Galvanizing Diversity and Inclusion Through Technology
Category Archives: Towards an inclusive world
Happy New Year! I wish 2022 brings all of you tons of professional and personal success.
For me, 2022 started with a bang! I got an article published on Certain Age, an e-magazine that showcases a wide array of ideas from modern women. Topics range from big ideas to small wonders with a sense of voice and an uncompromising commitment to factual accuracy.
This piece (8-min read) is my answer to a question that I’ve been pondering for 40+ years: Does contempt for women’s pain justify substandard healthcare for half of humanity? Asking for a friend…
I’d love to read in the comments how the article resonates with you!
“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.”
Ensure your ideas and experiences get exposure in 2022!
Instructions to submit your contributions to Certain Age can be found here. The editor, Jean Shields Fleming, provides thoughtful advice and she’s very respectful of the author’s voice. She’s been an absolute joy to work with.
2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the Global 16 Days Campaign. According to UN Women, the global theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which will run from 25 November to 10 December 2021, is “Orange the world: End violence against women now!”
Violence against women is messy. Year after year, reports, statistics, and think tanks remind us how bad the situation is and how to address it.
Still, we fail to make this planet safe for half of the population. Moreover, some groups of women are especially let down by our society.
Children are an afterthought in our digital inclusion plans.
We talk about the importance of embedding diversity, inclusion, and ethics in technology as a prerequisite for a digital future that works for everybody. The conversation is framed in the context of identities – gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences, culture. However, we have forgotten children. I’m talking about children’s data privacy and their vulnerability to tech tools, especially those powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
In this article, I share four areas where we’re letting children down and how the power of framing data as money can help us to proactively include them.
I’ve been beating the drum of the business value of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in tech since 2015. Many moons later, still every time I engage in this discussion with business leaders, they invariably default to either the diversity of their workforce or the McKinsey reports correlating the gender and ethnic makeup of their leadership teams to increased financial returns such as higher earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).
In my experience, it’s hard to use correlation to convince the skeptics or to support D&I champions. On the flip side, through my professional and personal path, I’ve witnessed innumerable instances where D&I has played a crucial role in the success and failure of initiatives and organizations.
How did I come to witness all that evidence? I’ve been a unicorn all my life. I became an emigrant before I was a year old and I’ve had the opportunity to live in 6 countries and 3 continents. As a woman, my professional path is “atypical” by Anglo-Western standards. I studied engineering and computational chemistry, which are considered typically male occupations. Beyond academia, I’ve worked for chemical and tech companies. I don’t have children. I still remember talking to colleagues in December 2015 about the need to put in place a strategy to retain women in tech as half of the young women who go into tech drop out by the age of 35 [source]. To my surprise, often my puzzled interlocutors would ask me if “diversity and inclusion was an American thing”.
Fortunately, nowadays there is much more awareness about diversity and inclusion in business, including the tech sector. Also, there are some companies that are getting tangible value out of understanding the value of developing solutions for underserved populations. As I’ve written in the past, people with disabilities and their families constitute a market the size of China ($8 trillion/year). Closer to home, the UK’s 12 million people with disabilities have a spending power of £120 billion as per AbilityNet, a British charity focused on the digital inclusion of people with disabilities.
But how to go beyond preaching to the converted? Moreover, how to engage with organizations that don’t have the budget for a Head of D&I?
What business leaders want to know about the value of D&I
Early June this year, I launched a survey asking business owners, managing directors, CXOs, and board members their top question about the business value of diversity and inclusion. In return for answering the survey, I offered respondents to email them my answer to their question.
I categorized the 50 answers I received into four buckets. Even in such a small sample, still we can trace a roadmap for how organizations approach D&I at workplaces
I’m delighted to be featured in the last issue of The Mint Magazine on the digital economy. The piece, entitled Motherboard Matters, is my first contribution to an economics journal!
In this article (5-min read), I highlight how the pervasiveness of patriarchy, exceptionalism, and meritocracy in the technology sector is at the core of women’s battle for fair access to leadership positions in tech.
I also share how we need to overhaul tech so it moves from extracting to contributing to society and the planet.
