Diversity, equity and inclusion: key to improving business performance in tech


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights

pexels rdne stock project 7888765

Sir Jeremy Fleming, the director of the UK’s intelligence, cyber and security agency (GCHQ) was a guest editor on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme a few months ago, and something he said really chimed with me: 

“Ethically and morally we need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to thrive. This is enlightened self-interest; we are better at keeping the country safe if we are harnessing the difference that we get from recruiting a whole range of minds to the task.”

Indeed, we ARE better at designing successful services or creating better places or developing more effective platforms, if we are harnessing the difference that we get from recruiting a whole range of minds to the task. 

Then, more recently, I saw Mivy James from BAE Systems’ post exposing an on-going negative narrative about women in tech. Grrrr.

Quote about the masculine version of confidence that pervades the narrative in the tech industry, and the assumption that women in tech have imposter syndrome
Women in Tech are too-often associated with terms like ‘imposter syndrome’.

This got me thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the tech industry, which is well known for its lack of representation, and how much progress has been made in recent years – or not. 

Despite £26bn being invested into British tech companies in 2021, statistics show there is still much room for improvement: a recent report found just 15% of the UK tech workforce are from black backgrounds and women still only account for 17%. The report stated, “Whilst every metric shows that the British tech sector has matured, grown and scaled, there is one variable that remains stubbornly unchanged – the lack of diversity and inclusion in British tech companies“.

A quick scan of team photos on tech company websites or the press shots at award ceremonies, and the lack of diversity is immediately visible; not only in gender and ethnicity, but also age and disability. Of course, this method isn’t robust, nor does it account for less visible characteristics that may not be captured in photos, for example cultural background, sexual orientation and neurodiversity. Nonetheless, it packs a punch.

With this fresh in my mind, I chewed the cud about all things DE&I with my friend Tony Sobers. Tony is from London and has worked as a human-centred designer in the financial services sector for 30 years, most recently at Lloyds Banking Group. He has a wealth of experience in leading digital teams in tech companies. This article is a product of our lively discussion. In particular, it looks at why recruiting a whole range of minds into the mix is key to accelerating innovation and enabling positive change.

Tony and Jo photos and job titles

Stronger teams and company culture

We both believe that diversity is a fundamental pillar of building better teams and, by proxy, a stronger company culture built on trust and respect. 

On a human level, diversity in teams exposes us to different experiences and perspectives, and challenges our biases. This enables empathy and can only make us more interesting people with a wider world view and more receptive to new ideas. All of these factors work together to enable a culture of inclusion and belonging, where people feel more comfortable and supported to express themselves – factors that are essential for innovation. That said, simply throwing people of difference together doesn’t mean success; there still needs to be an underpinning ethos and high performance culture that all the team can embrace.

There is evidence to link diversity with improved business performance – from speeding up decision-making and problem-solving to innovation. According to Deloitte, diversity of thinking enhances innovation by around 20%, while another whitepaper found decisions made by diverse teams delivered 60% better results

In the tech industry, there is an existing narrative that companies are expected to be started and run by young, male, up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs, and so people are conditioned to believe that the opportunities and investment are more likely to go to them. These perceptual barriers are in place before any recruitment process starts, which is why it is important for people to see others ‘like them’ in companies, those who have “broken ground”, as Tony phrased it. A lack of diversity impacts recruitment further up the hiring line, too, with more than three-quarters of job seekers looking at company diversity before accepting a job offer. A clear and visible commitment to DE&I can help to break down these barriers and open up the talent pool. 

So there you have it, diverse teams have a key role to play in improving employer reputation, retention and talent attraction. 

A collection of photos of the Calvium team at social events
Calvium team members work across Europe, contributing a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and skills.

Diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t in the background at Calvium, it is front and centre, both in terms of our client work and our own formation. I say this whilst acknowledging that we are a work in progress and recognise where there could be improvements.

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Designing better products, services and experiences

Homogeneous thinking is the death knell of innovation. Quite simply, if products are going to be a great experience for all their users, they need to be informed by diverse points of view and designed inclusively. It is therefore essential to try and build teams – employees, partner contractors, co-design participants – through an inclusive lens. If you are interested in exploring this subject further, then the articles I’ve written about NavSta (a mobile wayfinding system for people with hidden impairments) are a perfect place to start.

