On 13 February 2018, I participated in the Tech Inclusion Melbourne conference. Bill Nicholson, Wurundjeri elder gave the Welcome to Country (below). He talked about using treaty to build economic capacity and sovereignty amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
My overview of the conference starts with the panel discussion that I took part in. I then reflect on the other presentations. (Note: click on images for further detail)
What are we going to do?
Our panel was titled, “We’ve got a time machine, now what are we going to do with it?” UX designer Danya Azzopardi and I were in conversation with our host, UX lead designer for ANZ, Cory-Ann Joseph. Cory set up the panel with the idea that growing up in Australia, we thought we needed to catch up to the USA in terms of technical innovation. Having worked abroad in Ireland for almost two decades, Cory returned to Australia to find the same issues of exclusion were happening in Australia as in the USA. Equity and diversity efforts still focus on White cisgender, middle class women (such as Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ ideals). This is exclusionary to minority women.
Maybe we shouldn’t be playing catch up and should instead find our own unique ways to address intersectionality and inclusion in Australia.
Cory began by asking us how we felt about the current state of diversity and inclusion in Australia and what we might do to improve these practices.
I noted that while people want to be positive about progress, the numbers tell a less optimistic story. At the senior level there are few women, and even less are from minority groups, with especially few women of colour. The empirical evidence documents several potential solutions to the lack of diversity that continue to be ignored for more individual-level responses. I call these programs that focus on individual mentoring and confidence building, “fix the women” initiatives. These approaches require that individuals seek change upwards as opposed to organisations committing to tackling structural problems systematically.
I discussed how the types of institutional programs that we really need across the sector should focus on transparency of policies; measuring outcomes; publishing data about what’s working and not working (not just a gender breakdown); and key performance indicators for managers that address hiring and promoting minorities in the workplace.
As a woman of colour working in equity and diversity, my approach is very different to White women. Any time women of colour point out how issues of racial exclusion impact gender equity, we are labelled aggressive. We become the problem because we are calling attention to the complexity of equity and diversity issues, beyond simple differences between cisgender men and women.
Danya noted that organisations are savvy enough to understand that diversity and inclusion are important to their business. They can’t ignore these issues, so they appear to be addressing them in superficial ways. These approaches do not necessarily make work culture more inclusive. Women of colour are constantly punching upward, as if we’re discovering problems. She notes that while it’s uncomfortable to White people to have issues of inclusion pointed out, this discomfort pales in comparison to being marginalised on a daily basis. White people in particular need to unpack their discomfort, and people in dominant positions need to address these lessons.
Cory discussed how companies usually unveil equity and diversity initiatives as separate endeavours – gender equity versus inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) people, versus accessibility. She asks us about the barriers to adoption of inclusive practices.
I said that equity and diversity initiatives that are done right, with intersectionality at their heart, disrupt business as usual. In reality, current equity and diversity initiatives are undertaken by minorities in their spare time, with extra workload, but without any additional time, pay or other resources.
I discussed how most people don’t want to contribute towards discrimination. They don’t want to be seen as racist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist. But when push comes to shove people in dominant social positions aren’t ready to sacrifice their creature comforts or any of their privilege in order to show true solidarity to minorities. For example, they will not think to give up a speaking position at a prestigious conference; they will not nominate women of colour for awards; they will not recommend minorities be given grants over other White people.
People who belong to multiple minority groups will experience multiple forms of exclusion. The barriers they come up against are systemic. Inequality is embedded in the ways we think about leadership, how we reward people, and how people make daily decisions without taking the time to truly reflect on our own biases.
Danya added that people don’t unpack their own privilege. People think it’s enough that they don’t actively set out to harm others, as if this is enough to curtail inequality. It isn’t. You need to give up some of your privilege, otherwise you are still complicit in the problems we see in the sector and in society.
Cory asked us what has worked to create structural change.
I said that structural change begins when leaders walk the talk, not just talk about diversity. This includes wrestling with tough concepts like colonialism and making other meaningful change. Institutions that contribute to structural change also hold themselves publicly accountable to meet quotas and to stand firm and invest in the promotion of minority staff. Unfortunately, resources continue to be diverted from diversity by funding programs that exclusively benefit White cisgender middle class women.
Danya said that there are boundless resources to help individuals better understand their own biases. White men should be stepping aside from panels and giving women of colour and other underrepresented people these opportunities.
Cory asked how we might move past performative allyship to make meaningful impact on inclusion. (This term grows from the work of Princess Harmony Rodriguez, who showed how well-meaning people will put on a show, or a performance, to call attention to the support they give to minorities. This is done on social media to get, “kudos, likes, faves, shares, and even career opportunities.”)