I’ve now been working for over 15 years as a head of services in the tech industry. Throughout my career, I’ve strived to support other professional women with the determination to see workplaces reach gender equity during my lifetime.
The pandemic has wrecked that hope in the tech sector even though it is thriving financially. The reason? Tech hasn’t seen the opportunities to challenge practices such as unpaid care work and the revered 40-hour workweek that keep women away from leadership positions. Instead, it has brushed off the problem with platitudes: flexible working… work from home… hybrid working…
This lack of questioning is the product of the pervasiveness of patriarchy, exceptionalism, and meritocracy in technology, which hinder the deep transformation required to upend the status quo. These characteristics are part of its DNA and have long stayed under the radar of most people, including myself.
When I started in software, I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable in a sector where you must work much harder to progress in your career if you are not simultaneously white, heterosexual, able, and male. I’ve been an immigrant all my life, so I was used to being “the other” and to have to prove myself over and over.
Then, in the early 2010s, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote Why Women Still Can’t Have It All and Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In different ways, those powerful women sent the message that women didn’t have the same opportunities as men to get to the top and that imbalance had to be fixed.
Around that time, I was promoted. I quickly noticed that often I was the only female senior manager in projects and meetings. The smart and promising women that I had met years earlier had come back from maternity leave to unappealing part-time jobs, without access to the plumb assignments that lead to career progression.
The motherhood penalty revealed to me systemic patterns where before I’d seen only coincidences.
The tipping point was when I joined a group of professional women working in various industries and at all career levels. Our honest conversations about men stealing ideas, the harmful effects of unconscious bias, or the motherhood penalty revealed to me systemic patterns where before I’d seen only coincidences. That prompted me to create the first employee-led group focused on fostering gender equity at my company, which positive impact was recognised with the 2020 Women in Tech Changemakers UK award. I also spreadhead other initiatives to grow diversity and inclusion in other organisations. I also discovered that power asymmetry was not a bug but a feature embedded since the birth of tech.
In the 1930s, women were hired to solve mathematical problems that were considered at the time as repetitive work. Some of those calculations were as complex as estimating the number of rockets needed to make a plane airborne or determining how to get a human into space and back. When computers took off in the 1960s women became the programmers while men focused on the hardware which was regarded as the most challenging work. As programming gained status during the 1980s, men pushed women out of those jobs. That prompted a sharp increase in the salaries of software developers, institutionalising patriarchy and the gender pay gap.
Historically, tech has approached these issues by “fixing women.” For example, women in the sector are coached to develop stereotypical male leadership traits. In the past decade, tech leaders have promoted the abdication of responsibility for solving gender inequalities and charged women with mitigating the damages. For instance, female executives are expected to act as role models on top of their full-time jobs. This can go all the way from agreeing to be the company’s speaker at STEM events to sponsoring the female employee network.
This transfer of responsibility is also alive and well in start-up tech businesses. A venture capitalist shared with me his view that the key to increasing the funding received by women’s businesses was that they were mentored by successful female founders. I replied that those top performers were often overburdened by the demands of paying back to society and that men could also mentor women. Later that day, he asked me to mentor a woman with a promising business idea that he was trying to help. He introduced us via email mentioning my interest in supporting her and inviting us to connect. His “helping” was done.
In recent years, the most popular software development approach, agile, has become a staple of the business jargon. The origin of this methodology can be traced back to 2001 and 17 software developers unhappy about what they considered excessive planning and documentation practices. They came up with their own set of rules: The Agile Manifesto.
The rationale is that tech is special and its regulation is counterproductive and stifles innovation.
But agile is more than a project management approach. It buttresses tech’s deep cultural belief in exceptionalism, the idea that our sector is inherently different from, and even better than, all the others. This helps to explain how we allow tech companies to go fast and break things while we impose strict regulations on the food and drug industries. The rationale is that tech is special and its regulation is counterproductive and stifles innovation.
The debates about the ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI) are perfect examples of how this sector dodges the rules applied to other industries. For example, I recently met with other professionals to discuss future trends in support software. Everybody was very excited about the use of AI tools such as sentiment analysis to improve the user experience. Then, I brought up the proposal for regulating those applications released by the European Union a month earlier. The participants – who were unaware of the document – quickly asserted that the directive had nothing to do with support. In summary, norms are for others.
