you begin to believe that it's not for you.

"As we expand across the nation more and more, what we're seeing is, if the United States wants to be a serious actor in filling the labour gap that exists in the technology industry across the world, then we're going to have to turn over some new rocks." 

Rewriting 'geek' culture

The culture around technology also needs to be rewritten if the industry hopes to turn the page on diversity and bridge the skills chasm.

CodinGame's Barral points out that the male-dominated "geek and dev" culture – perpetuated by movies, TV shows, conferences and conventions – alienates those who don't identify with it, stymying the flow of more diverse talent into the workforce.

And yet, becoming a software developer is in many ways easier than ever, thanks to the proliferation of self-learning platforms, bootcamps, forums and YouTube videos that make a computer science degree no longer a prerequisite for many tech jobs.  

"Anyone can get into tech," says Richardson. "It's about having skills relating to the job as opposed to logos and credentials from certain schools or companies."

She adds: "So many developers are self-taught these days; many of them learned to code when they were kids. The best and brightest minds aren't always from the Ivy Leagues. That's why we recommend looking for the talent, not the resume."

SEE: Developer jobs and programming languages: What's hot and what's next

By improving diversity in tech, everyone stands to gain. A study by the World Economic Forum reported that companies with more diverse leadership teams report higher innovation revenue, while a 2015 study by McKinsey estimated that closing the gender gap would add $28 trillion to the value of the global economy by 2025.

"The lack of diversity in the developer community means we aren't solving problems for the entire world – we're limited to only solving what we know or understand from our experiences. We also aren't solving problems in a holistic way," says Richardson.

Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages new insights and perspectives. This leads to better decision making and problem solving. Given much of the development community is guided by an insular slice of the world's population – which is white men in tech who went to university – we will fail unless there is a broader awareness or understanding of the problems out there. 

"Our solutions don't necessarily work for large portions of the world, either," says Richardson. "They're mainly guided by homogenous thinking, not diverse demographics and life experiences. Products won't be embraced and encouraged by the masses unless you consider the needs and input of the masses."

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