I said that we should take notice of small details as well as bigger cues, such as who you sit with every day, who talks in meetings you attend, and whose voices are silenced. It’s not good enough to point to equity and diversity policies, which basically meet legal requirements. We need to advance equity and diversity with real investment in people and resources. We can’t continue to have this important work being led by minorities in their spare time. For the tech sector, I hoped the conversation at the Tech Inclusion conference would be the start of collective change. We should be able to leverage the lessons by working together towards real change. Finally, we must continue to hold each other accountable for making progress that includes minorities moving ahead.
Danya concluded by saying that we all need to get comfortable with our discomfort. Success shouldn’t be viewed from the point of view of people who have power and privilege.
Cory put together a reading list for the audience to follow-up on. She also asked people not to approach the panellists to simply ask for personal advice or to vent about privilege. She asked that people be mindful of the ways marginalised people are often punished for raising these issues. So rather than approach us to absolve them of this discomfort, Cory suggested the audience might reflect on what they heard. She directed comments that required additional emotional labour to a White male colleague (Rohan Irvine – below).
Below I detail the other talks, which started with reflections on gender inequality at the beginning of the day.
Dr Kate Cornick CEO of LaunchVic discussed a survey of 1,100 start-ups, showing that the diversity of Australian society does not match the tech sector. We need to change this.
The co-founders of Change Catalyst, who run the Tech Inclusion conference all over the world are Melinda Briana Epler and Wayne Sutton. They spoke about underrepresentation of minorities in tech. Aiming for “50/50” gender balance is not true inclusion, as it leaves out transgender people and gender non-binary people in tech. Other groups like disabled people, Indigenous people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) people are also left out of tech’s success.
Globally women make up 35% of start-up founders but receive less than 2% venture capital. Women of colour get 0.2% funding. Black people and Latins make up 19% of computer science graduates but represent less than 3% of tech workers. LGBTQIA people leave tech due to harassment.
Leigh Harris (Ingeous Studios), Professor Kerry Arabena , Richard Young, Jasmin Herro, and panel host John Chambers discuss that wherever Indigenous people have access, they are early adopters of tech.
Richard Young had a White advisor because he didn’t understand White culture. (Note that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often asked to be cultural advisors to organisations that don’t actually hire Indigenous people but who want to reach or service Indigenous communities.) Young speaks 13 languages. He is highly culturally capable – and so are other Aboriginal people. Young says we need true exposure of tech for mob to lead the next revolution of change.
The Queensland Government implemented an initiative where kids brought their own computers to school. Leigh Harris has nieces and nephews who can’t afford computers. Robotics is great, but there are communities in regional and remote areas who lack access.
If the education system was different, we’d all be taught about David Unaipon, proud Ngarrindjeri man known as “Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci,” who is also on the $50 note. Aboriginal people would be viewed differently in tech if we knew this history.
Migrants and refugees
Annie Parker (Global Head of Startups for Microsoft) hosted the discussion by Aiman Hamdouna (co-founder and Director of Hatch Quarter), Zione Walker (lawyer and social entrepreneur) and Arie Moses (Thrive Refugee Enterprise). They discussed the experience of being one of the “new and few” who are always viewed through a deficit lens.
When migrants first arrive in Australia, we view ourselves though a prism of opportunity. We arrive with a blank canvas, eager to make the most of a new adventure in Australia.
Refugees arrive in Australia having already lived in at least three other continents. They think globally – which is exactly what tech start-ups aspire to be.
Over one-third of small businesses in Australia are founded by migrants and refugees. They arrive here with a huge reservoir of skills and knowledge, as they often reinvent tech to survive.
Disability and access
Tim Noonan spoke about how disability and voice inclusion are both important in design. Even sites you might think are geared for disabled people are, in reality, exclusive in their use of the tech. For example, Audible is inaccessible because it uses captcha, while hearing aid companies will use inaccessible apps.
Tools for software development and testing are also inaccessible. For example, they use voice to do coding.
Tech is also exclusive by ignoring the intersection of disability and sexual minorities. For example, dating apps are mostly visual.
Noonan ends by asking us to not just focus on tech for able-bodied people.
“Make things possible rather than just easier.”
Bambi Price, Co-Founder of Seniorpreneurs Foundation, talked about how age is a big factor of discrimination in tech start-ups. One third of Australians experience age discrimination in the workplace from age 45 onward.
There have been rapid changes in tech since 2008. Age means a wealth of experience that didn’t exist a few years ago. “Your best assets are your people – make sure they are representative of the population.” She says it’s time to end age discrimination in tech.
How to hire for diversity
Lina Pael and Grace O’Hara from Code for Australia provided a case study of their hiring initiatives. All of their core managers are migrants. Of their 60 staff, half are born outside of Australia, from non-English-speaking majority countries. They purposefully seek to hire people with diverse life experiences.
The lack of diversity in tech is self-imposed.
