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Diversity challenges in the tech sector: What Deeson is doing and the long road ahead

Sarah Harris

Jan 08 2021

long road ahead
“Good leadership is by default inclusive leadership - taking a wide range of perspectives on board in order to inform and calibrate our decision making.” - Raafi Alidina

For six years the world’s biggest technology companies have posted diversity reports as a step towards changing the tech workforce culture. It appears to have made little impact; women and people of colour are still severely underrepresented in the industry. This is particularly concerning in light of how embedded technology is in our lives and how it now affects every sector.

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Similarity kills innovation.

At the heart of every business is a mission to solve a customer problem. In tech this is no different. Better representation of these customers within teams must therefore be crucial to developing the best solutions and achieving success. Having a diverse team is not simply about filling a quota, it’s about enhancing creative thinking and driving innovation. The world is filled with people from a plethora of backgrounds, and it is in harnessing that variety of experience that enables businesses to effectively serve everyone.

As a digital agency, we deliver work such as digital strategy, user research, design and development. These skills are human-centric; they require empathy and thrive from differing perspectives. If we employed just one type of person then we would be limiting our solutions and creativity - the result would be carbon copy work that caters to a small audience pool.

What do we mean by diversity?

At Deeson we have been assessing and tracking our own workplace diversity for the last four years, since our founder made our first formal diversity commitments back in 2016. When it comes to gender, we have clearly made progress:

  • 47% of our permanent workforce are women

  • 60% of our leadership team are women

  • 33% of our developers are women

This has not been the result of quota-filling hires. Quotas are the measure, not the method. Rather, our commitment to creating a welcoming and flexible workplace has remained consistent and, over the years, we have introduced a number of gender balancing initiatives such as flexible working, transparent pay scales, a no-negotiation policy for new hire salaries, a progressive parental leave policy and, most recently, a carer policy for primary caregivers impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. Our motivation for these policies and initiatives has been to hire and retain talent, regardless of who they are, and to provide them with an equitable and inclusive environment.

Whilst we celebrate our gender diverse team at Deeson, our work in diversity is far from complete. In stark comparison to our gender metrics, 80% of the Deeson team are white.

I am a woman and, yes, I hold the most senior position in the organisation. However, I am a white, university-educated woman. I grew up in the North London suburbs and attended a grammar school between the ages of 11 - 18 years. I am considered ‘diverse’ in this setting simply because I identify with a gender; one that makes up 51% of the world’s population.

True diversity is about more than gender equality. According to the Female FTSE Report 2020, of the 33% female executive directors in the FTSE 250 companies, 97% of them are white.

Better representation of different backgrounds, nationalities, cultures and perspectives must be embraced in technology, and it is the responsibility of employers, including Deeson, to close the diversity gap in our sector.

Attracting diverse applicants.

This has been one of the biggest diversity challenges we face at Deeson. Adding quota targets to our business was not going to tackle the fact that we were not receiving diverse applicants for our advertised roles. Despite our inclusive environment, we were apparently still only reaching a predominantly male, and primarily white, pool of talent.

We decided to change the way we approach hiring.

It has been widely speculated that men will apply for a job when they meet just 60% of the qualifications, whereas women feel the need to meet 100% of the requirements before they apply. Regardless of the percentage accuracy, what this theory highlights is a psychological difference between men and women. The advice that “women need to have more faith in themselves” does not feel helpful to me, and is unfounded. It suggests that there is a default approach - the male approach - that women must match.

Instead, I believe the onus is on us as employers to recognise behavioural differences that are to be expected when seeking out diversity, and to speak to those differences. When it comes to both gender and race, one might argue that many of those behavioural differences have been born over years of systemic inequality. Empathy must therefore be the method.

This year we adapted our hiring language in an attempt to recognise gender inequality and white privilege. We rephrased our job descriptions to seek out aptitude and understanding, rather than direct experience. An interest in line management is far more valuable for our environment than a tick box from a past role. In interviews we have stopped referring to ‘culture fit’, instead drawing attention to our collaborative and supportive environment. We suggest a ‘minimum’ number of years experience, rather than stipulating a specific range. We refer to ‘entry level’ rather than ‘graduates’. We are mindful to speak to communication skills, rather than language.

Our job descriptions are also sense-checked with a gender decoder before we publish them. We think this is a necessary step regardless of who writes the spec, for women may also be unconsciously conditioned to use gender-coded language, especially in the context of STEM.

Expanding our reach.

Whilst we have offered flexible working for Deeson team members for a number of years (our work from home policy pre-dates Covid-19) this year we increased that flexibility in order to broaden our geographical area beyond Kent.

We engaged with diversity-specialists for advice and to access their platforms. We made a conscious effort this year to avoid our usual channels in order to reach beyond our existing network and truly commit to receiving applications from people of all backgrounds, at every stage of life. Organisations such as Hire Stem Women, Coding Black Females, UK Black Tech, Future Coders, Ada’s List, Girls Who Code, and Functional Works are just a handful of such specialists we referred to who are committed to closing the diversity gap in our sector.

Internally we created a Slack channel specifically dedicated to embracing and empowering diversity in our workplace. It is a forum that invites discussion, inspiration and a sharing of events, articles and support. There is a constant stream of material - including book and film recommendations - offering diverse perspectives and personal experiences across the agency. Whether team members class themselves as a marginalised group in the tech sector or not, the channel is open and welcomes everyone.

From retention to leadership.

“You have to see it to be it.” - Billie Jean King

At the beginning of December we offered team members the opportunity to attend the Women in Tech Festival, a two day virtual event of keynotes, case studies, panels and mentoring, designed to shine a light on diversity and combat issues that may hinder women of all backgrounds within the technology industry.

Eight of our female team members attended the festival and the feedback from each of them was buzzing positivity and an inspired energy. Part of their enjoyment was due to content they had engaged with, but it went beyond that. In their own way, they each identified a sense of community and a feeling of support. They found the process inspiring, the speakers invigorating. Many of them described it as a bonding experience.

There is an undeniable energy in identifying with others, and if those others stand in positions of influence, leadership or authority then that energy results in self-belief and personal ambition. And that identification doesn’t always need to be a mirror reflection; just as I am inspired by black male leadership in tech, it is not solely women who may feel inspired by female leadership.

During our interview process, we ensure candidates get the opportunity to meet a range of their would-be peers and leadership. Diversifying our workforce is only effective if our company culture embraces it and includes it as an integral part of our offering.

Still a way to go.

As a digital agency we don’t hire at the pace of Tech Giants. We recognise that organisational change cannot happen overnight for us. We are proud of the headway we made with gender diversity in 2020, and as part of our 2021 business strategy we are committed to challenging racial biases in the industry and further diversifying our workforce and leadership.

Like most inequality in the world, the lack of diversity in the tech sector is structural. We need to break that structure, disrupt it, completely tear it down if we have to. And then rebuild it, with a truly diverse workforce.

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Sarah Harris.

Sarah Harris

About the author

Sarah Harris

Managing Director

Sarah has worked in a range of client and agency senior digital roles, with extensive background in consumer-facing web and marketing propositions, with years of client services experience within a variety of industries including music, culture & heritage, publishing, mobile, technology and production.