Tech teams need more diversity: what can CIOs do about it?

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Technology may be the lifeblood of any business, but people remain the most important and prized asset of a thriving enterprise. Their personality, curiosity, intelligence and work ethic enable organizations to deliver great customer experiences, provide the best products and services and get ahead of market competition.

And yet, many workplaces still fail to truly reflect the make-up of wider society. From gender, race and disability, to religion and sexual orientation, conscious and unconscious discrimination remain huge blockers to talent attraction, retention and career development. This bias also prevents organizations from building diverse, high-performance teams who see and act differently from the status quo. Indeed, a 2020 report from McKinsey discovered that diversity in the workplace drove an increase in profitability and value creation.

Fortunately, social change is top of mind. Diversity and inclusion have become key governmental and business objectives, garnering attention from global business and technology leaders alike. The same can be said for the CIO, who has historically presided over an information technology department dominated by white, middle-class men. Statistics reported by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org in 2018 revealed that 68% of C-suite executives in technology at the time were white men, while only 4% were women from racial or ethnic minority groups.

Leaders need to start proactively educating themselves to understand unconscious bias and preconceptions that cause challenges for minority groups in the workplace.

However, with IT demands increasing, and technical complexity showing no sign of abating, the strongest teams are needed in order to keep up with the pace of change. “A technology function usually works without boundaries worldwide. So being culturally diverse, it's an important capability,” says Beatriz Copelli, Regional CIO at British American Tobacco. From racial and gender bias in face and speech recognition biometrics, to the fact that inclusive design is largely unconsidered — with roughly 97% of website home pages failing to meet accessibility standards according to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines — many technologies that are meant to serve people are often falling short.

To overcome these issues and improve the accuracy and efficacy of such systems, digital leaders need to actively advocate diversity, and recognize that fairness and equality in the workplace equates to the most successful teams, equipped to produce the most successful products and services.

“Diverse teams are the best teams. We know this. There have been studies all over the place that diverse teams are actually more effective,” says Jay Ferro, CIO at ERT on episode 7 of The Living Enterprise podcast series. “A commitment to diversity and inclusion has got to infuse everything you're doing as a leader.”

Driving D&I through leadership, culture and brand

Implementing more diversity in your team isn’t just about meeting quotas. A focus on D&I requires conscious and empathetic leadership for the CIO or equivalent, as well as a need to get buy-in for initiatives top-down and bottom-up, and the creation of flexible working environments that encourage honest conversations and healthy tension. Furthermore, both IT and business leaders must understand that brand and culture go hand-in-hand; what a company says externally should be reflected by what’s happening internally.

Diversity is about valuing the unique life experience that every employee brings

Shantanu Narayen

Leaders need to start proactively educating themselves to understand unconscious bias and preconceptions that cause challenges for minority groups in the workplace. This learning can be instated using the many online resources and books specifically designed to offer digital leaders the best tools for success, which highlight the needs and benefits to adopting an inclusive way of thinking.

According to a cross-industry, multi-year survey by PwC, only 26% of organizations have D&I goals in place for senior level employees. For digital leaders, setting goals to overcome challenges with equality in the workplace is essential for change to occur. “It’s not just an initiative or a program; it requires investment from the very senior-most folks to the newest person in the door, and it requires real behavior change,” says Sabrina Clark, associate principal at SYPartners, a consultancy that specializes in organizational transformation. “It’s about how the entire company operates and the individual ways of working, communicating, contributing and even just being in the world.”

Some immediate goals can be actioned quickly, starting with modifying recruitment practices and recognizing that new people can bring unique perspectives. According to IDG's 2021 State of the CIO, nearly three-quarters of CIOs are making diversity and inclusion a priority during the IT hiring process, while recent studies have shown that neurodiverse employees helped to significantly improve cybersecurity, simply by approaching matters from another angle.

Microsoft and Adobe are committed to diversity in the hiring process, the year-on-year progress of which is measured through accurate and transparent annual D&I reports. According to Microsoft’s 2020 D&I report, 46.9% of the business’ US employees are from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds, and 6.1% identify as having a disability, while Adobe’s report revealed 37.7% of new hires in FY2020 were women, with racial or ethnic minorities making up 10.8% of the US employee base.

Paving the way for change

Transparency marks the first step to laying out a plan for improvement, but such plans can only come to fruition through the support of senior leadership. Diverse representation needs to start with the C-suite; setting an example establishes an expectation for the rest of the company, and diverse representation at the top level will inevitably translate through to the other departments of the business.

...fairness and equality in the workplace equates to the most successful teams, equipped to produce the most successful products and services.

“When we talk about our sense of purpose, our mission, we say empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said. “If we want to empower everyone in the world, we better represent the world inside. More than that, we need to include the world that we represent inside.”

Taking active steps to improve representation, Microsoft supports various education programs that give prospective girls, students with disabilities, and students from racial or ethnic minorities scholarships and training to encourage digital learning and their pursuit of careers in technology. For existing underrepresented employees, there are targeted resource groups to increase visibility, awareness and collaboration, as well as opportunities and talent development efforts to support the path to senior leadership. In addition, Microsoft offers a public digital library of knowledge that delves deep and addresses the roots of the various issues, from understanding privilege and empathy, to the neuroscience behind unconscious bias.

As for Adobe, the company was founded on the principles of people being the ‘most important asset’, and the belief that ‘good ideas come from everywhere’. “Diversity is about valuing the unique life experience that every employee brings to work every day. Our success is dependent upon it,” adds Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

With diversity at the heart of the company, the ‘Adobe for All’ initiative strives to create an environment where everyone is welcome. In addition to committing to pay parity, Adobe also invests in partnerships to facilitate opportunities for underrepresented talent to develop careers in technology. One such example is the Adobe Digital Academy, offering scholarships to individuals from diverse backgrounds, giving individuals the education to establish careers in web development, data science and user experience.

To learn more about D&I and the future of digital leadership, click here to download the ‘Essential skills for CIO and beyond’ whitepaper.

Alternatively, why not listen to Episode 7 of The Living Enterprise podcast series, where global IT and business leaders discuss how you can address the D&I in your teams and across your organization.