In 2021 I read 38 books. Following from my CuriousMindsDiversePeople Challenge, I kept track of the diversity of authors and topics. For example, 25 of the authors self-identified as women, 14 were non-US authors, 4 discussed disability and 11 LBTQ+ topics.
Below are my personal highlights from 13 of them that made me think differently about data, artificial intelligence, design, sustainability, feminism, pleasure, and God. I’m listing them in the order I read them.
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem. If you are a feminist and somehow feel guilty that all the books on the topic depress you, I thoroughly recommend this book as audio, since Steinem herself narrates most of it. It’s a collage of articles written at different points in her life about walking the talk on feminism and women’s rights and the importance of challenging both the small and the big oppressions. All that is delivered with wit. A huge bonus!
The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success by Carol Sanford. In 2020, I learned about the concept of regenerative as an “upgrade” to sustainability. This book provides food for thought and examples about how to make businesses adopt practices that benefit their employees, users, communities, and the planet. However, I missed a more critical view of some of the study cases, especially for big tech companies, which is the area I’m more familiar with. For example, Facebook and Google are portrayed as the paradigm of regenerative businesses, without any mention of their questionable practices as employers and business models. Still, the book provided valuable insights for my talk Regenerative Business: Embedding ethics and inclusion in workplaces, products, and services at the Cambridge Agile Exchange last February (recording here).
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.
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.
Chairing an employee awareness session about the UK Gender Pay Gap in Tech at the Dassault Systèmes office in Coventry.
Recently, I was invited to chair a “Breakfast & Learn” session at our Dassault Systèmes office in Coventry (UK). The topic: UK Gender Pay Gap. This article is a reflection on that great learning and interactive experience.
What is “Breakfast & Learn”? One-hour monthly awareness sessions organized by our Great Place to Work (GPTW) ambassadors around a specific theme. Ideally, the presenters should keep the topic light and open, avoid the profusion of slides, encourage the audience participation, and limit the use of jargon. A healthy breakfast is provided along.
Why me? I founded the EuroNorth Dassault Systèmes Lean In circles in 2016 to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives at a regional level, I’m a member of the EuroNorth Diversity and Inclusion Council, and I’ve had the pleasure to host virtual employee meetings with our UK HR team to discuss the findings of our gender pay gap reports for 2016/2017 and for 2017/2018.
Why this topic? I learned that the recent publication of the Dassault Systèmes Gender Pay Gap report had been a hot topic for discussion in this office. There were different views regarding the scope, key indicators, and impact of the UK gender pay gap as well as the usefulness of reporting the data. Continue reading →
Women, Tech & Power (Figure adapted by Patricia Gestoso from Pixabay images).
As a woman joining the university in the late ’80s to pursue an engineering degree, I took for granted that gender parity in the workplace was around the corner. The few female professors in our science and engineering faculties reassured us that we were on a good track. They shared how as students they were only 2-3 women per chemical engineering cohort, whilst we could be counted by tens! The message was clear: “”Don’t complain and work hard. Women’s presence is scaling exponentially”.
It’s 2018 and the World Economic Forum reports that the workplace gender gap will not be closed for 217 years. This disappointing realization has sprung a flurry of expert Continue reading →