elevenM’s Deepa Nagji on the importance of diversity in the development of technology.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein
I have lately found myself participating in a discussion that keeps recurring, in a range of settings, from at work to International Women’s Day events to conversations with my daughter — that by embracing new technologies and championing the unique skills of women and people from disadvantaged demographics, we can remove the barriers and ‘digital divide’ that stops so many people from accessing new opportunities.
As a woman, and also a mother with a daughter who is keen on a career in STEM, I’d like to see this manifest, but first we need to engage with the fact that this actually involves two issues. One is diversity and representation in the tech industry. The second is the way this impacts how we use, and are able to use, technology for social change.
In Australia, vacancy rates in the tech industry are 60% higher than the national average, while we’re facing a 30,000 person shortage in the cyber security field alone over the next four years. This comes together to mean that broadening the demographic of the industry is an opportunity-cost that most companies probably can’t afford to get wrong.
Fortunately, we’re in an era where we have developed programs, tools and technological capabilities to help the industry fill its skills shortage.
Technology can assist by tapping into the skills where we were previously unable to. We are now able to:
- attract diverse individuals
- develop sponsorship programs in remote areas
- support the growth of a talent pool by up-skilling underrepresented minority groups
A great example of this is when I was recently fortunate to hear from the founder of the Tech Girls Movement Foundation who champion Australian school girls through hands on learning and recognise the benefits of young women to fill industry skills shortages into the future. This organisation supports women in becoming the next generation leaders who are committed to solving real-world problems with technology.
The general consensus is that there’s not a talent shortage but a skills shortage. But there’s plenty of people available to learn these skills and fill these gaps.
Changing our thinking
Ultimately, it’s increasingly clear that the lack of women (and diversity more generally) in the tech industry is not just a representation issue, it’s a social issue. As noted by Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: “The other issue is how male-dominated tech is. This is a data gap in its own way: white middle-class men from America simply cannot be aware of the needs of all of humanity. And so the tech that they develop will inevitably be biased towards white middle-class men from America.”
With the rapidly accelerating use of AI and algorithmic decision-making across every industry, we should be ever more conscious of the fact that bias creates bias. The catch-22 of using AI to remove bias is that the industry that is developing AI is significantly lacking in diversity, and is therefore subject to the bias that it is (allegedly) attempting to train the AI to avoid. Thus, as industry professionals with a capacity to help influence and shape the industry, we must harness the opportunity to eliminate bias by injecting diversity into the tech industry as a priority. This is the first step to stop subconscious bias from infiltrating AI and to diversify our thinking.