Tuesday 6 August 2019 6:30 am

Unconscious bias and lack of diversity is holding business back

Claire Vo is senior vice president of product management at Optimizely.

The lack of diversity in technology is not a new issue. A study by Statista showed that female employees make up between 26 percent and 43 percent of the workforce at major tech companies. 

However, even this does not tell the whole story, as the number of women in engineering or product-focussed jobs is even lower. 

Diversity goes far beyond the presence of women in technology. Inclusive Boards recently found that only one in nine senior UK tech leaders come from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. 

This is a pressing challenge, since it has been proven time and again that diversity drives success – regardless of industry. 

And if organisations in the technology sector are to prosper, then diversity should be a boardroom priority. While this issue is one that can define the success of a business, it also has wider ramifications for society as a whole. 

As day-to-day life becomes more driven by technology, the companies that create these products have a responsibility to produce great experiences for all their customers, and cater for everyone. But this is only possible with a diverse product team. Reflecting the diversity of your userbase across the wider team is therefore a huge competitive advantage to those companies that make it a priority.

Let’s take Amazon’s artificial-intelligence-powered Rekognition service as an example. It came under fire after it incorrectly matched pictures of US Congress members to mugshots of suspected criminals, and was called out as potentially damaging to communities of colour.

This is a symptom of an unconscious bias that is holding product development back around the world. Producing facial recognition tools that match a diverse populus is a challenge. Doing so without a product team that reflects all consumers? Nearly impossible. 

Unconscious bias is deeply embedded in society, as numerous academic studies have shown. Not only does this impact our daily thoughts, processes and actions, but this also has an inevitable impact on the work that we do, as well as the projects we work on. 

Eliminating unconscious bias completely is an epic – and some would say impossible – undertaking. However, for technology businesses, mitigating this issue can be as simple as introducing a diverse team from multiple social and economic backgrounds.

For product teams, data should be at the heart of all decision making. So a key part of our role is to interpret this data, and evaluate the opportunities at hand. 

In this process, it is easy for engineers to become abstracted from their audience, especially when a product needs to be delivered in a limited timeframe, and turning numbers on a screen into tangible human experiences can be a challenge in itself. 

But becoming more customer-centric should be a goal that all organisations strive for – and it is diversity that holds the key.

Photo credit: IROZ GAIZKA/AFP/Getty Images

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