Published on the 23/09/2015 | Written by Brenda Aynsley
How much further can technology go and how much faster can we can get there if greater diversity in the workplace is encouraged, ponders ACS president Brenda Aynsley…
For all the science and engineering that goes into technology it is in fact the design of each piece of technology that determines its value, function, and commercial appeal. Design is fundamentally a creative pursuit, and one that benefits when it comes from the experiences and ideologies of people from diverse backgrounds.
With women so underrepresented in technology, this means that the critical design component in product development is being inhibited from reaching its full potential.
Currently, women only make up 25 percent of the ICT industry. This is down from 30 percent in the 1990s. The shortage of women in the ICT sector is problematic, particularly when it comes to understanding and meeting social needs through design.
There are classic examples from the past that show the dangers of not having a diverse design team. When airbags were first commercially produced in 1970s, the specifications were made with the average male body in mind, with a group of all-male designers. Unfortunately this led to fatal results for women and children.
More recently, this month a study revealed thermostats in offices across the globe are still set to satisfy the average 154-pound (70kg), 40-year-old man whose comfort was a priority in the 1960s. With females preferring a higher room temperature than males in home and office situations, women need to rug up at their desks with cardigans and coats. It hardly seems fair, does it?
While it’s only in hindsight that we can say this wouldn’t have happened with women on the design team, it does raise a very valid argument and one that is hard to deny.
Modern workplaces continue to hire ‘like-minded’ individuals who they see as having the same capabilities as themselves. This means that the exchange of thoughts and ideas – which then translate into products and services – have minimal diversification, and as the above examples show, an outcome of an imperfect and often dysfunctional design.
Research from MIT found that with a greater proportion of women in a group, there was better collaboration and improved decision making. The study showed that the more emotional intelligence found in a team, the more effective it will be.
Following the ACS Women’s 10th Anniversary celebration event in Sydney, it was clear that gender diversity in ICT, as well as being fair, makes good business and economic sense, especially in terms of the design of new products and services.
This was one of the key topics discussed at the event by ACS Women Board director, Alison Orr, who said technology adds to the community, but in order for it to be effective, design work needs to have a gender diverse viewpoint.
“Diversity helps people to understand a problem from many perspectives and finds a better way to fix it to ultimately create better products,” she said.
But with so few women included in the ICT workforce, there is clearly a problem of having enough women to make the contribution in every design situation.
Steps in the right direction are beginning to be made. From Male Champions for Change in Australia working to achieve change on gender equality issues in organisations and communities, to grassroots initiative Code Club which through their coding programs encourage young girls to pursue careers in technology. ACS Women is also addressing this issue with women from each state and territory in Australia being called upon to provide female role models ICT.
Women and other people from underrepresented groups being available for inclusion with design teams to achieve the sort of outcomes we have identified must be found in sufficient numbers. We all must work harder to achieve that.
Our education system from K-12 to Higher Education must reflect on the reasons so few women complete ICT courses, industry must consider why women are not attracted to a career in ICT, and politicians must get their heads around the digital disruption and the future and what this means for training and skills development to service the needs that are emerging each day.
Without this, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and in the process fail to realise the benefits of diversity in design.
ACS president Brenda Aynsley has two passions in this life: to promote the value of professionalism as a necessary condition for all practitioners of ICT and to promote the internet as a communications medium that can enable and empower citizens and communities.