This framework conveniently disguises the dearth of opportunities for underrepresented groups as being the result of a lack of intelligence and skill.
And the most pernicious cultural tenet in tech is its self-proclaimed meritocracy. How do we heal a system that considers itself virtuous? The idea that tech is inherently fair is rooted in its connection to logic and mathematics which commonly translates as objectivity and reason. This framework conveniently disguises the dearth of opportunities for underrepresented groups as being the result of a lack of intelligence and skill.
Can we extricate patriarchy, exceptionalism, and meritocracy from tech? Yes, we can but it’ll need an overhaul of its vision, mission, and purpose. It’ll need humility.
What does that mean in practice?
First, it means moving away from methodologies that could foster power asymmetry between creators and users. Instead, we should adopt systems thinking and multi-stakeholder co-creation practices for the development of products, services, and workplaces.
Second, recognising that the financial success of our sector relies on innovations funded by governments and products purchased by customers. Hence, paying taxes that are commensurate with tech business profits is not philanthropy but a fair contribution to society.
Finally, abiding by the same rules and regulations imposed on any other sector with the potential of affecting billions of lives. Only then, will tech be able to deliver on its “Don’t be evil” promise.
System map of the factors accounting for the low representation of women in leadership positions in tech companies.
Early this year, I received the following post in my daily digest from the Ada’s List [source], a supportive community of women who work in and around technology.
Over the next few weeks, we’re collaborating with long time Ada’s List partners Bulb for a 3 week blog series – and we need you! The blog series will be split into the following topics, with all places allocated on a first come, first serve basis:
●Growth – All places taken ● Branding and Company Values – Places available ● Sustainability – Places available
I wrote back
I’ll be very interested in talking about embedding diversity and inclusion practices as a part of the sustainability agenda, both footprint and handprint.
I was invited to participate in the post. I was very pleased when I received the questions sent by Bulb to guide my contribution. There was one explicitly mentioning diversity and inclusion.
As you’ll read below, I didn’t limit the value of diversity to one answer.
For the last 6 years, I’ve been very vocal about what’s wrong with products, services, and workplaces that exclude users and employees. I’ve designed visual tools, given talks, and created communities to highlight the problems and build a business case for diversity and inclusion. Whilst all those efforts have contributed to increasing awareness about the issues, change has been incremental at best. What’s more, the pandemic is already threatening to reverse any progress made in the last decades.
Exceptional times call for exceptional measures
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
What if instead I’d draw a picture of a better future? The occasion was the final assignment for a creative writing course sponsored by Arts Council England: A 2,000-word story related to World War II.
Keep reading to discover my assignment, which is now part of the book “VE75 An Anthology of Short Stories” by Trafford Libraries.
In 2018, I discovered that in spite of considering myself a diversity and inclusion evangelist, the books I read were mostly written by white, anglophone, American, and heterosexual men. I was appalled at the homogeneity of the voices to whom I was paying attention. Decided to do something, I began to record not only if I liked a book, but categories such as the gender and ethnicity of the authors, where they were born or their religion.
As a result, in 2019 I read 40 books written by a much broader range of voices. The experience was so energizing, that a year ago I launched the #CuriousMindsDiversePeople2020 challenge [source]. The aim of the challenge was to serve as a quarterly accountability check for the diversity of the voices participants heard in 2020. Subscribers to the email list received quarterly emails reminding them to check the diversity of what and whom they were reading, listening, and watching and sharing with them the list of books I’d read in the previous three months.
Figure adapted by Patricia Gestoso from this image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay .
(7 min read)
Imagine you go into a one-week change management training with the expectation is that when you are back to work you’ll reassure everybody that there is no need to change. How does that sound?
Actually, this is what’s happening right now. We’ve been in a change management boot camp for 3 months now, at the cost of $2-4 trillion US$ (UNCTAD, Asian Development Bank), but most leaders keep using sentences such as “back to normal” and “resume”, or simply they have gone hiding. Do they really believe we can all go backwards in time to 31 December 2019? Are they lacking the creativity and energy to be the catalyst for a different future miles away from their vision four months ago? Or are they simply patronizing their citizens and employees by thinking that if they keep insisting on going forward to the past, we’ll all close our eyes to our individual and collective experiences during this crisis?
