Workplace diversity can be a contentious topic, and in an area that is often spoken about in terms of fairness, morality and ethics, the hard-nosed nature of business can often butt heads with these principles. But it’s becoming increasingly common knowledge that diverse workplaces are better, not just for the people that work in them, but for the business as well.

Nobody is a greater proponent of this viewpoint than Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, president of TechUK. We caught up with de Rojas about the distinct advantages of diversity, approaching entrenched viewpoints, and having a sense of humour.

What does diversity do to an organisation?

Here are a few stats on the importance of diversity for business:

  1. When employees ‘think their organisation is committed to and supportive of diversity, and they feel included’, their ability to innovate increases by 83 per cent;
  2. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to outperform their competitors, while those with employees in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35 per cent likely; and
  3. Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 per cent higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity.

These stats are all extremely impressive but really they are just common sense. If you have a room full of people from the same background, ideas will likely be similar. If you have a room full of people from diverse backgrounds, ideas will likely be challenged therefore increasing a group’s ability to think critically, problem solve and innovate.

When we talk about diversity, people tend to think of gender or race, but there are other factors, like diversity of background and age. Why are these also important?

Diversity in all of its forms can make such a contribution to creating great outcomes. I think about everything from those on the Asperger’s and autism spectrums who serve our cyber capabilities well because, for example, they might see patterns and spot trends hidden inside very large data sets that others completely miss.

Or it might be geographic diversity which forces us to think about rural versus city opportunities, it might be age diversity where older people are now retraining and joining the sector to contribute in their third career. We have a huge spectrum to explore when it comes to diversity and it is impossible to mention them all.

Diversity in the tech sector

Diversity is of particular interest to the tech sector today as we face a widening skills gap and try to bridge that gap with people who have taken career breaks. This can include men and women who have had children or caring commitments, veterans or individuals who have taken a career break for other reasons or those that wish to retrain and switch careers.

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Jacqueline de Rojas, president of TechUK. Credit: TechUK

They do not face explicit discrimination as such but may be anxious about their skills and confidence as they seek to return to work. For example, 60% of returners feel less or not confident in their professional skills.

All of these groups can easily be supported back into work through returners programmes. These programmes seek to upskill mid- to senior-level individuals – usually women – who have taken a career break of two or more years. They take place over a number of weeks, with content varying between companies, with the aim of securing full-time employment on the completion of such course.

At techUK, we promote a number of our members’ courses for women returners on our Returners Hub and we are seeking to create a free resource for women looking to get back into tech.

In 2016, PwC found that by addressing the career break penalty experienced by professional women could deliver an annual earnings boost of £1.1 billion and additional economic output of £1.7 billion to UK industry.

At a recent conference, you mentioned that you have faced a lot of diversity challenges with a sense of humour. What are some different ways of approaching entrenched attitudes?

At that conference, I outlined a way of diffusing an awkward and pressured situation by using humour. My own particular brand of dealing with discrimination can often be to call it out, but without ‘leaving anybody for dead’. I prefer to educate than to judge.

Having said that, we must call out everyday discrimination, actions that suggest gender bias or other forms of unconscious favouritism – but when I’m faced with it, I choose to remember that I am in the workplace, I am a role model whether I choose to be or not and I choose to behave professionally. So, I recommend speaking to a senior member of staff when you feel you have been discriminated against or that your company should be doing more to support minority groups.

Sadly, diversity and inclusion are still not necessarily a business imperative, so treat your moment to raise this issue like any other business opportunity. Be confident, professional, support yourself with evidence and make the case!

Boards need to be leading the way, spreading the word across the organisation that they want to champion diversity and inclusion in all of its forms

What are some of the differences in promoting diversity and challenging entrenched attitudes in the workplace compared to other parts of life?

There is often a clear hierarchical structure that starts with the board and works its way down in an organisation. Clearly, in a business, some voices are louder than others and this is why responsible leaders are so important. When building teams, choose diverse voices and avoid everyone being hired because they are the same.

I have always needed introverts as much as I have needed extroverts to lead us to successful outcomes. Boards need to be leading the way, spreading the word across the organisation that they are responsible employers and want to champion diversity and inclusion in all of its forms.

To what extent will the next generation be more accepting of diverse workplaces?

Millennials and Generation Z bring with them new attitudes to work, diversity and inclusion. Balancing profit with purpose is much more likely to trump ruthless focus on any revenue-only strategy. Various studies carried out in recent years have found that millennial workers take corporate responsibility seriously – one survey found that 75% of millennials would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company and two-thirds would not accept a job from a company without understanding its clear purpose and values.

For companies to retain and to attract the best young talent, they will have to be responsible corporate citizens, in terms of both looking after their existing staff and giving back to the community.

What are the practical steps to making tech a more diverse place to work?

On the subject of diversity as a central pillar, I believe that diversity is the only way we will be able to govern the new world of AI and machine learning. At the rate we are designing and developing new technology, we must find a way to self-govern versus waiting for regulation to catch up.

In short, we are entering a potentially ungovernable world; nobody thought the internet would change things this far and this fast. Diversity, though, can save us here. If for every £ that is spent on AI, we insist that all design and development teams are diverse, we would probably ensure that we all have a voice at the table and, a large part of the time, positive agendas will be served.