Why women in tech are more important than ever…

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Is the future of AI D&I?


By Cheryl Martin, Partner, Fiona Capstick, Associate Partner and Sarah Rench, Senior Manager at EY.

From the smartphone to smart homes and smart cities, technology is becoming ever more integral to our domestic, social and business lives.

As consumers we all want seamless services that are both endlessly scalable and highly personalised. We recognise that businesses who satisfy those needs will likely succeed in gaining our trust and a share of our wallet.

So what does this have to do with diversity?

Firstly, the skills required to build our increasingly technological future will need to be drawn from the biggest possible talent pool. Secondly, a lack of diversity in the design, build and decision-making stages of products, technologies and services will make them less likely to appeal to the fickle consumer and therefore succeed.

New products and services need diversity built in as standard

History shows several failures resulting from a lack of diversity at the early stages of product development: the first voice recognition software for the automotive industry did not recognise female voices because there were no women on the design team; early software for a major gym stopped female medics entering the women’s changing area, because it assumed the prefix ‘Dr’ denoted a male gym user.

If we think examples like these are in the past, think again. Instances crop up in the news with depressing frequency: from facial recognition systems that are optimum for white faces to rogue, misogynist robots.

Studies repeatedly show that gender balanced companies are the best financial performers, and yet women are still under represented in the tech sector. According to our recent survey, System reset: highlighting diversity issues in the technology industry, less than a fifth of technical jobs in many major technology companies are filled by females.

Many of you will be familiar with this narrative and work for companies who are already trying to address the issue, why does progress still appear to be so slow?

Perceptions are hard to shift

There is a lot of catching up to do. Coding, began as a very male pursuit and the ‘brogrammer’ culture takes time to shift. Girls at school have for whatever reason avoided STEM subjects. Similarly, women in the workplace have been less likely to apply for, or indeed be appointed to, technical posts and some feel there are less role models to lead the way.

We are working hard at EY to support women in overcoming these barriers. Our Women in Tech group plays a leading role, from organising schools events that promote STEM subject choices and technology careers, to providing networking and mentoring opportunities within our organisation. It’s vital that female pioneers are both celebrated and highly visible, so we take every opportunity to recognise and learn from them.

We’re also working hard on specific hurdles, for example by breaking down the mystique around coding. By holding in-house coding boot camps that are open and welcoming to all, we are seeing a dramatically more balanced gender uptake.

Be part of an organisation making the change

It would be a major mistake to think that this is an issue purely for women to address. Creating an organisation that is truly diverse requires cultural change. And cultural change requires the effort and engagement of the whole organisation.

At EY, our aim is to build a better working world where different perspectives and experiences are valued and rewarded. We’re committed to helping diverse talent thrive, whether it’s through our support for working parents, our approach to student recruitment, or targeted action to level the playing field for women and ethnic minorities. Some of the initiatives we’ve introduced in the last few years allow us to tap into candidates who have taken breaks in their careers or are looking for a completely different career path altogether. These include: EY Reconnect, our flagship career returner programme for Managers and above returning from an extended career break; and GigNow, an online portal where contractors (or those working in what’s known as the “gig economy” can find out about and apply to contract opportunities “Gigs with EY.”

We actively participate in a number of government initiatives such as the Equalities Office’s ‘Think, Act, Report’ framework, and HM Treasury’s Women in Finance Charter. We also founded and sponsored the National Equality Standard (NES) in 2013, helping to create the UK’s first universal assessment scheme for diversity and inclusiveness (D&I) compliance.

We are committed to all these actions because the future of our business depends on our ability to provide innovative solutions for our clients, which can only happen if we recognise and harness the most diverse range of thoughts, experiences, and skills in our teams.

Disrupting the future

Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to be one of the biggest technology disruptors of all our lifetimes and we are helping businesses with the positive and disruptive changes it brings. Stephen Hawking helped to highlight the need for diversity in AI during a Q&A session for Reddit. He said, “A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”1 In other words, if we are programming computers to think and act like humans, it is critical that they are not programmed (intentionally or otherwise) with the same prejudices we are trying to change across the business world and beyond. To ensure the aims and objectives of all are represented, it is essential that women and minorities are involved and lead in the development and delivery of AI. This is why we actively hire diverse and inclusive teams, and actively promote all organisations to do so. We are helping to give women in technology a voice and encouraging organisations to listen.

As disruption gathers pace, there is hope that the tech sector’s rapid cycles of innovation will accelerate diversity. After all, what is disruption about if not examining the traditional way of doing things, then finding a new, better way?

For those who find that better way, the rewards will be huge – not only for the women who will be able to achieve their full potential but for organisations as a whole. In the UK, greater gender diversity on the senior executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5% 2.


*1 https://futurism.com/stephen-hawking-finally-revealed-his-plan-for-preventing-an-ai-apocalypse/
*2 https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters

Read the report: System reset: highlighting diversity issues in the technology industry

Find out more

Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.

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