Why is diversity in people and talents needed in tech?

  • Deepa Mann-Kler is a woman of a thousand - if not a million - talents. She sat down with Sync NI to explain why being a woman in tech does not mean confining yourself to one type of career.

    Deepa is a consultant in equality, diversity and inclusion, a TEDx speaker, CEO of her own med tech company, Visiting Professor in Immersive Futures with Ulster University, a Non-Executive Director holding positions across the UK and an award winning artist to top it all.

    Her firm, Neon specialises in immersive software applications for health and wellbeing, including the BreatheVR app to help people relax who are suffering from anxiety or pain. As a Non-Executive Director she serves on the boards of the Public Health Agency and Registers of Scotland. Her artistry focuses on light based installations, paintings and prints, and she has been commissioned for several large scale permanent public artworks.

    Deepa’s skillset has swept across the tech, health, art and public sectors, and she is also a well practised public speaker. Her story really resonated with us at Sync NI; the fact that she strikes a balance between the ‘corporate’ and the ‘creative’ – through having her own business and still taking time to produce her own art.

    Using tech to better society

    Deepa told us that when she studied social policy at the London School of Economics, she had no inkling about the tech industry. She said: “The one consistent aspect throughout my life and career is my value basis, in that whatever I do has to have a positive impact on people around me and it has to contribute constructively to society.”

    Having now published extensively on virtual reality (VR), she told me that she initially became interested in VR in November 2016, and then set up a new company to realise a project called “Retne”. She continued: “It was 2017 really that the idea for developing VR and augmented reality (AR) for health started to properly crystallise. Around the same time, I had been invited to a pain hackathon, to develop a solution for people living with chronic pain that is persistent for three months or more.”

    Deepa said it was there that they developed BreatheVR. She carried on: “The breath is such a powerful medicine for human beings. We each breathe up to 23,000 times daily, but we are not taught to breathe deeply or properly. In fact when we are stressed or in pain we go into a state of shallow breathing which can exacerbate our stress or pain. So for me BreatheVR uses the best of what cutting edge technology has to offer and combines it with the essence of what it is to be human.”

    We asked Deepa her thoughts on gender inequality within the tech industry, and what society can be doing collectively to challenge gender bias and discrimination. She believes “that the conversation needs to include intersectionality so race, age, disability, LGBTQ+ and other equality characteristics are part of this conversation. The focus is always on how we can get young women into the tech industry, as if the problem is with young women themselves. To be honest many tech companies should be focusing on retaining the women that they already have in their workforce. The industry needs to recognise the role that their policies and culture play in causing inequality. By implementing more open recruitment strategies, with specific and measurable performance evaluation criteria and by having transparent procedures for pay, bonuses, promotions and project allocations, this will help to start to address some of these systemic barriers.

    "It is also about the tech industry having women in leadership positions and having role models. People get inspired to do something when they can see others like themselves doing it. When women see other women in these roles, they find it easier to imagine themselves in those roles. This is not rocket science and it’s like Marian Wright Edelman said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

    We also need to start thinking seriously about implementing quotas. Quotas are not an anathema to meritocracy, what they actually do is increase competence levels by displacing mediocre men. This finding is based on fascinating research in Sweden. Once again we need to change the narrative of focus and move the burden of the argument “from the under-representation of women to the unjustifiable over-representation of men”.

    Northern Ireland’s tech scene is fortunately booming. Not only are there indigenous start-ups popping up frequently, but foreign direct investment has been growing steadily over the past decade. Deepa then pointed out that if these tech companies want to attract, recruit and retain the best talent then they are going to have to deliver on a clear “employee value proposition.” “This has to articulate a healthy, inclusive culture where every employee is valued to be their best unique self and it has to be meaningful and not just pay lip service to these ideals.”

    “If I was a woman in the tech industry looking for new employment opportunities I would do my due diligence. I would look at the company structure and pay close attention to the composition (gender, race, age and so on) of their board, executive and senior management teams. I would read Glassdoor reviews. I would read the company gender pay gap reports. I would read the company’s equality, diversity and inclusion policies and see what commitments are made on the company website and I would reach out to women currently working in the company to hear their first hand experiences. We are in a market of high demand for these skillsets and you have choice.”

    “Diversity leads to innovation”

    “To be honest the business case for diversity and inclusion is overwhelming. We know that profit margins at the most diverse companies are 14% higher (source: McKinsey 2012). The relationship between diversity and inclusion and innovation is also fascinating where companies that have more diverse management teams have a 19% higher revenue due to increased innovation (source: Boston Consulting Group 2018 research based on 1700 companies across 8 countries). For me it’s very simple, diversity in thinking, experience and background are strategic competitive advantages to drive innovation and by getting this right tech companies will build the next generation of meaningful digital experiences, services and products. It also means that these tech companies are more likely to meet the needs of all of their customers, and to generate ideas and qualify concepts to fill the innovation growth pipeline more efficiently.”

    Predictions over the future of what work will be are so uncertain: “While an increasing number of jobs will be mechanised, creativity is still a unique human skill that may be difficult to replace through automation (for now). What is important is having an innovation mindset.”

    Deepa told me that while she does not believe in having regrets, when she reflects over the past, “I do not regret times when I have made a fool of myself, but rather the times when I have been silent. That was probably my motivation behind becoming an artist in 2007. I have this talent that I had never felt brave enough to pursue, so I took a career break and spent the next 11 years painting and teaching myself how to paint. I relish new challenges.”

    The same, Deepa said, applies to tech: “People are going to have to be prepared to have a learning mindset and keep retraining and reskillling and that is quite exciting. I think to have a job for life now will be incredibly rare, and if that is the case then you will need to keep upskilling. Surround yourself with good mentors, peers and allies from all types of backgrounds. People are genuinely kind and if they can, they will always try and help you.”

    The power of education

    What about the unknown? Deepa commented: “We don’t know what we don’t know. With the current exploitation of data, facial recognition tech, machine learning and artificial intelligence, we should really be informing our young people and each other about the complexity and impact of these technologies. Society is being redesigned as we speak. We have not future proofed our tech, nor have we thought through the intended and unintended consequences of everything that is happening currently.

    “We are powering a society that will benefit powerful corporations and I think we will be/are pawns in that. I want people to question what is happening and I try to do it in my own way through the talks that I give. I am not alone. We are part of a growing community that wants to change this narrative. We have to take responsibility for our own learning.” 

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here. 

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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