Diversity in Tech: Beyond a Numbers Game

Tech companies like Google and Apple had begun reporting their workforce diversity, with the aims of having a balanced gender ratio and achieving greater representation across ethnicities. But are these the metrics that matter most? How might we better harness the power of workplace diversity?

Image credit: darcymullin.

Hire more women into tech. Make job opportunities more accessible to minority ethnicities. These are some of the messages advocating greater diversity in the workplace. Many major tech companies are already listening, and working on it. However diversity is more than just gender and ethnicity.

There’s more to diversity

An alternative way of looking at diversity is to classify it into two broad groups — those that are natural, and others that are acquired. Natural characteristics include gender, age, and blood type; acquired ones include religion, language, nationality, and wealth.

Diversity = Differences

However diverse teams tend to bring together people of different traits, which may lead to differences in opinions. As many of us in design teams could attest to, differences in opinions could trigger harmful conflicts in teams. But an absence of differing opinions due to such group dynamics as groupthink or Abilene paradox could be detrimental as well. A healthy dose of it is necessary in order for radical innovations to occur. This is analogous to the use of design friction in game design, whereby cycles of tensions and release could leave gamers more engaged in the gameplay.

Similarly, a mindset of tolerance, openness, and kindness is necessary to overcome differences and embrace the diversity in a workplace. Getting people of diverse backgrounds into the workforce is only a start; an intolerant work environment could still force these groups of people to leave. As some former American servicewomen in the US military experienced, women were not kept out of combat roles by policy, but denied promotion, recognition, and training in the military.

Design friction and psychological safety

The well-known New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg recently penned an article which shared what Google learnt about building the perfect team. Google collected tonnes of data around it — observing 180 teams in Google, analysing multiple aspects of team members’ backgrounds, social interactions, and team performance. Google now learnt that group norms which encouraged psychological safety was critical in making a team work. Safety in this context did not mean avoidance of conflicts, but the encouragement of honest and emotional sharing about individual’s insecurities, fears and aspirations in constructive ways.

Unlocking the power of diversity can lead to innovation. Recruiting diverse groups into the organisation and achieving a balanced gender ratio or equally represented ethnicity ratio is a good start, but not enough. A workplace which espoused the values of respect and trust, and allowed people to express their feelings safely is needed. Such emotional interactions and complicated conversations between diverse groups would be essential to creating a conducive and diverse work environment.

‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’
— Audre Lorde, 20th century American novelist