A more diverse team has a better chance of coming up with innovative ideas and making your company more adaptable. Diversity needs to be made and maintained.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE DIVERSE
First of all, you should aim for a diverse engineering team because it is the RIGHT THING to do.
The path to becoming an engineer is not an equitable one. There is a good amount of white/male privilege that results in an overrepresentation of white/male engineers. You will have to put in some additional effort not to end up with a homogenous workforce. Just as those without privilege have made additional efforts into becoming an engineer. If you have the opportunity to make the playing field a little more level by offering scholarships or early educational opportunities and paid internships than please do so. Beyond helping society as a whole, most likely your company will benefit from this diversity infusion.
But you should also establish diversity to improve the QUALITY of work.
There are some famous misses in technology due to lack of diversity in the engineering team: coloured humans that are not recognised as easily by cameras and humans with breasts that are not accurately recognised by pose estimation software. Too many products are designed by and for a default white male option and this will continue to be so unless we deliberately change it. Gender blind technology is “any tech solution that has been created without analysing how a product might affect men and women differently “[source] and our world is filled with it. This ignores an amazing sphere of opportunity for innovation.
Now that AI and ML are becoming more prevalent, algorithmic bias also becomes more relevant. Algorithmic biases arise during the framing of the problem, during collecting of training data and in determining which variables you tell the algorithm to look at. All these steps in the AI / ML process are heavily influenced by human choice. Such choices include our unconscious biases. These biases are the established views that we do not notice in ourselves. The trouble of having a homogenous team is that the biases we do not notice in ourselves we will also not notice in a similar other. Diversity will show up everyone’s biases.
Group think is a common problem in teams that stands in the way of innovation and adaptation. Group norms, behaviours and thoughts become self-affirming as they circle around in a group of likeminded individuals. Especially well-performing homogenous teams continuously strengthen their own group norms. Often above that of the company and civilised society. Cheating and bullying behaviour arise and are accepted. Teams in the grasp of group think do not take well to any change in their behaviour (less adaptation) and are not open to outside ideas (less innovation). Diversity can be a built-in mechanism against the whirlpool of group think.
And if you intend to operate internationally, a diverse team will also help you get beyond your national biases (of which you are likely unaware). Work cultures are very different around the world. This may seem obvious as a European company working with Asian companies, but we often already don’t understand a neighbouring country as much as we think.
BE THE DIVERSITY
Hiring practises are an obvious place to establish diversity: set your gender target 50/50, give bonus points for different cultural backgrounds and other aspects not currently present in your team of engineers. Consider how and where you do your recruiting and how you might reach potential candidates that you are currently lacking. Set a company-wide diversity quota, offer paid learning opportunities, support remote work or flexible work hours and provide benefits that apply to both genders.
You can start with your current engineering team by running a culture session. An open discussion of what the team culture is and what everyone wants it to be. Write down what is currently accepted behaviour and what is expected within the team. Discuss the process and consequences when desired behaviour is broken. This formalises the team culture. When you first do this, you might see an increase in transgressions when culture-rules have been established because breaking them will be more obvious to everyone. Handling this is an opportunity to grow as a team and experience that pointing out differences is a learning opportunity. Smoothing the path for having a diverse team in which biases can be uncovered and inspected and different considerations are appreciated. When the diversity of a team changes (or has remained unchanged for a very long time) it is often valuable to run a new culture session.
Once you have a diverse team you want to keep them and for this you need to invest. Particularly on psychological safety so that the differences that exist in a diverse team can be openly discussed and valued as an asset, instead of becoming undercurrents of annoyance. To know the state of your team you must measure and attach interventions to the results where necessary.
Many of the things that improve diversity on paper, in practice only work when they are owned and lived. Perhaps at first by the founder, HR and management team and eventually by the entire company. Openly display the behaviour you want to establish. Cultural sensitivity can be learned and awareness of and reflection on our own biases should be standard practice in HR. Openness and transparency in management sets the tone for openness throughout the company. Model the appropriate cultural rules. Call out incorrect behaviour and openly reflect on your own behaviours and underlying biases. Challenge your peers.
To experience all of the benefits and minimal drawbacks of a diverse engineering team there has to be an environment of real appreciation of the differences brought to the bench.
1. Different approaches to a problem are often key in solving them. People from different backgrounds often approach work and problem solving differently.
2. White men do not make for better engineers. There is the same potential for engineering greatness in any other human classification. This potential is not being realized.
3. If you are to avoid worker shortages, you should not ignore most of potential work pool by focusing on one category.
written for Elektor HR special in 2022