Why detail around racial diversity in tech is important - Ismail Mulla

It’s groundhog day. That’s because it’s time for me to talk about diversity...again.

Sarah Tulip is co-founder of WILD Digital, formerly known as Women in Leeds Digital, which has teamed up with Diverse & Equal to launch a project looking at how diversity can be improved in the city’s tech sector.
Sarah Tulip is co-founder of WILD Digital, formerly known as Women in Leeds Digital, which has teamed up with Diverse & Equal to launch a project looking at how diversity can be improved in the city’s tech sector.

Try as people may, it is not a topic that is going to go away anytime soon. Heads can no longer be nestled deep in the sand.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to Sarah Tulip, head of digital transformation at Leeds-based technology consultancy BJSS.

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She is also the co-founder of WILD Digital, formerly known as Women in Leeds Digital, which has teamed up with Diverse & Equal to launch a project looking at how racial diversity can be increased in the city’s tech sector

What struck me the most about our conversation was the need for a detailed understanding of what the issues really are when it pertains to diversity in tech.

I still can’t get my head around why this fairly nascent industry has come to look, think and act so one dimensionally when it comes to representation.

Only 2.6 per cent of UK tech board members come from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Converse with anyone in the tech sector and they will say that they believe in the need for greater diversity.

The problem I suspect lies in that lack of attention to detail. A lot has been made of the term BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic). It’s easy shorthand when it comes to diversity. But as society progresses, it’s important not to treat BAME as a homogenous group – it clearly isn’t.

Earlier this year, the widely-criticised Government report into racial disparities across Britain called for the catch-all acronym to be done away with.

I disagree because frankly this Government can’t even be trusted to not let progress on diversity regress. It’s a view shared by diversity campaigners that I have spoken to. However, they aren’t saying that we shouldn’t be looking at issues on a more micro level.

That’s why I’m very keen to see what this project that WILD Digital is involved in comes up with.

It’s not just a checkbox exercise. Along with a survey there will also be interviews that will provide qualitative data to be played back to the city of Leeds. Ms Tulip hopes that Leeds can lead by example for other cities to follow.

The key, though, will be what happens once this information is then fed back. It’s good to see the tech sector engage with diversity but for genuine change to happen there will need to be constructive action.

The business case for improving diversity in the tech sector is a compelling one. Research from McKinsey showed a 35 per cent increase in profit for organisations that are ethnically diverse and inclusive.

It also means that tech companies will create better, more rounded products.

One of the biggest concerns is that solutions are being created for the future that have biases built into them. Facial recognition systems that struggle with different shades of skin being just one example.

As artificial intelligence (AI) plays a more active role in our lives, it’s important to remember that AI is only as good as the programming behind it.

If that programme is built by just a particular type of people then groupthink will most likely prevail and large parts of the population will be excluded or hindered by the application.

The project will look to tap into the lived experience of people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

One of the things Ms Tulip hopes will happen is it will lead to newer faces being provided a platform.

This is really important. In any industry, you need role models. If you can’t identify with someone then it becomes that much more difficult to ride the bumps on the journey.

I’ve had young journalism students contacting me, saying that I’m the closest they’ve seen to someone from a similar background to them, have I got any advice for them?

Ms Tulip thought she was the only woman in the Leeds tech sector who was working in the upper echelons of a business until she met other female business leaders in the industry. That’s how WILD Digital came to being.

It is why I feel confident that this is a project that could have a lasting positive impact on diversity in tech. There is a will and once we understand what the way is things can start to change for the better.

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James Mitchinson