Removing bias from tech is essential: Here’s why11 Feb 2021 · 4 min read
Michael Voegele, Chief Technology Officer at Philip Morris International (PMI)
There is no doubt that living through the pandemic has increased our reliance on technology.
Businesses are recognizing this shift—in one recent survey, more than 80 percent of respondents were planning to accelerate their digital transformations.
Living through the pandemic has also helped raise awareness of the importance of building a more equitable and just society. Technology, with its power to shape our world, can be a key tool in achieving this—if IT and tech leaders commit to prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion . After all, tech can only reflect and return what is input by its creators and engineers—and since it is still largely a male-dominated field, it can be said that bias is built into many of our tech systems and platforms from inception. To address this, we need teams who develop and update technologies to be as diverse as possible so they can drive innovation, create efficiencies, and be truly consumer-centric, reflecting the full diversity of the world around us, ensuring that stereotypes and bias are not reinforced at scale.
The UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11 marks a good time to reflect on the state of gender diversity in tech—an area of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that has become a top priority in recent years.
Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t promising: We have an underrepresentation of girls who study STEM fields, which translates to a limited female talent pool. It comes as no surprise, then, that women represent just over 34 percent of the workforce at the five largest global tech companies – which directly corresponds to numbers of female university graduates in the field. What’s more, a new report from Accenture and Girls Who Code shows that the ratio of women to men in tech roles has declined over the past 35 years.
Photo posed by models. © Getty Images.This data reveals a critical mission for society. And although many organizations are focused on creating more opportunities for women in STEM, the problem goes deeper. We need parents and educators to inspire more girls to get interested in the STEM fields (that’s why organizations like Girls Who Code are invaluable), broadening their range of possibilities and preventing gender-specific labels in these domains. In addition, IT and tech leaders in companies must work to build an inclusive environment that empowers women in tech with the skills they need to be successful, celebrates female role models, and encourages women to speak up, share their ideas and unleash their creativity.
In business, this work starts at the top. With leadership support, organizations must focus on attracting top female talent in tech and retaining the female talent they have. Leaders must be intentional, also, in their efforts to create and maintain an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued and heard. This means seeking out diverse points of view and acknowledging that the task at hand is not an easy one—but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.
The study from Accenture and Girls Who Code also found that women often join the tech industry because they want to help create a better world. That’s good news for organizations with a strong purpose and a positive mission. We have seen this at PMI, with our vision to replace cigarettes with smoke-free alternatives for the benefit of hundreds of millions of adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, those who love them, and public health overall. Applicants who may not have considered us as a potential employer before—particularly women—see how PMI is leveraging science and technology to drive positive change and they are starting to think differently about our company, and want to contribute to achieving a smoke-free future.
Of course hiring diverse talent is just the beginning. It’s also crucial to ensure retention is a winning proposition for everyone. One way is to offer learning opportunities so individuals can upskill and prepare to take on new or greater responsibilities. Other important programs include more inclusive parental leave, flexible working arrangements, networking and mentoring opportunities, and ensuring performance reviews recognize and work to address bias.
The final step is to set measurable goals and track progress transparently. PMI’s addition to the 2021 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index demonstrates that we are doing just that. Though we know we have more work to do, advancing gender equity is a strategic business priority and one that we know is well worth the effort.
So as I reflect on what we can do to drive change, my message is this: We must ensure advances in technology serve everyone—not simply the majority. Let’s find solutions —not excuses— to delivering better results, and our businesses and society will be all the better for it.
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