Male, pale and stale

Published on the 12/09/2017 | Written by Fiona Hanlon


Male_pale_stale_NZTech_Diversity

The tech industry consciously confronts its bogeyman…

The very organisation of NZTech’s recent panel discussion on developing diversity in the technology sector attested to just how sensitive this male-dominated (but increasingly not pale nor stale, to be fair) industry is to the topic.

In light of recent attention in the media by way of the Jacinda-effect and the possibility of a serving Prime Minister having a baby, its concerns are timely. Putting aside my own unconscious biases (and I can assure you there was much talk of this) it was a frank and candid discussion on just how tricky navigating diversity and inclusion (‘D&I’ for those of you short of time) in practice really is.

(Disclosure: I’m female and pushing 50, so developing diversity in the workplace does have some personal resonance.)

Speakers cited research output from the likes of McKinsey and MIT about reaching a D&I Shangri-La that leads to more successful organisational outcomes. McKinsey’s research defined the ‘diversity dividend’, finding that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity were more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

Diversity dividend

We know intuitively that collaboration between people with different backgrounds and different points of view are fertile grounds for innovation and creativity. However the point made at this discussion was that diversity in itself is not enough, it requires inclusion to leverage the real benefits of diversity in an organisation. The translation? Hiring women to get your gender balance to quota is completely counter-productive if you are not going to value their point-of-view and accept a different perspective. This equally applies to hiring millennials, 50 year old women (!), immigrants or anyone else who thinks differently to you.

This is where unconscious bias is at its most influential – people like to hire people who look and think like they do, which talks to the age-old adage “if you always do what you’ve always done you always get what you’ve already got”…not exactly a proven formula for innovation.

The expert panel was facilitated by Michael Carden, an entrepreneur, investor and director across several HR and human-process centric software businesses and self-proclaimed “pale, male and stale”. This demographic extended to two further members, Gerard Graham, COO at the Technology Bank of New Zealand and Andrew Weston, director of software development house Propellerhead. This being an IT industry event perhaps the irony was not so much humour as fact. Fortunately, the gender diversity quota (at least) was met by Rhonda Koroheke, head of diversity and inclusion at Spark New Zealand and Lesley Elvidge, HR director at Russell McVeagh.

Collectively they provided some interesting personal experiences particularly Weston with his company wide paradigm shift to self-organising systems and transparent, self-setting salaries. And there was much talk of empty pipelines with regard to senior female candidates (excuse me?).  More encouragingly, led by the not-pregnant Elvidge, they did agree there were signs that the discussion had moved on from ‘she’s pregnant, can we still make her a Partner?’ to ‘how can we support her if she’s going to be pregnant and a Partner?’

The panel also offered up some starting points for those organisations serious about tackling the issue, with an emphasis on dialogue to help us become more aware of our own unconscious bias.  Driving D&I programmes from the top and surveying your employees views on diversity, culture and inclusiveness were seen as key initial steps, as was the use of suitable tools for recruitment to help remove that meddlesome unconsciousness.

What became abundantly clear was that the tech industry in New Zealand is just at the beginning of the D&I journey.

What was also clear was that the politically-correct potholes of gender and ethnicity quotas have no place in the conversation. My suspicion however is that conscious bias might be driving exactly in that direction, to put a quick and measurable tick in the D&I box if you will. But perhaps it’s not so bad to at least get it wrong by trying.

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