Diversity: A matter of life or death

October 1, 2019

The need for a diverse workforce goes far beyond ‘the right thing to do’, argues Sunderland Software City’s Laura Richards

It’s 2019 and we’re still debating diversity in the workplace. This is, quite simply, a terrifying state of affairs. Diversity in all its forms is something that should be celebrated and yet it can feel like the business world still treats it, at best, as a useful recruitment tool and at worst as a tick box exercise.

The statistics back this up. In 2013, The Guardian reported that among Fortune 500 companies, women held only three per cent of CEO positions. In 2017, another report had the number at four per cent. At this rate, we’ll not see a 50/50 split until the year 2203AD. I don’t know about you, but that’s not good enough for me.

And gender is only one part of a diverse workforce: of FTSE 100 companies, 35 don’t mention LGBT diversity in their annual reports. Yet six of these companies changed their Twitter images to show support for Pride Week this year. And this is before we get onto age, ethnic or neurodiversity.

So why does this matter so much? The business case for diverse workforces is well established. Organisations typically report better results when they have a more diverse workforce. Profits go up, brand reputation is improved, employees are more engaged. But if a company is already performing well and shareholders are already happy with their returns, diversity just isn’t an imperative.

And it should be. Diverse workforces do more than line shareholders’ pockets: they save lives. Take a look at companies across the engineering, medical and technology industries.

With car manufacturing, research by the US Department for Transportation reports that, in a like-for-like crash scenario, women are 47 per cent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 per cent more likely to die. The reason? Cars (and crashtest dummies) are designed – and tested – based on male driver proportions. As a result, safety measures in cars are more effective when men are driving.

As recently as 2018, EU regulatory crashtest requirements do not mandate testing with anthropomorphically correct female dummies.

Across life sciences, the majority of clinical trials are conducted on male patients. Yet it is acknowledged (by medical practitioners, the World Health Organisation and through countless patient stories) that medicines affect men and women differently. Everything from studies on cardiovascular disease, to flu vaccines, to treatments for depression routinely exclude female participants. The result? Women are quite literally dying because they are under-represented.

It’s not just a lack of gender diversity that can lead to serious inherent flaws in technological developments. In the US, artificial intelligence tools are being used to determine prison sentences for offenders. But institutional racism and existing unconscious bias mean that these algorithms are trained using flawed data sets – BAME offenders have historically received harsher prison sentences than white offenders. The design of this ‘smart’ sentencing software perpetuates an existing (and discriminatory) bias.

So what can we do? As people involved in designing and developing new products, services and tools, we must consider the widest possible range of end-users. And that is a lot easier if the teams building the future reflect the communities they serve.

Sunderland Software City
Sunderland Software City is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, through the Digital Innovation Partnership

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