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Fostering greater diversity and equality of women in tech: What can we learn from intersectionality?

  • Written by Dr Kristel Miller, Senior Lecturer, Ulster University 

    Dr Kristel Miller discusses the importance of addressing intersectionality when fostering greater diversity in tech. 

    Technological innovation is accelerating at an ever-increasing rate. Whilst this has the potential to help alleviate inequalities and foster greater inclusiveness in tech; the rapid growth of the technology sector outpaces policies, regulations and changing practices relating to diversity, inclusiveness and equality. It is suggested that many initiatives aimed at supporting women in the tech sector or empowering women through tech often do not acknowledge or address the multifaceted, intersecting factors which many women face 

    What is intersectionality? 

    The concept of an ‘intersectionality analysis was coined by leading thought leader and scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. Whilst the analysis originally related to race, it can be used to understand how varying social categorisations can overlap, which may intensify disadvantages and discrimination. These categorisations are reflected in someone’s identity, are attached to gender, race, nationality, socio-economic background, disability and sexualityIt is suggested that when we think about inequality, there is a tendency to focus on one identity, such as being a woman or of a particular race. However, we are all individuals who span multiple identities and therefore may face inequalities in various ways. Dual identities would include a woman of colour or a woman who has a low socio-economic background. However, someone may also have several identities such as a woman of colour, who has a disability and is from a low socio-economic background. 


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    Source: Crenshaw (1989). 

    Raising cognisance of intersectionality within the tech sector 

    Looking at the tech sector generally, women of colour are heavily under-represented.  A report from the 2021 National Centre for Women and Information and Technology suggest that within professional computing occupations, 26% are women but only 9% are Asian, black or Hispanic womenIt has been suggested that 57% of women working in tech have experienced gender discrimination relating to recruitment or promotion compared to just 10% of men (Dice,2021). It has also been reported that black employees reported the highest levels of racial discrimination in the technology sector (Pew Research, 2017).  

    Furthermore, individuals from lower social-economic backgrounds may encounter a ‘class ceiling’ in the tech sector. A State of the Nation Report by the Social Mobility Commission (2021) identifies that in the UK, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds earn 17% less than those from more privileged backgrounds. Furthermore, socioeconomic status can lead to a ‘digital divide’ in relation to access to digital technology and technology related education, which influences the future opportunities available to enter the tech sector for these disadvantaged groups.  

    The business case for diversity  

    The overall business case for diversity in organisations is clear within research and practice. McKinsey and Company (2020) conducted research from over 1000 large companies across 15 countries and more than 1,000 large companies identified that firms who have embraced and implemented diversity outperform those who do not. In particular, they find that firms who rank in the top quartile for having gender diversity on executive teams were 25more likely to have above-average profitability. Furthermore, firms who rated in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity reported 35% more profit than firms in the fourth quartile. However, the shift has been slow and it is only in the last five years have firms begun to report intersectionality data within diversity reports. 

    A lack of diversity in science and technology sectors may also impact upon innovation and technological advancements. For example, historically, a lack of females in science and technology has led to the suffering of the health of women, where for decades females were being misdiagnosed with heart disease due to a lack of acknowledgement that females can exhibit different symptoms. Caroline Emma Criado Perez OBE who is an author, journalist and activist suggests that a ‘one size fits men’ approach often exists in scientific and technological innovations, where many cars were designed using a male body resulting in females being more likely to be hurt during a collision. Furthermore, a 2019 Harvard Business Review article identified that speech recognition has significant race and gender biases, where it performs worse for women and those from different races and minority groups (Bajorek, 2019).  Therefore, it is clear that there is a need to recruit under-represented groups in order to develop future innovations that are inclusive, and will help the lives of individuals with disabilities, of different races, gender and minoring groups. 

    Reducing inequality and embracing diversity: awareness of intersectionality is key 

    There has been a huge rise in the implementation of unconscious bias training, use of mentors and improving policies relating to recruitment and selection. These are all a good start for improving diversity, equality and inclusiveness in tech sectorshowever, much more needs to be done to accelerate the pace of change. For example, Computer Weekly conducted a survey in the UK and Ireland in 2021 where 67% of IT workers reported that their companies are working to improve gender diversity in IT departments however, only 29% had a plan in place. Tackling issues relating to diversity and equality in tech will not improve without collective action and strategies. 

    One strategy is to increase awareness amongst firms and employees that everyone is multidimensional. Greater cognisance is needed on how different combinations of social characteristics can limit access to opportunities and can also block individual’s ability to realise equal opportunities. Taking an intersectionality approach has however, met criticism, where there is fear that it accentuates differences by categorising individuals based on demographic factors. Although this is not how scholars intend it to be usedInstead I refer to it in the sense of developing intellectual empathy of different situations of individuals. This will help realise the value that can come from having diversity in the tech sector from all angles which will lead to better innovations which can transform all parts of society. I believe that intersectionality is needed to take a systemic view and can help organisational and sector wide strategies relating to discrimination and equality in tech sectors. 

    This article first appeared in the Winter 2021/22 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to receive future digital editions here.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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