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BoxWorks 2016: The fight for diversity should not always surround gender

Three CIOs and an executive from collaboration firm Box discuss the global search for diversity in tech, and how gender parity is not the only issue

The focus on diversity should not just be about gender imbalance, according to technology industry executives.

Speaking at BoxWorks 2016 in San Francisco, Mike Wright, CIO of McKinsey; Casey Santos, CIO of General Atlantic; Clifford Russell, CIO of Morehouse College; and Carrie Palin, CMO of Box, said a lack of women in the IT industry is not the only diversity issue for tech.

“The more we’ve got into this topic, the more we’ve realised it’s not as simple as men, women, black, white,” said Mike Wright.

Studies have shown that the majority of people are unconsciously inclined to hire people who are similar to themselves.      

Wright claimed one of the best lessons he has learnt as a manager is that you cannot assume members of your team are motivated in the same way you are – even when they are same gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

“Don’t make assumptions about what people are motivated by and don’t assume that they are motivated by what you are motivated by,” he said.

As technology becomes more project-based, the importance of project management and communication skills for technology roles has increased.

Wright said this has changed the type of person many look for to fill roles and, as a result, has helped to increase diversity as different types of people are better suited to these new roles.

“If you look at traditional tech, it’s all about getting the code out the door,” Wright said, explaining firms have “under-focused” on other elements of projects, such as design, which require different skills sets.

Now, hires do not have to directly involve a tech background to work on a tech project, and Wright said this is “changing the way we think about what our jobs are”.

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Wright also said employees undergoing unconscious biased training can help develop a better culture in an organisation and will encourage hiring the best candidate.

“Try to take yourself outside of your normal environment and see through someone else’s perspective. It’s harder than you think,” he said.

As well as unconscious biased training, Carrie Palin, CMO of Box, advised looking at different aspects of candidates that people don’t traditionally consider when building a team.

“I’d encourage you to think about diversity of experience, as well as everything else,” she said.

“What’s not so obvious is what diversity actually does – it drives diversity of thought, which is how you get your competitive edge.”

Diversity builds better teams

Palin said a lack of diversity is “not always obvious” for firms, and could stem from subtle mistakes, such as always recruiting graduates for the same school.

As a woman in technology, Palin said she is put off from accepting many of the recruitment calls she receives because the recruiter has informed her it is mainly to increase candidate diversity.

“I want to earn [my job] – it doesn’t do me any favours to be chosen for a job just because I’m female,” she said.    

Instead of searching out females in an attempt to increase diversity in tech teams, Palin suggested looking for a variety of different people and hiring the best candidate for the job.

Palin added that she saw “real magic” occur on her teams when she looked for people who were eager to learn skills and had great passion, rather than who was most experienced person for the job.

Teaching teams to accept diversity

Casey Santos, CIO of General Atlantic, shared her experience of hiring someone different to who she would usually hire on her team.

She described one of her recent hires as someone who is “hungry and he wants to get things done”. But, as her new hire didn’t work well in a traditional IT role, she had to adapt his role to emphasise what he could be really good at.

Santos added that is it important to adjust your leadership style to “bring out the best in people”.

As the first woman in tech in her firm, Santos has made an effort to ensure she hires the best person for the job after seeing a diverse set of candidates, and to build a team culture of acceptance.

“It felt like starting at square one when I had to start managing people at work. For tech management, it’s all about people – teaching your people to lead other people and to be open minded,” she said.

“If you have a team that’s used to a one-dimensional experience, you need to teach them.”

Clifford Russell, CIO of Morehouse College, a 140-year-old all-male institution, said focusing on different types of skills has changed the way his organisation is hiring.

“Raw intelligence, the grit, the work ethic – these are all the things you can’t teach,” he said.

Look outside of your comfort zone

As an all-male institution, Russell claims having a gender problem could be “very easy”, but has managed to maintain diversity in his team despite women in tech being “rare”.

One of the ways he feels this has been achieved is by looking at the “non-cognitive, non-traditional factors” when hiring.

“Take yourself outside of your comfort zone, because you will learn to challenge yourself, you will learn to challenge your assumption,” he said.

“Give people the benefit of the doubt on whatever it is you disagree on. Nine times out of 10 they’re not out to offend you, it’s part of a misinterpretation on your part.”

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