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Splunk .conf2017: Increasing diversity will require conscious shift

Experts gathered at Splunk’s 2017 conference to discuss increasing diversity in the technology industry and what needs to be done to speed up the shift towards a diverse workplace

Increasing diversity in the technology sector will not happen without an intentional effort across organisations, according to technology industry executives.

Speaking at Splunk’s 2017 conference in Washington DC, Tracy Edkins, chief human resources officer at Splunk; Victoria Espinel, president and CEO of BSA, The Software Alliance; Dee-Dee Helfenstein, senior vice-president of Booz Allen Hamilton; and Larry Irving, co-founder of Mobile Alliance for Global Good, agreed diversity would not happen on its own, and that initiatives would have to be intentionally organised.

“Studies show it’s financially better to have diverse teams – beyond that, it’s also the right thing to do, and diverse teams drive innovation,” said Splunk’s Edkins.

Though an effort is being made to make more diverse hiring decisions across the technology industry, unconscious bias in hiring managers can still be a big issue, and Edkins said the problem would likely not be solved in her lifetime.

She added that any company or organisation that has implemented a working diversity initiative should share its processes with others to increase the speed of adoption, as these processes can be difficult to implement.

Consciously driving change

Larry Irving, co-founder of Mobile Alliance for Global Good, said part of the problem with diversity initiatives is that while effort is put in to hiring diverse talent, internal culture drives them away again.

“Once you’re in the job, it’s about a culture fit. Even the way you dress [is an] issue you have to deal with, and that’s why [diversity initiatives] have to be intentional,” said Irving.

“It’s not going to happen by accident, and especially not in the tech industry,” he added.

Irving previously acted as an advisor for former president Bill Clinton, and admitted to spending a lot of his life “being the only black guy in the room”. For people who are in a minority in the workplace, Irving said just “being in the room” can be one of the biggest challenges.

Due to unconscious bias, something as simple as having your gender on your CV or having a “black-sounding name” can mean there is less chance of getting a role or receiving funding. In many cases, internal culture can affect those in a minority group, but Irving believes a bad culture fit isn’t always unconscious.

“If you have the ability to inform how a company’s culture can be created, people will respond,” he said.

Though many argue this shift has to be implemented from the top down, Irving argued it can take “just one person” to begin to introduce these ideas and convince those with the power that these issues need to be addressed. “You have to have the willingness to fight the battles,” he said.

But Dee-Dee Helfenstein, senior vice-president at Booz Allen Hamilton, believes it’s important that a culture and diversity “starts from the top”.

Diversity breeding diversity

According to Helfenstein, attempts to increase diversity have been used to try to solve an organisation’s biggest issues, adding that there is no doubt “diversity of thought is critical to high-performing teams”.

“Diversity is proven to impact performance so it has to be built into the culture of the organisation and it has to be part of everything the firm does,” she said.

As a working mother, Helfenstein said she often felt like she had “two full-time jobs”, and encouraged those in the audience looking to balance work and life in an industry geared towards men to make conscious decisions surrounding your priorities.

“You need to create a plan for your career, just like you’d create a project plan,” she said.

However, Victoria Espinel, president and CEO of BSA, The Software Alliance, suggested a different approach. “Every career move I have made has been spontaneous,” she said. “I’m a big believer in risk and in faking it until you make it. My strategy for mitigating risks in my career is that I tend to be hyper prepared.”

Espinel said, in her case, diversity spread throughout her organisation as a result of her being a woman at the top. Many believe diversity breeds diversity as long as the culture in the organisation is inclusive.

“I didn’t start off thinking I needed to have a diversity initiate, [but I did think] I wanted to be the best at what we do,” she said.

Instead, she focused on hiring “the best of the best” and found diversity happened naturally. “Heading up the organisation as a woman and as a minority group, you go out and hire people who are like yourself,” she said.

But she warned that although she did not consciously implement a diversity strategy, society still has to keep in mind issues such as unconscious bias and the digital divide, as these issues will not naturally go away on their own. “Be very mindful that not everyone has the advantages [you were] born with,” she said.

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