Why poor diversity is bad for the IT industry

A report on Silicon Valley's technology industry showed how little ethnic diversity there is in one of the world's most advanced and influential IT sectors.

A report on Silicon Valley's technology industry showed how little ethnic diversity there is in one of the world's most advanced and influential IT sectors.

It found that 6.8% of technical employees are minorities, despite the fact that minorities represent 27% of the overall US population. And ethnic minority women make up less than 2% of high-level technical positions.

But almost more importantly, the report by the Anita Borg Institute, tells us why there is such a dearth of minorities in IT, and what can be done about it. There are no similar figures available in the UK but the industry's lack of women is well documented, and there are important lessons to be learnt in the way diversity problems can be tackled.

Companies should be concerned about diversity because of the growing body of evidence that more diverse teams are more successful. Diverse teams mean problems are approached in different ways, allowing the best option to surface, and they are more innovative and original. A BCS and Intellect report on gender quotes a 2007 McKinsey report, which found that "European companies with the highest proportion of women in senior management experience better-than-average financial performance."

Kate Craig-Wood, a director at IT trade association Intellect, added: "We have seen from research that companies with a good mix of gender at the top level perform over 30% better in financial terms."

Not only this, but a dominance of one social group creates a "significant disconnect between those designing technology and those using it," leading to lost commercial opportunities for companies. And the competitive edge of the UK technology industry is at serious risk if it doesn't start leveraging the talents of women and minorities in IT, because numbers of entrants to the sector keep falling.

Why minorities are not well represented

Technology faces a lack of diversity for a multitude of reasons. The report says there are "widespread misconceptions about computer science as a discipline and career. The perception that computing is a "white male profession" discourages girls and minorities from entering". There are also few role models in the higher echelons of IT, sending the message that women and minorities "do not belong".

Minorities can suffer isolation - feeling as though they are "the only one" - and this can take its toll, leading to them being more likely to leave the sector. They can be excluded from important social groups at work, and the report says: "There is a large body of literature on the ways in which workplaces are organized around and support white men's work styles and life cycles, even those that appear to be meritocratic. Biased hiring, promotion, evaluation practices and salary levels are common across organisations."

Tackling the problem

  • Mentoring programmes that actually work are one of the biggest steps in advancing women and minorities. While many companies do have programmes, they need to be part of the working culture and properly applied before they work.
  • Women are generally responsible for caring for families, meaning they rely more on flexible working, telecommuting, part-time work options and parental leave.
  • Opportunities for technical training are important for all employees, but especially for women who may not have the spare time to learn skills on their own. The report says: "Companies can especially benefit in the areas of retention and advancement of minority employees from opportunities to update technical skills."
  • Minority employees are likely to come into IT through less traditional backgrounds. They are less likely to hold degrees because of poor access to high-quality education, and companies can help them advance by basing their requirements for promotion on experience, for example, rather than academic qualifications.
  • The report says: "An absence of diversity at the top sends the message that there is no path for advancement for underrepresented employees." Companies need to look at the board and upper management, because its policy on diversity will be best illustrated by who is leading the company. Diverse hiring teams are also very important.

The Anita Borg Institute interviewed 1,795 members of staff at seven technology companies in Silicon Valley, California.

Case study

Ibukun Adebayo is based in London and is director of IT at Turning Point, a social enterprise company. She says: "Diversity is a problem in technology, but it's only at certain levels. In the average IT department, the higher up you go, the less diverse the staff are.

"Ethnic minorities have to go out and get way more in terms of qualifications. I have been asked why on earth I have every certificate under the sun, and have been told by my male English colleagues that they haven't had to do that. We have to fight harder to get to the same position.

"A lot of women have to be a wife and mother, and are not able to go out there and get all the training and qualifications. They're going to be at a disadvantage to men who have time to learn everything.

"I was a non-achiever in school, and found myself a single parent of three children. I knew I had to set an example to my children. I read books on the bus on the way to work and would read at night, but not all women are able to do this. Employers need to be supportive by providing training during work time."

Ibukun now has five children and says specialist technology secondary schools would be a good way to encourage those who show early promise in IT.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment