Tech firms need to stop focussing diversity efforts on binary gender


The bulk of tech companies will have made no progress on diversity and inclusion in 2020, because they choose to limit their focus to binary gender. Progress will be measured in basis points on women at the lower levels and in traditionally female roles, and race/ethnic diversity will drop to even lower percentages.

It’s disappointing to see company after company focus on binary gender diversity.

They point to #MeToo to justify the shift, ignoring the movement’s intentional focus on intersectionality – and years-old research that shows racial diversity leads to a 35 per cent chance of improved financial outcomes and better decision-making. And they are ignoring surveys that show significant numbers of people – research suggests 0.4 per cent of the UK population – self-identifying as non-binary gender.

In 2020 we will see that focusing on binary-gender diversity is flawed.

One startup, whose motto for 2018 was “The Future is Female”, saw its percentage of black employees fall to zero and its percentage of Latinx employees drop from seven per cent to five. Even its focus area showed significant setbacks, with women dropping from 55 per cent of employees to 52 per cent, with greater falls in technology-related roles.

Non-white employees at some of the technology world’s biggest companies are going public about their painful experiences. Mark Luckie, a former tech executive at Facebook, titled his departure message: “Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users.” A former Google employee has written about “the burden of being black” at the company.

Venture capital is also only nominally reaching non-white founders, focusing predominantly on binary gender as a criteria for the make-up of the teams they invest in. In the US, black women receive only $36,000 (£29,000) on average in funding compared with the overall average of $1.3 million. Latinx women receive only 0.4 per cent of all VC funding. Black women have received only 0.006 per cent of venture funding raised since 2009.

This approach perpetuates exclusion, and even women, often the focus of diversity, continue to struggle. Research by Pitchbook has shown that in 2018 all-female startups raised an average of $1.5 million at an average valuation of $22 million, compared with $3.5 million at $13.5 million for all-male teams.

In 2020 the few startups that commit to and prioritise inclusion and diversity from the highest levels down will be the most successful at hiring, at building popular products and services, and avoiding the types of problems that cause other companies to stall out. And they will discover how diversity empowers recruiting.

“It certainly becomes a flywheel,” says Harry Glaser, CMO of SiSense. “If you hire well, it becomes easier to hire well over time. Getting the first ten to 20 people right makes a huge difference. After that, it starts working on its own.”

The writing is on the wall for companies that continue to focus their diversity efforts only on binary gender. In 2020 it will be a more comprehensive view of diversity that will generate business success.

Ellen Pao, a US-based investor and activist, is co-founder of Project Include

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