(Re)designing the tech industry to include gender diversity

Have we purposely designed the tech industry the way it is today, or did it just happen by accident? The topic of human centred design is often localised to products, services and strategies, but times may be changing. We are increasingly seeing the methods of design thinking and human centred design applied to the broader context of design, like organisations and communities, addressing systemic challenges. Still, what I haven’t seen is the deliberate designing of an entire industry. Perhaps the time may be nigh for the technology space.

There is a significant challenge in the tech industry relating to gender diversity. There is plenty of evidence out there now to show the issue. For example, a recent quant study showed that out of “500 tech start-ups in the San Francisco Bay area with fewer than 100 employees, only 23 percent are female.” (FT) I think we’ve spent enough time and effort describing the size problem, let’s get to working on the deeper insight behind this challenge and start doing something about it. This is a perfect design challenge.

So how might we address gender diversity in the tech industry? We shouldn’t assume that increased female representation is the answer, we should first understand what the core or the challenge is about. One thing we do know is that where there is diversity of thought, experience, world views and capabilities, there is creativity and innovation. That extends beyond the gender discussion of course. Here’s how we might go about tackling this challenge:

1. Decide it is a problem worth tackling.

For us to do a good job in solving this problem, we need to be passionate about solving it. There’s no point tackling something of this magnitude, if you’re not passionately involved with it in some form.

2. Work out what the problem actually is and whether it needs a solution.

We often can’t tell whether we are in solution mode or problem mode. Mostly because we are taught to jump to solutions in school and we are rewarded when those solutions are ‘right’. Assuming that all problems need a solution can lead us into trouble. Once we have an understanding of the real challenge, we should consider whether we need to do something about it first, before jumping in.

3. Work with women and men to understand the dynamics at play that have the diversity numbers looking the way they do.

Although there may be a great deal of attention about this being a gender diversity issue, I think it is just a diversity issue. We should involve all who are present in the ecosystem to help create the alternative.

4. Design a ‘prototype industry’ with all the actors involved in a typical industry model.

Prototypes are not just for products and websites. An industry is a complex system and all systems can be modelled and prototyped. There’s no reason why we can’t take this approach at the industry level as well.

5. Create a pilot ecosystem that runs in accordance with the design of the industry that women can test and critique.

Sometimes we can’t work everything out with just our brains. We actually need to do and experience to uncover learnings. Creating a MVI (minimum viable industry) to pilot with all the actors at a small scale will provide us with the learnings that without action, wouldn’t be available to us.

6. Learn, iterate and scale the industry.

Just like anything that is a dynamic system, we will never be finished co-creating the industry. As time moves on, as social norms shift, morph and change, so too should the industry. Our ability to continue to learn and iterate should remain a fundamental aspect of our practice.

While I know it seems a little ridiculous to suggest we can design an entire industry in just six steps, we can at least start here. After all, the gender diversity issue goes beyond the organisation–it is a systemic issue at the industry level.

We all need to work with women to design the tech industry in a way that makes it attractive for them to participate in it. There could be a number of reasons why women are not more involved in the tech industry. Perhaps women don’t participate in the tech industry because the values and principles the industry is based upon are unappealing. Perhaps it is because the intended culture of most of the organisations that participate in the industry is one that doesn’t naturally attract the majority of women. Perhaps the gender diversity issue is actually a pre-industry issue and exists at the school, college or university level. We’re not creating as many female engineers so how can we expect to see equality in the industry?

The point is I don’t know what the exact problem(s) are, but I do know it is incumbent upon the human centred design community to start to turn their eye to challenges of this scale and for the tech industry, in particular, it is an important place to start.

‘The Body Electric’ photo credit Michael Prewett via unsplash.com
This was first published on Huffington Post