From education to employment

Diversity in Tech is a Must

Susanna Lawson is the co-founder and director of OneFile

A few weeks ago, I went to a Solidarity in Tech event about how to increase inclusion in tech. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect, but the discussions really opened my eyes and got me thinking about how diversity affects developments.  

I’ve had first-hand experience of an issue with online form fields. My mum’s maiden name is Ng, but many online sites have a 3-character minimum in surname fields. I don’t believe this to be purposefully exclusive, but it is an ignorant mistake that could be easily avoided by having a diverse tech team.

A Chinese developer would know there are many common surnames with only 2 letters and be able to impact the development.  

Another example is the story of the “racist” soap dispenser. In 2015, an African-American man called T.J Fitzpatrick tried to use the soap dispenser at a Marriott hotel in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t recognise his hands. T.J called to his white friend Larry to give it a go, and voilà – out came the soap.

The dispenser emits near-infrared light that bounces back off a hand to trigger the sensor. However, a dark-skinned hand doesn’t reflect enough light to activate the sensor, and here in lies the issue. Again though, this problem could have been easily avoided if the dispenser had been tested on a variety of skin tones – which it would have done if the tech team behind it was diverse.  

T.J posted his experience on YouTube and thousands of people around the globe know the story of the “racist” soap dispenser. The problem is, nothing changed. The same thing happened 2 years later to a Nigerian man called Chukwuemeka Afigbo, who tweeted ‘if you have ever had a problem grasping the importance of diversity in tech and its impact on society, watch this video.‘ The video went viral, was retweeted over 150,000 times, and brought the issue of diversity in tech into the mainstream. 

After a quick bit of research, I found some really shocking mistakes made by some of the world’s largest tech companies. Flickr and Google’s automatic labelling systems caused controversy when they tagged photos of black people as ‘ape’ or ‘gorilla’.

Another example is Nikon’s digital camera pop-ups that offered the message ‘Did someone blink?’ when photographing Asian people.  

Another common issue for tech companies is gender bias. Most voice recognition software can understand male voices more easily than female ones as tech teams are typically male, and they’re the ones that train the software.  

It’s oversights like these that are making tech exclusive. I’m not saying that all tech companies are intentionally racist, or trying to make life difficult for their users, but some could be seen as ignorant. By increasing diversity across all their teams, they’ll make sure their tech is inclusive for everyone.

Susanna Lawson, Co-Founder and Director of OneFile – the UK’s leading software for apprenticeships and winner of the 2017 Queen’s Award for Innovation. Susanna is also Forward Ladies’ Business Woman of the Year and a proud mum of two.  

Related Articles