I’ve got a problem with washing my hands. Its not that I’m rushing out of the bathroom or forgetting to do so. But if the faucet is sensor activated, sometimes I simply can’t. So, I waste time walking from sink to sink, hoping that one has been calibrated properly for the hue of my skin. Or I game the sensors using a tissue. How is it that in the year of our Lord 2019, an era in which we’re equipped with facial recognition technology and near field Bluetooth beacons, THIS low-tech apparatus is still a problem for people like me?
Well, this is what happens when tech isn’t inclusive. The result of a homogenous group developing technology for the broader, more diverse public. When the developers of the technology behind touch-free faucets test their inventions, they do so with the all hands on deck. Unfortunately for me (and 14% of the US population) those hands represent a relatively homogenous set of hues as the tech workforce is overwhelmingly white and male. Cognizant’s Women Empowered employee resource group and Center for the Future of Work (CFoW) recently convened for a discussion on inclusive design in tech and other topics at It’s Time: Inclusion’s Role in Tech, a half day conference exploring the impact of gender and race inequality in the tech industry and how leaders can shape experiences, systems and business models to empower their associates. Given the involvement of CFoW we also explored how inclusion is a key imperative to AI implementation and future-proofing organizations.
While my ongoing war with automated faucets is a fairly innocuous problem, the lack of inclusive teams building out technologies can have much more dire implications. Facial recognition technology is enabled by machine learning and allows cameras to match footage of faces with those same faces in a database. The software is 99% accurate, at least for certain demographics. Unfortunately, that rate falls to 65% when analyzing faces of darker-skinned women. With this technology being used as the basis for autonomous vehicles and has been tested by law enforcement agencies, its easy to see how quickly the problems could escalate. Some data sets have as little as 25% female inclusion and 20% ethnic minority inclusion.
We discussed this conundrum as part of our panel on inclusivity in tech design. Poornima Ramaswamy, AI & Analytics practice lead for Cognizant, hosted spring her insights from first-hand experience in the field of artificial intelligence. My fellow panelists were Robin Beers, SVP of Consumer Insights at Wells Fargo and Suba Vasudevan, Director of Business Integrity at Facebook. One unifying theme throughout our discussion was the need for non-tech workers on our teams to balance out the perspectives and approaches to creating products or services for wide audiences. Anthropologists, ethnographers, and other social experts are essential to improving the humanistic aspect of product development.
Five years ago, several leading technology companies began releasing reports on their employee diversity. Many took it a step further and hired diversity & inclusion officers or launched new hiring initiatives to diversify their ranks. As Peter Drucker once said; “What gets measured gets managed” and the best data analysts in the world now had valuable insights about one of the thorniest issues in the workplace. Five years later and they’ve managed to do very little with those measurements. Women only make up about one fourth of the workforce at these companies, while Black and Latinx workers account for less than 5% of the workforce, respectively. The “Brotopia” persists. Coined by our fireside chat participant, Emily Chang, in her book of the same name, Brotopia is a way to describe the working landscape of Silicon Valley. Its a land where men hold all the cards and make all the rules. During her talk with CFoW’s Ben Pring, Chang further highlighted the inequalities faced by women through anecdotes of her own experiences and others she interviewed for the book.
A common refrain (and one detailed in Chang’s book) is the sentiment that Silicon Valley companies “won’t lower their standards” to hire more diverse candidates. But the number of women and minorities that graduate with computer science degrees suggests that pipeline provides far more talent than those represented in Silicon Valley jobs. Our panelists discussing Bridging the Skills Gap all look to further strengthen the talent pool for underrepresented groups in technology. Kristen Titus is Executive Director of the Cognizant US Foundation where she leads a team dedicated to supporting technology education and skills training across the country. She was joined by Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code 2040, a non-profit that empowers diversity champions across the tech industry and helps young Black and Latinx technologists navigate their early career journeys.
As my own panel wrapped up and I spoke with fellow conference attendees, several of them asked my opinion on next steps to take. I suggested they all:
- Hire inclusive, diverse teams that bring multiple perspectives to business problems. Empower those diverse teams to make decisions informed by their unique backgrounds and experiences.
- Measure your diversity & inclusion stats to make actionable insights. But this is more than just a numbers game. Data must be matched with a culture for inclusivity and an environment that is welcoming to underrepresented groups.
- Implement programs and initiatives that close the digital skills gap for underrepresented groups in technology. Demand for these types of roles will continue to grow. Cultivating the next generation of practitioners in the industry ensures your organization has a consistent pipeline of talent to fill those roles.
My job is to research, write about, and advise on the future of work. A great deal of effort goes into analyzing new platforms and business models as digital technology reshapes industries. But as this conference has shown, the future of work is more than just 1s and 0s. Its about the people building the technology and even more importantly, those that consume it everyday. To learn more about our thinking on this subject at Cognizant, read our companion report, Making Room: Reflections on Diversity & Inclusion in the Future of Work.