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‘This article on diversity is not about gender imbalance’

‘This article on diversity is not about gender imbalance’

ICT is a field created by innovative thinkers; technologies should be developed by a population as diverse as its users.

I have always been a minority member in ICT, despite focusing my entire career on that industry. Official stats on the number of women in technology are hard to find, but it appears that only 20 per cent of ICT professionals in New Zealand are women, with USA and Canada fairing slightly better, around 25 per cent.

Information technology consultant Garry Roberton has documented and blogged that efforts to increase female tertiary enrolments into ICT-related programs have made little difference so far, with the female-to-male ratio “intractably stuck at 20:80”.

ICT is a field created by innovative thinkers; technologies should be developed by a population as diverse as its users. By the stats, it does not seem to be the case. There is a risk to lose out on potential innovations when we do not have a diverse workforce fully participating in the creation of technology-based solutions.

This article is not about gender imbalance. I will leave that for another occasion as, in terms of diversity, gender is just one aspect, and focusing only on it would be a narrow view of the subject.

Diversity of thought

I consider diversity as diversity of thought. During my career, I have found rich, innovative thinking both in female and male colleagues, and not gender specific. Yes, of course, as a generalisation and also as another angle of diversity, I have noticed there are different preferences in the ICT profession depending on gender, with my male counterparts showing a marked interest in gadgetry, and hardware infrastructure. For me the attraction has been what it can be achieved through technology: efficiencies, new business models, and innovation. Of course, this may sound stereotyping.

The decline in women interested in technology may stem from a lack of understanding about the diversity of roles available in ICT, particularly those that play to women's strengths.

Diversity is not solely about gender, it is about building a quality team with varied perspectives from the individual participants, and in doing so creating dynamics to achieve outcomes. When in a team, executive or otherwise, it is the assessment of business opportunities and the execution of the plan to get there that really matters. When in a board of directors’ setting, it is the effective execution of corporate governance and strategic oversight.

Read more: Does your Board paper have a section on cyber risk?

In the same way that approximately 20 years ago ICT professionals found it challenging to gain a seat at the executive table, technology skills have only recently been contemplated as required at board level, complementing law, accounting, and other industry specific knowledge to govern the enterprise.

Typically, boards identify and evaluate significant opportunities and risks, providing informed guidance for major strategic decisions and assessing the CEO's performance. Executing these changes requires experienced individuals, responsible and collaborative, and an environment in which challenging issues can be robustly discussed, where opposing opinions are sought and trust is implicit to discover alternatives and implications – reaching unanimity but not as a result of group-think.

An extensive body of research has found that boards of directors are at their best when there is diversity of culture, thinking and perspective, and that boardroom heterogeneity is perceived and valued by directors. This is a view that the Institute of Directors in New Zealand supports and promotes.

Read more: Movers & shakers: Robyn Gillespie (Opus) & Paul Mahoney (Public Trust)

In the same way that approximately 20 years ago ICT professionals found it challenging to gain a seat at the executive table, technology skills have only recently been contemplated as required at board level.

A board's first responsibility is to the company and to represent shareholders. Both company and shareholders suffer without the support of customers and employees. A diverse board allows for the group to better anticipate and consider the concerns and perspectives of all key stakeholders, many of whom are also ‘minorities’.

This is best done through a robust dialogue of differing views, offered respectfully and listened to carefully.

The journey and the transition that needs to occur is from homogeneity to heterogeneity of board composition, from group thinking to broader thinking because:

• A wide range of perspectives is desirable in any good board;

• The trend toward diversity is essential as boards look to navigate globalisation, the rapid deployment of technology, and an increasing need for risk management among others, and not just as a reflection of the evolution of the composition of the workforce;

• Experience in dealing with risk from many angles because you don't know where risk is going to come from. Having directors from very diverse backgrounds is a great source of insight.

However, it would be misleading to conclude that women face no obstacles to reaching the boardroom. Some obstacles may be outdated stereotyping, although it appears that these attitudes are changing gradually.

Read more: CIO Upfront: Demystifying (unconscious) bias

In terms of the inclusion of digital experience at board level, apart from a risk-mitigation perspective (and this is not just cyber-risk), there is the ability to spot and sponsor new business opportunities.

There will be a point when diversity will cease to be a topic of discussion – but just the way to go about achieving effective business results.

Claudia Vidal is an independent director for Skills4Work and AMES IT Animation Group. She is a senior technology leader with specific strengths in business and systems strategies, and program execution. Reach her at cgvidal@gmail.com

Read more: The ‘L’ word

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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