The tech industry has a diversity problem. It’s no secret, and it’s not new information.
In 2014, Google began releasing its diversity data, prompting other tech heavy-hitters like Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter and more to follow suit. The numbers were staggering. In that first report, Google revealed that 61 percent of its workforce was white, 30 percent was Asian, and the less than 10 percent remaining encompassed black, hispanic and all remaining minority groups. Similar numbers were seen across Silicon Valley, and it initially fuelled a big push to create diversity programs to empower underrepresented groups. But now, three years later, not much has changed.
“The tech industry doesn’t just have a diversity problem. It has a results problem,” wrote Gizmodo reporter Sidney Fussell last December, and that sentiment is true in Canada as well.
While diversity data for Canada’s tech sector is not as readily available, the same problems persist here and two women have decided to do something about it.
Jessica Yamoah partnered Sarah Juma, the founder of StyleID (a Shazam-style app for fashion), to create Innovate Inclusion, a project aiming to make diversity in tech a reality, rather than just a goal.
Yamoah identifies as an Afro-Canadian and Juma identifies as a black woman. Both admit that there is no easy one-step solution to solving the tech industry’s diversity problem; instead, they argue the entire system needs an overhaul. Their program involves multiple approaches, including empowering minority communities to break into the tech sector, working with communities to review existing diversity policies and auditing several incubators and accelerators around Ontario.
We caught up with the women behind Innovate Inclusion to find out what they’re doing to change the face of tech, and why other industries seem to struggle so much with diversity.
Where do you think tech’s diversity problem stems from?
Sarah Juma: “I don’t believe that you can attribute the issues or challenges to one place. It comes from multiple places, including cultural background, schooling and public programs that are available.”
Jessica Yamoah: “It’s a socioeconomic reflection of what our society is. In a corporate setting, the people sitting at the top making the decisions might not be as diverse as society is.”
What has your experience been like as a minority in the tech sector?
Yamoah: “My experience is both corporate and as an entrepreneur, I’ve worked for startups and for some of the leading technology companies in the world. There can be benefits to being the only person of colour, but there’s also drawbacks, particularly on the entrepreneur side. It can be a benefit because we bring different insights and perspectives to the table that people wouldn’t think about because they haven’t had the same thing experiences as women of colour or people from underrepresented communities. The drawbacks occur with things like pitching to venture capitalists. Because VCs often can’t relate, unfortunately it’s harder for them to partner or work with us.”
Juma: “You have a completely different perspective being a minority, but when you bring that perspective into a boardroom, they don’t necessarily understand where you’re coming from because they are not a visible minority.”
Yamoah: “Sometimes they just can’t get past the fact that you’re a woman, and a woman of colour and from an assumedly different culture—not realizing that if there was more focus on the similarities and where the connections are, the better it would be for everyone.”
We hear a lot of talk about the importance of diversity in tech, but do you feel that it translates into action?
Juma: “I don’t see any clear action happening, but we’re hoping with Innovate Inclusion to actually make action happen. There’s been enough discussion, so now we need to create solutions.”
Yamoah: “The other thing I would add is that there’s definitely a lot of hype around diversity, the major challenge being that diversity doesn’t translate swapping out a Caucasian man for a Caucasian woman. There needs to be actual action from the top of every organization. No one is expecting change overnight, but everyone can play their part, it’s as simple as saying hello to someone you’ve never talked to before or consciously making an effort to get involved in tech in other communities that you haven’t before.”
What are the barriers to actually creating a diverse workplace?
Juma: “I think one of the top barriers is getting real information. One of the things that Innovate Inclusion is working on is getting benchmark data so that we can understand where we are currently so that as we put into place these programs, we can see how we’re progressing.”
How else is Innovate Inclusion helping to bring underrepresented groups into this industry?
Yamoah: “Some of the things we’re doing are just really simple steps to provide access and awareness. We’ve currently completed a few programs working with different organizations, whether it’s just taking people on tours of an incubator or providing them access to different events in the tech space. Even if you start from there, it opens up a new world of possibilities and information.”
Do you feel that the responsibility of taking action and creating more diverse workplaces often falls on minority groups?
Juma: “It absolutely does. The people who are experiencing the injustice are typically the people who need to take the action. If other people around you aren’t experiencing what you are, then they have no reason to advocate or make any changes because everything is OK on their end.”
Yamoah: “Sometimes, and not in a bad way—it’s ignorance. You don’t know what you don’t know. So until someone brings it to your attention, you can’t change it. It’s then in the hands of people that can make change, or facilitate change, to acknowledge it and work together on solutions. That’s what we’re doing through Innovate Inclusion.”
We hear a lot about companies that are talking the talk but not walking the walk. Are there any companies you can point to that are doing a good job of addressing this issue?
Yamoah: “Google is a frontrunner in terms of really addressing the challenge of diversity and inclusion within technology. They were the first to release a diversity report (back in 2014). They weren’t asked to release that data, but they recognized that it might be an issue in their own company, and they saw an opportunity to improve their teams and take a leadership position within the industry—so that’s huge. Tech is still in the beginning stages, but Google has been the most receptive and supportive. They’re leaders so if they’re behind us, then we have no doubt that everyone else will follow suit.”
Why do you think so many industries struggle with doing this right?
Yamoah: “My view is they struggle because, firstly, they don’t have the right people addressing the challenges. It’s about collaboration and working with the right people. And then also, again, they don’t know what they don’t know. They might know it’s a hot topic, but they really don’t set it as a priority where they are actually going to take action and have the right teams together to move forward and progress with that action.”
Is there anything else you want people to realize about diversity in the workplace?
Yamoah: “A lot of times, diversity and inclusion is categorized under human resources and it does have that aspect to it, but it’s also an economic opportunity in terms of entrepreneurship and the fact that—this is going to sound cliché—but it doesn’t just make sense, it makes money to have diverse people doing diverse things. There’s a lot of different cultures that have a lot to bring to the table, so if you empower them to be entrepreneurs or pursue different avenues, it just contributes back to our society, our economy, everything. If people start thinking about it as an opportunity instead of seeing it as a human resources initiative or mandate, I think the perspectives will change greatly.”