Last week, I asked a colleague how her recent transition to remote working was going on. Was her internet and VPN working ok? Did she get access to the docking station, screen, and mouse from the office? Was she proactively taking breaks?
Her answers reassured me: Yes, yes, and yes.
She also told me that after finishing her work at 6.00 pm she rushed to the supermarket to only find broccoli and Brussels sprouts. We made fun about how some people rather starve than eat certain food. It also made me realize that I’ve failed as a leader.
The scarcity trap
The picture that accompanies this post it’s how the supermarkets looked like where I live a week ago. It’s how they looked all this week too. And this weekend as well. Me too, I’ve felt the pain and stress of visiting 3, 4, 5 supermarkets to gather the basic food and toiletries I needed.
Interacting with tech products that reject me as a user or provide a subpar experience elicits two very different responses in me.
As a Head of Customer Service with 25+ years’ experience in scientific and engineering software, I’m well aware of the constraints imposed by a finite R&D team and an ever-growing list of customer enhancement requests and bugs to fix. It’s teams like mine that build those lists and provide feedback to the product team on their prioritization. Which features and fixes make it into code depends on a multitude of factors: the difficulty to implement them, their alignment with the vision for the product, and their potential impact on the user experience and expectations. This last criterion is assessed using fictional user personas created by the product team as a representation of the ideal customer. The closer the requester of the feature is to one of the user personas, the higher the chances of implementation into the product. However, if the issue is considered an edge case – not representative of a substantial customer base – then it will mostly get rejected or postponed indefinitely. Every new feature and fix must demonstrate its ROI.
As a woman that cumulates several out-group identities – e.g. non-native English speaker, poor vision – I’m used to the frustrating feedback that my mediocre user experience is deceptively cataloged as an edge case. Why deceptively? The average tech Continue reading →
The term empathy has been steadily gaining visibility for years. It’s not a hunch; as per Google Trends, its popularity has doubled in the last 10 years. This shift can be explained by empathy expanding from the personal sphere (partner, family, friendship) to the business arena (emotional intelligence, management, customer service, HR, diversity and inclusion). What’s more, empathy appears to be the cure-all for any human interaction mismatch (and for machines too: if only they would have empathy…).
But, is this based on hard evidence or wishful thinking?
I believe that betting on empathy is unlikely to make the positive change in human relationship we are looking for. Continue reading →
The typewriter, internet, closed captioning, text-to-speech, eye gaze.
All those inventions have in common a widespread application and impact. They were also originally created to overcome a limitation imposed by a disability. And there are a lot more, as this article points out.
Surprised? I was. Stereotypes do narrow our thinking.
I was not planning to like Moment of Lift (source) by Melinda Gates. Although I was tempted to read it, I always bailed out at the last minute because somehow I thought it would be some kind of 101 Wishful Thinking for Women. When the World Economic Forum Book Club (source) chose it as a May read, I thought it may be a signal. It was.
I love the Masters of Scale podcast, hosted by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and investor at Greylock. What’s not to like about a podcast about innovative business models, that is fun and committed to a 50-50 gender balance for guests? Continue reading →
In my first LinkedIn article, I share 5 key factors to the success of the customer support team I lead. Predictably, diversity of workforce and perspectives is crucial to delivering exceptional customer service. Continue reading →
A structure like a seat over a hole where you get rid of waste from your body.
A room in a house or public building that contains a toilet.
Early this month I attended TEDxLondonWomen. As per the director and curator of the event – Maryam Pasha – it was 8 years in the making. The stimulating array of speakers showed a labor of love, commitment, and resilience.
I went to the event to keep up with the state-of-the-art in women’s issues and to network. I did a lot of the first (more at the end of this post), less of the second.
Remember last time you were faced with strong winds against you whilst cycling or walking? Probably yes. And tailwinds, i.e. winds that helped you to progress faster? Probably not.
In their scientific articleThe headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings, Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich used headwinds and tailwinds as a metaphor to explain our perception of advantages and disadvantages that we face. Continue reading →