Mind the gap between leaders’ perceptions and employees’ realities in tech

A report highlights a chasm between executive and minority views on diversity.


Diversity and inclusion should be of interest to all of us by now. By introducing a range of personalities, viewpoints, cultures and experiences to our organisations we benefit from the avoidance of groupthink and dependency on a dominant perspective. But a new survey suggests that there’s a vast difference in perspectives of leaders and tech employees from minority backgrounds.

First the good news. The poll, conducted by IT services giant Capgemini, found that organisations with “advanced inclusive practices” are four times more likely to create inclusive products. And here’s the bad news: just 22 per cent of women and ethnic minority staff in tech teams feel included in the organisation and duly respected.

The survey was based on a quantitative survey of 1,000 respondents, evenly split between leaders and tech employees at 500 companies with the overall aim being to analyse the views of leaders against the experiences of women and persons of ethnic minority communities. This was backed up by 32 interviews and another poll of 5,000 consumers.

The report demands to be read by anybody interested in the dynamics of diversity in business and its leitmotif is that delta between executive perception and employee view. Item: 85 per cent of leaders feel they offer equitable opportunities for career progression and promotion to every employee… but just 18 per cent of women and ethnic minority employees agree. And it gets worse: three-quarters of leadership executives believe that women and ethnic minority employees have a sense of belonging in their organisations, but under one quarter of these employees agree.

Part of the problem may be traced back to historical imbalances. For example, in IT/technology teams, just one in five employees is female, and only one in six is from an ethnic minority. And then there’s the consumer viewpoint. More than three-quarters of consumers say they’re aware of discriminatory technologies and would like to see change. This imbalance means that the products and services we build tend to be skewed, ranging from hopelessly unbalanced online searches to image filters designed primarily for Caucasians, the main smart speaker voices all being female and security systems where ethnic hairstyles act as alert triggers.

To discuss all this I joined a Teams call with Shobha Meera, Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Capgemini.

“Clearly there’s an accelerating market demand [for products and services that are inclusive] and yet the state of affairs is somewhat different,” she tells me. “There’s a huge gap between executive perceptions and the minority community.”

And how should leaders be attempting to cross that yawning chasm? Meera believes that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

“The most important thing is that it starts with awareness and acknowledgement. Once you are aware there is an issue then you have the ability to take the right actions. Hopefully [the report] urges every leader to do that. It’s about doing the right thing, starting at your own company.”

Meera also tempers my enthusiastic view that IT and the technology sector are more open than most.

“This is not the easiest of industries to get diversity,” she says, particularly if we separate out bright spots from the rest of the world. “In countries like India China and the Philippines it’s a pretty equitable population of graduates and people who have studied technology [but elsewhere] the entry pool is much smaller.”

And that lack of diversity leads to weak user experiences that highlight the false assumptions of developers, such as those creating forms where the default gender setting assumes a male identity.

“We live in the era of hyper-personalisation,” Meera argues. “Yet a lot of services and experiences are not offered that way. That’s really visible in financial services where products and services you are exposed to are making assumptions based on ethnicity or gender.”

And the situation could deteriorate further: we have all heard about AI systems loaded with hidden biases providing lower credit based on racial profiling, for example, and the report suggests that ethnic names are sometimes being filtered out in recruitment. Capgemini, she says, is already working on an ethical AI practice with clients and on inclusive design so companies don’t end up with crass assumptions based on badly designed algorithms or data sets based on prejudiced assumptions.

HR is a challenge noted in the report. Could blind screening (where CVs are handled without information on factors such as the sex or ethnic background of candidates) help?

“Screening names, pictures etcetera to make the process more blind and agnostic is a great way to start the process,” Meera says. “But eventually there’s a meeting that’s a two-way street where the person is assessing the candidate but the candidate is assessing the organisation. There’s no silver bullet or simple answer but there are many good practices. It takes a lot of coaching and ensuring the diversity is being represented at the very front end. If I’m a young black woman [interviewing for a role] I’d like to see some people who look like me.”

Is she optimistic that growing awareness regarding diversity (and the demand for talent in the technology sector in particular) will lead to progress.

“I have to be, and I am,” Meera replies. “These are virtuous cycles: from demand for talent to regulations and pressure on boards. It’s coming from different levels [including] from awareness and advocacy of minorities themselves. There’s not a toolset but there’s so much experience there to draw on. The report offers smaller, subtler things to more direct things – building a healthy environment, dealing with micro-aggressions, positive confrontations, how to deal with not having knowledge of other experiences. This is not just the right thing to do; it’s a business opportunity. This is what the market and consumers want.”