Opinion

Ultra-hip tech firms need to look past attaining staff through perks and focus more on diversity

6 min read

24 August 2015

The Reverend Jesse Jackson has taken a year long swipe at the US tech giants, criticising the firms for lacking black leaders and role models.

He has urged the public to look past the trendy sweaters, sneakers, chill-out zones and no-tie hipster cool of these high-flying tech firms and ask serious questions about the lack of black and Asian faces found on boards and in offices.

Jackson called, as part of the work carried out by his Rainbow Push Coalition, on the firms to release employee diversity information. Giants such as Google and Twitter have done so, with the leaders of both companies holding their hands up and saying that most of their employees were “male and white”.

The most recent was Apple, which said that it had hired over 2,200 black employees globally, up 50 per cent on 12 months earlier, and 2,700 Hispanic workers, a 66 per cent increase. It went further revealing that it had hired over 11,000 women and stated that 50 per cent of its new hires in the past year had either been female or “people of colour”.

The Rainbow Push Coalition is clearly doing valuable work in highlighting this issue and although not making the tech giants squirm exactly, at least pressurising them into publicising numbers.

Is there a need for a similar push in the UK? Regarding the hiring of black and Asian employees in the Silicon Roundabouts or Glens of the UK there is a clear need for some form of detailed analysis to be carried out. If the US giants are falling short in this area, then it is likely that smaller tech compatriots in the UK may also need to do “the math” when it comes to the diversity mix.

It is interesting that Apple went further and outlined the number of women that was employed in the last year.

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It is even more interesting given the study out today from international professional services consultancy Procorre that just 18 per cent of directors of technology firms at Silicon Roundabout are women. That, it points out, is far lower than the representation of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, where 24 per cent directors are women.

Procorre calls for a form of self-imposed targeting – of businesses taking the lead and improving the gender mix.

It is something tech firms in this country should embrace, but will they? How much do business leaders really care or understand about diversity issues as they stroke their hipster beards, caress their Fairtrade coffee and devise the newest tech devices to wow the world?

The civil rights veteran Jackson raised a fascinating point alongside his more general call to arms to improve diversity in the sector.

He touched a nerve in the whole culture of the Facebook and Twitter generation – the laid back, dormitory attitudes, the “ethics before profit brigade”, the chilled-out “cool, cool” at the end of conversations, the board meeting held at Pret or Eat, and the free drinks on Friday.

It feels like a club – a white, middle class, male club – who may have the pretensions to want to change the world in a “nice” way, be the boy next door all the mums love but in reality shy away from real life and real world issues such as the difficulty black people and women have in finding work in the sector.

Dan Price walked the walk when it came to building a new kind of business based on ethics and humanity. He was the Seattle entrepreneur and founder of credit card processing firm Gravity Payments, who slashed his own pay to hike the salaries of all his employees so they could comfortably pay the rent and afford nights out or nice holidays with the family.

Price is still committed to the idea despite losing key members of his staff who didn’t like less skilled workers getting bigger wage hikes than they were getting. He claims to have won new clients off the back of his change in policy, and believes giving his staff more security at the expense of his higher wage is the right thing to do.

The bosses of our ultra-hip tech firms with their cool logos don’t need to exactly mirror Price’s action in cutting his salary. But they must realise that it may become more uncomfortable as they grow to maintain the allure of being “alternative” to the staid British businesses of the past if they possess their same conservative attitudes when it comes to diversity or more equal salary structures.

Take a look at your business, the mix of employees, the ethics and culture in place, and try to represent the UK not just in radical new technological ideas but in a more fair, diverse and humane business ethos.