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HMRC CDIO Jacky Wright on why building diverse tech teams is socially responsible

During a wide-ranging Q&A session at this year's everywoman in tech forum, HMRC CDIO Jacky Wright set out why diversity matters when building government services, while worrying about workplace stereotypes is a waste of time

Everyone in the IT industry has a social responsibility to ensure the technology products their organisations produce are created by diverse teams, according to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) chief digital and information officer (CDIO), Jacky Wright.

During a wide-ranging Q&A session at the everywoman in tech forum 2019, Wright talked at length about the importance of building inclusive digital services, and the centrally important role diversity plays in that process.  

“You have a whole slew of women out here [in the audience]… to really push the needle and ask the question, ‘Do I have a diverse team?’. It has to come from each and every one of us to think about our social contract and social responsibility,” she said.   

To reiterate the positive effect bringing in people from different backgrounds and experiences can have on an outcome, Wright shared a hypothetical example of how including environmentalists in discussions about industrialisation should be pursued may have resulted in economic growth occurring in a more sustainable way.

“The North Pole is melting at a faster rate than we’ve ever anticipated,” she said. “If we had, let’s just say 10 or 20 years ago, included environmentalists as part of the discussion about the problems we are trying to solve now, would someone have asked the question, ‘Are we thinking about the ramifications of what is going on?’,” she said.

“There are countries today that have great urbanisation at a cost of water, air base and [generating carbon]. If we included [considerations] of those things as part of the discussion earlier on, would we have different outcomes today?”

Diversity in government

Wright joined HMRC in October 2017 from tech giant Microsoft on a two-year tenure, where she previously held the position of corporate vice-president in the organisation’s core platform division.

As CDIO, Wright is leading the charge on several high-profile digital transformation projects at HMRC, including its sizeable Making Tax Digital programme, which aims to position the government agency as one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

The programme looks set to usher in some huge changes to the way businesses and individuals interact and access HMRC’s services, and Wright said ensuring the technology that underpins the department’s digitisation efforts is accessible to all is a priority.

“The role we play is servicing citizens across the country, and we need to make sure everyone is included,” she added.

That is only possible by ensuring the teams responsible for building said services are diverse, and the data they are using to inform the design of the products they are working on represents the needs and wants of as wide a pool of people as possible, Wright added.

It is also what organisations, particularly those looking at artificial intelligence (AI) as a means of bolstering their business, need to do if they want to eradicate bias and create services with social value.

“If I’m not including everyone from all socio-economic backgrounds and from different experiences, I will get a bias outcome,” she said.  

Jacky Wright

“You have the right to be at the table, and you have a right to your opinion, so don’t be afraid or back down”

Jacky Wright, HMRC

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There are situations, even when these parameters are met, where people may not feel comfortable within a team environment sharing their views, so it is also important for this to be acknowledged so they have an opportunity to contribute as well, she said. 

“I had a scenario where I went into a room and I said nothing in a meeting. When I got out my boss said to me, ‘Hey – you were in the room and you said nothing.’ I was frankly afraid. All these men, trying to get a word across,” she said.

“You have the right to be at the table, and you have a right to your opinion, so don’t be afraid or back down.”

Playing the role of emotional rebel

She also talked about the role “emotional intelligence” plays in building diverse teams because it contributes towards the creation of a working environment that is based on empathy and self-awareness.

But bringing this quality out in others can be challenging, which is why she advocates for people to adopt the role of “emotional rebel” within their team.

“Be the emotional rebel. When you’re in the room, everybody has a semblance of emotional intelligence. So how do we bring it out of everyone? Be the rebel in the room,” she said.

“If I walk into the room and someone is quiet, all it takes is for someone to say, ‘Jacky, help me understand what you’re thinking. I really like your views.’ That doesn’t take much, does it?”

When news of Wright’s appointment at HMRC broke, she used the accompanying press statement to express how proud she is to be a woman in tech, and advocate for the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community within the IT industry.

Members of both communities often find themselves affected by stereotyping in the workplace, and Wright said – in her experience – it is sometimes better to lean into those than waste too much time trying to change what people think.

“I often say to myself, if that is the stereotype, why don’t I play into it? I can’t change it,” she said. “In all seriousness, stereotypes are pre-formed views in people’s minds. That is all they are.

“So, my advice is [to take the view] that I don’t care why you think I am – I will tell and show you who I am. You might have seen something on television about these types of individuals and you formed your stereotype, so I’m going to show you that your stereotype is wrong.

“But don’t worry about it. If you spend so much time worrying about [stereotypes], you can’t be authentic – and authenticity is key,” she added.

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