Person in London underground looking at the NavSta app
Using NavSta to support navigation through the sensory complexity of a London Underground station

Tony pointed out that diverse teams can reduce the risk of data bias informing a digital product, service or experience. People who think the same and are familiar to one another can make decisions quickly, but they may well be decisions informed by bias. Well designed algorithms that are the foundations of automated data-driven systems, require data that is not embedded with biases and will not lead to harmful outcomes. For example, racial and gender bias was found in Amazon’s facial recognition technology. If you are interested finding out more about data bias, we recommend Caroline Priado Cortez’s book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ and this short article.

At this point we turned our attention to co-design. Echoing a previous point about the importance of prospective employees seeing people ‘like them’, if potential co-design participants see people from similar backgrounds or with the same needs on a project team, they will likely feel more inclined to participate, be comfortable during the activities and have a better experience overall.

Furthermore, team members with lived experience of the design space will also have a more holistic contextual understanding of the problem space prior to launching a project with users. Given they have a greater understanding of, and empathy for, the needs of the end-user and potential impact on them, they are more likely to innovate with speed and care – as their starting point will be more contextually appropriate. Increased efficiency also tends to mean being more cost-effective, so there are benefits all round.

By contrast, if somebody uses a product or service and it doesn’t work well – perhaps due to the fact it has been designed by people who don’t represent the target audience and who have not worked with them – they are going to have immediate negative feelings towards that product and brand. This may also require some time-costly fixes, which could have been avoided if diverse teams were involved from the outset.

Envirocrops screengrabs showing questions
Envirocrops is a project where scientists, agricultural experts, policy agencies and land stewards collaborate for a sustainable solution: a tool to support biomass production

Designing with – not for

All of the above emphasise why it is important to have an open and participatory approach to designing and developing products and services, and the critical role diverse teams have to play in facilitating this.

Designed inclusively, with deep insight and a thoughtful approach, technology has the power to transform lives for the better. The digital placemaking research that I have recently led for the NHS in North East London is underpinned by an inclusive approach that embraces diversity – believing that local stakeholder communities are the experts of their lived experiences and therefore best placed to inform and guide the research. 

We should pursue an intersectional approach which values people’s lived experiences, as well as co-designing with people throughout projects and not just in the final testing phase. Doing this will help to ensure the end product, service or experience has been designed with care, is inclusive and has a genuinely positive impact on those it will be used by – I’ll point to the UCAN GO app as a perfect example of holistic and inclusive design.

The UcanGo app supporting users to navigate around the Millennium Centre, Cardiff
UCAN Go was tested by users with a variety of visual impairments in the Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

Decision-making driven from a limited perspective is at risk of widening pre-existing inequalities or causing new and unnecessary problems – it is essential that we design inclusively ‘with’ people and not ‘for’ them. 

To echo the quote at the beginning of this article: “it is often the difference that gives us that edge.” 

Positive change for good

We can safely say that our conversation was productive and it certainly got me thinking more deeply about some specific and tangible benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion in (and for) the tech industry.

Reflecting on his career, Tony believes that diversity in tech is getting better but there is still much work to be done to make the sector more representative of the society it serves. Tony also pointed to a number of initiatives working to progress DE&I in this industry at all levels. For example, while back-to-work schemes like Accenture’s ‘Break Through’ programme are helping people to return to the industry after a career break, Girls Who Code and UK Black Tech are working to improve gender and ethnic diversity. A 12-month government programme in the UK, meanwhile, existed to tackle the underrepresentation of young Black men in tech in 2022, while Women in Technology offers a range of activities and mentoring schemes with the aim of supporting women to advance their professional development in various technical fields. 

So, there is lots to feel hopeful about for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive future tech industry. It takes everyone who cares about the cause to play their part and not sit back (shout out to Sir Jeremy Fleming and Mivy James!). Let’s hope that this time next year we are working in a far more representative tech landscape. 

In the meantime, my inbox is open to anyone who wants to share great DE&I practice, collaborate or discuss product innovation.

If you’re interested in joining a digital innovation agency that is passionate about DE&I – especially if you’re from an underrepresented group – we would love to hear from you. Contact us today!

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