For as long as I’ve been involving in technology then there has been a conversation taking place on how we can increase the diversity of the workforce. The prevalence of the conversation seems disproportionate to the impact that it has.
I keep deleting the next sentence because it doesn’t entirely sit comfortably with me but let me say it and then say why. It isn’t that we’ve not had significant contributions made by women in the past — Ada Lovelace has been called the world’s first computer programmer and it was Gladys West whose modelling of the shape of the earth underpins the modern GPS that we’re all dependent on today. The uncomfortable part of this sentence is that it has a narrow focus on diversity — physical characteristics, and even more narrow — gender.
There can be a benefit in the conversation narrowing to this point as it gives focus. We can target something specific and show that a difference has been made. However, I believe that diversity needs to be diverse. I’m also conscious that I write from the perspective of a white male and bring all the privilege that affords to my perspective.
One final comment before listing some books that have been useful to my thinking on this — I think we need to be careful about viewing bias as inherently bad. Bias is something that we all have and it plays a part in creating the diversity that we can all benefit from. The damage is done when it isn’t something, we’re aware of or the impact isn’t considered.
From the office that got built with only male toilets to the design of crash tests that favour men, to the creation of marketing campaigns that alienate part of the population, or the meetings that are scheduled for 5pm by those without children there can be no escape from the fact that diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing but it has a massive impact on the performance of the organisation and opportunities that are created. Take a look at this report for more evidence to support this.
An earlier post on diversity was published here.
The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down might not be the obvious place to start but it sets the foundation for creating a culture where diversity can be a force for good. Silo thinking becomes increasing homogenous over time. By breaking down the barriers you can have an immediate impact on the diversity of thinking. This builds the momentum that people can then start to see what other opportunities exist and so diversity builds diversity.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: Reni Eddo-Lodge starts with a blog post that grew in impact. The book gives an insight into the history of race especially in the UK and helps to understand why as a society there are so many challenges built into the way we approach things if we’re serious about increasing diversity.
The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains — Choo Waihong is perhaps a more unusual look at the subject. A study into one (if not the) of the only communities where there is a matrilineal society. The power lies in the hands of women who live completely independently from the male figureheads of most other societies. This study highlighted that the answer to diversity isn’t as simple as changing the balance of gender in the workforce but that there is a much more complex picture.
Finally, I’ll point to the two recent books from Matthew Syed. Firstly, Black Box Thinking and then Rebel Ideas. I include these because they’re good reads but more importantly because they explore the value of diversity from a less obvious perspective. Considering the value of neurodiversity is just as important to unlocking the value of a diverse workforce as focusing on the physical characteristics that we’ve been obsessed with (rightly so) for many years.
Having previously managed a team that physically wasn’t the most diverse but from a personality/neurological perspective was very diverse (and very different to me) there is a real need to equip managers (and leaders) to be able to create environments that benefit from diversity. In doing so, we cannot ignore that it will challenge the individual in their approach. Managing people who think and behave like me is easier than those who don’t. Greater value, more meaningful work and opportunity come from taking that challenge on.
This is just a small selection of the sources of inspiration — there is a full list of things that have shaped my thinking here.
A couple of other books that are worth a look on this topic include:
Inferior — Angela Saini: a look at the effect of sexism on scientific research and how it influences what we experience in society.
Small Great Things — Jodi Picoult: this is a novel that serves to show the inherent bias that is in society and shapes the simple things in everyday life.
Rubbernecker — Belinda Bauer: another novel that gives an insight into the life of someone with Asperger’s syndrome.