Code for Australia hired three all-women teams. Here’s how they did it:
- don’t blame the women or the market;
- start with your level of influence (from hiring to policies, to meet-ups);
- don’t be afraid to make (and fix!) mistakes; and
- share your power.
What Silicon Valley still gets wrong
Leslie Miley is Director of Engineering at Slack, and formerly worked in engineering leadership roles at Twitter, Apple, and Google. He notes that tech companies based in Silicon Valley have spent over $1 billion on diversity and nothing has changed.
“To do this on accident is almost impossible.”
He says something we might have suspected about the leadership: “Most people in tech are arseholes.” He says this is due to the cult of the tech founder, which he argues could also be called “the cult of the arsehole.” It perpetuates White male-dominated culture in Silicon Valley.
(If you’re interested in the ‘no arseholes rule’ adapted for science, technology and maths in academia, see Professor Jenny Martin. She argues we must stop rewarding bad behaviour amongst colleagues with selective metrics that don’t address equity.)
Miley says that “arsehole culture” in tech attracts other terrible values. They don’t really want diversity. They only people who will follow them.
Entrepreneur, engineer, and angel investor Susan Wu was in conversation with Wayne Sutton. She argues that while the langauge used about tech alludes to equality and optimism (for example, ‘democratising the net’), little has changed. Tech entrenches income inequality because tech leaders are largely White men.
She also argues that tech is not neutral. It is not truly innovative because it does not lead to structural innovation. For example, the sector does not tackle structural inequality.
Companies fail on equity and diversity because they often bring in an expert that does not represent diversity of the population, so they continue with a colonial approach (including focusing on White women) that does not make true change. We need to think more about intersectionality and helping the success of the most marginalised groups. She says truly innovative leaders are, “continually earning the right to be leaders.”
Youth, education and allyship
Marian Zizzo hosted the discussion by Hope Perkins (Indigenous Engagement Coordinator for the Melbourne School of Engineering), Shona McPherson (media manager of Foundation for Young Australians), Vanessa Doake (co-founder of Code Like a Girl) & Wayne Denning. Wayne Denning said that minorities are very interested in STEM, but too much focus is on them being consumers, rather than creators. The problem is about language and how it’s sold, especially to Aboriginal children who aren’t aware of the opportunities available.
Hope Perkins said that it’s vital to value STEM teachers in engaging young children in STEM education and careers. Perkins also said a major problem is the lack of trust among communities, despite good intentions. What will be different as a result of investing in STEM? What will make meaningful change? Many schools have bad experiences with “do gooders who swan in” and don’t contribute towards positive change. We need to make tech learning and tech skills more relevant, especially to young people from Aboriginal communities.
Perkins reports that drone technology was useful in getting Aboriginal girls interested in tech. This technology allowed them to explore the habitats of koalas, other animals and Country. They learned maths and other engineering skills in a way that resonated with their interests.
Denning said it was best to use positive stories and social media to help the potential of tech education better connect with Aboriginal children. Mainstream stories leave them out and underestimate their abilities. Companies need to work with parents and additionally should seek to make tech more relatable, such as through ranger tracking or football or other interests. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in remote areas or disadvantaged areas, getting to school is a challenge. We need to get more creative. This includes going into communities and making technology more relatable to youth and their communities.
In the next session, panellists discussed how we might create a feedback loop to hear about young people’s concerns, such as on environmental degradation. Nilla Kumaran, Emily Tan and Holly Ranson said companies should go to young people, rather than expecting them to come to you. This might include industries going to university to talk with students.
Karolina Szczur, developer, designer and advisor to tech companies, talked about allyship as a process of “unlearning, re-evaluating and challenging the oppressive status quo.”
On another panel about creating an inclusive tech future in Melbourne, Dhakshy Sooriyakumaran, Director of YLab, said that following her appointment as a woman of colour into an Executive role, the company saw an increased number of applications from other women of colour.
There was an important question from the floor that was, lamentably, not well addressed. Transgender people have a relatively high completion of tech degrees, but they experience high rates of unemployment. How can we make the tech sector recognise these skills? This conversation deserves urgent attention, but unfortunately the speakers did not address this topic.
Lessons and actions
The day ended with an open mic, for audience members to share reflections on the lessons and actions they will take away from the talks. Here’s a summary what was shared by other people:
- Whatever you think you know about inclusion, there’s always more to learn.
- I want to partner with Indigenous people.
- I’m going back to work to start disruptive conversations.
- Diversity is more than gender issues.
- I previously hesitated calling out people at work because I don’t want to be the person always going on about inclusion. After today, I’m going to do this more!
- My organisation has gender and sexual diversity but not ethnic diversity.
That’s it! It was a wonderful conference. My sincere thanks to Cory for inviting Danya and I to attend her courageous panel on intersectionality. A big takeaway from our discussion was to reflect on discomfort and take concrete action to steer change.