The global impact of COVID-19 on women’s well-being has been highlighted in a new UN Women report co-authored by Griffith University academic Professor Sara Davies.
Alana Bastin-Byrn, CEO of female brand advocacy company, Femeconomy commented “The pandemic lays bare women’s precarious economic security: 740 million women work in the informal economy. Their income fell by 60 per cent during the first month of the pandemic.”
Further, a UN report published in April 2020 said, “even the limited gains made in the past decades” toward gender equality “are at risk of being rolled back”.
Now let’s turn our focus to technology and address the already poor representation of women in this sector.
“Diversity is critical in tech, as it enables companies to create better and safer products that take everyone into consideration, not just one section of society.”
According to CompTIA the global technology industry sits close to $5 trillion and experienced the single largest percentage growth of new businesses in 2019. Yet the number of women working in technology remains below 25%.
“Diverse companies perform better, hire better talent, have more engaged employees and retain workers better than companies that do not focus on diversity and inclusion.”
The multitudinous benefits of diverse technology teams are well known. Yet we still see deeply embedded tech stereotypes pervading the sector and unconscious biases continue to adversely affect hiring, development and retention of women where they’re needed most.
Then enter stage door left one deadly global pandemic and BANG! All the small (but excruciatingly hard-fought-for) advancements made in recent years are wiped out overnight. How? We’ve seen a crushing knee-jerk pandemic response from companies all over the world, laying off vast numbers as they scramble to prepare for economic uncertainty and deal with varying levels of business impact. But critically, what didn’t happen when identifying people to let go was a consideration given to the aforementioned value of diversity. The traditional “who can you afford to lose in your team?” approach yielded a first-wave cull of low-tenure, junior and part-time employees before others. And guess what? Tech teams the world over lost significant percentage points in their diversity numbers in the blink of an eye.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
“The worse the consequence, the greater the hindsight bias.”
– Daniel Kahneman, Author of “Thinking, Fast And Slow”
It’s hard to ignore the fact that the loss of diversity in the technology industry could have been avoided with the benefit of hindsight. Who knew, right? But it’s safe to say that had measures been in place to ensure part of the decision-making criteria was the consequences of such diversity loss, outcomes could have looked quite different.
So what can be done to safeguard against future women-first layoffs and the potentially devastating consequences for diversity in technology teams and leadership the world over?
Daniel Kahneman’s famous book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” expounds the benefits of slowing down decision-making when the outcome potential requires it. The effects of intuition, gut feeling, groupthink and other underlying unconscious biases can be mitigated. Of course, in the case of something so fast and dramatic as the onset of the March pandemic emergency means urgent, emergency-level decision-making (although many would say the writing had been on the wall for some time).
Having a clear policy about the criteria that layoffs are made against will force a protocol to be followed through the decision-making process. This would mitigate the risk of potential knee-jerk reactions of fast thinking based on biased criteria. A simple Diversity & Inclusion Policy could be either introduced where one does not exist or a clause added to existing policies, along the lines of:
POLICY CLAUSE: IN TIMES OF CHANGE
We value diversity in our workforce and if, as a result of economic, market, business restructuring, technological changes or an epidemic or pandemic emergency, redundancies are required, careful consideration will be given to retaining diversity as a priority.
Stating that your company values diversity in its people is one thing, but living this value unconditionally is quite another. Clearly marking out a commitment to action could be the only way.
Emma Jones is the Founder and CEO of Project F,
helping progressive companies achieve gender-balanced technology teams and leadership.