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The tech industry’s diversity blind spots

The tech industry’s diversity blind spots

In recent years, some of the world’s leading stock photography websites have (rightly) been brought to task for some inherent sexism.  Type “CEO” into their search engine and the overwhelming majority of the images presented were of men, mostly in their 40s and 50s and predominantly white.  Like much stereotyping, it didn’t end up that way through malice, but merely by not thinking hard enough about inherent biases that make us believe that someone in a certain position has to look at certain way.

In the early days of voice recognition, of all the dialects and voice types in the world, the software was best at picking up the words of young south–east Asian men.  It isn’t difficult to guess why.  It is because the software was written and tested by people within that demographic.

In the last decade the tech industry has started to get increasingly serious about diversity, recognising that not only is it the right thing to do, it can help the industry do better business and produce better products.  Earlier this year the British Interactive Multimedia Association (BIMA) continued their leadership in this area by launching their industry manifesto on how tech companies can do better with diversity.

Many agencies and consultancies now tackle diversity issues at board level and the larger agencies have employees specifically tasked with promoting diversity and inclusion.  For our part, Fathom is involved with the Belfast chapter of Ladies that UX.  Our own UX Lead Marie-therese McCann is one of the leaders, along with former Fathom designers Kelsey Bones and Sophia Bradley, and Karishma Kusurkar from Belfast Design Week.

However, I am increasingly concerned, with no small sense of irony, that the tech industry is conforming in its definition of diverse and exclusive in its understanding of inclusive.  It turns out that I’m not the only one – I have design godfather Don Norman on my side – concerned that too much design today doesn’t solve problems, particularly for the vulnerable and elderly.  These biases manifest themselves both in the make–up of the industry’s workforce and in the products they design and build.  Consider the following categories of diversity:

  • Race and ethnicity
  • Gender and gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Thinking style and personality
  • Age and generation
  • Socioeconomic status and background
  • Disability and ability
  • Personal life experience
  • Religious and spiritual beliefs

It seems to me that our diversity conversations are full of volume on the first four areas yet practically silent on the remaining five.

Technology doesn’t work hard enough for the old, nor are there enough older people represented in its workforce.

Technology is too often built for middle–class people by middle–class people, with all of the expectations around quality of device and speed of internet access that comes with that.  There is too little social mobility represented in the technical workforce, particularly people from disadvantaged or lower–working class backgrounds.

Technology doesn’t work hard enough to support the 10% to 15% of all adults in OECD countries who have a physical or cognitive impairment which limits their ability to use technology.  There are too few of these people working in the industry.

While personal life experience doesn’t necessarily impact on an individual’s ability to use technology, too many in the industry have gone from school to university to work.  This isn’t bad in itself (it’s what this author did, albeit longer ago than he cares to admit) but it does leave the industry as a whole open to homogeneity.

One of the most insidious characteristics of privilege is how difficult it is to recognise by those who enjoy it. The human brain is hardwired to compare ourselves to those with similar levels of privilege and so the idea of pursuing the full data set to understand the actual picture doesn’t come too naturally.

As an industry we have travelled some distance down the road of embracing diversity.  But we have a lot of road to travel yet.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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