Diversity, Inclusion, and Why Tech Needs Both

by Nicole Shephard

Diversity and inclusion have become ever present topics in tech over the past few years, and that’s good news. But while there is growing agreement that they are indeed important, what they mean and how they differ is often much less clear. As these are questions I answer on a regular basis, I’ve put together a mini-explainer that (very) briefly summarises what diversity and inclusion are, how they are different, and why tech needs both.

Diversity and inclusion are often lumped together and used quasi-synonymously or thought of as a kind of progression where diversity is for beginners, and inclusion is what we really should be after. In practice, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Both diversity and inclusion are essential if we believe that our tech work spaces should be designed to welcome a wide range of people rather than primarily straight white dudes. Even more so, if we believe that a diverse group of people brings a more valuable range of ideas, knowledge and experience to the table and thus makes better informed decisions, is more innovative and creative, and ultimately builds better products.

As a shortcut, we can think of diversity as the mix of people present, and of inclusion as creating an environment in which everyone in this mix of people can thrive. From that perspective, diversity without inclusion is not sustainable, while inclusion without diversity remains hypothetical.

Diversity refers to differences between people, for example in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, educational background, disability, religion or age. While gender diversity and diversity in terms of race or ethnicity are currently most talked about in tech, it’s important to remember that the differences people bring to the table are much more, well, diverse than that. And it’s equally important to remember that these differences are more than some kind of ‘asset’ or ‘talent’ to be valued professionally, but have functioned historically (and still do today) to categorise, exclude, and discriminate against people.

Diversity is often framed in terms of quantity: how many minorities are represented in your company, or at your event? Is the number of people from minority backgrounds you hire or invite representative of the wider population? Are they spread across the hierarchies at your organisation or do they largely find themselves in entry-level positions? On its own, this approach risks turning a well-meaning intervention into a simplistic diversity checklist for management to metaphorically tick a few boxes and pat themselves on the shoulder for having done diversity.

If diversity is about quantity, inclusion is about quality. Do your minority hires stay at your company? Are people from diverse backgrounds comfortable in your team and able to do well? Do the women and people of colour you’ve invited to speak at your conference accept your invitation? An inclusive environment promotes a sense of belonging, fosters respect and values the differences of those present. Inclusion also means to actively support people from all backgrounds, including those with particular needs, to achieve their full potential. Inclusion has much more to do with organisational culture and practices than with counting minorities.

In tech, both diversity and inclusion have gained traction over the past few years, which is a promising (if long overdue) trend. But as a constant trickle of news and stories about sexism and harassment in various tech companies illustrates, much work remains to be done. Two important directions for further improvement are inclusive tech – as in technology that is accessible and designed to be inclusive of a wide range of users – and diversity and inclusion in the tech industry as such.

Diversity and inclusion are not the same, but both are important and closely related to one another: diverse teams make inclusive tech. And fostering diverse teams calls for an inclusive work environment where everyone can thrive to their full potential, free from discrimination and harassment.

Diversity and inclusion in tech

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