How ThoughtWorks dances with diversity and inclusion
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Consultant Verna Myers perfectly captured the reason why diversity alone is not enough to drive success and promote wellbeing within business with this analogy back in 2015.
Fast forward to 2018 and the TED Talk speaker’s words seem more important than ever in a world where everyone seems to be discussing the importance of making technology more diverse but not many companies seem prepared to actually do anything about it.
One firm which is acting to improve the situation is ThoughtWorks. Based in Illinois in the United States, the global tech consultancy employs 5,000 people globally and recently moved its Manchester base to the newly-opened Federation House, a former Co-op building which has been transformed into a socially responsible digital hub.
“What we’ve focused on historically is advancing women in tech. For the last three or four years, more than 50 per cent of our graduate intake have been women, primarily software developers,” Amy Lynch, who has been at the core of ThoughtWorks’ Manchester operation for the last six years, tells BusinessCloud.
“We’re proud of what we’ve achieved but recognise that gender is the tip of the iceberg. There’s a bunch of stuff within the diversity and inclusion space that we want to support and make an impact in.”
ThoughtWorks was awarded the 2016 and 2017 award for Top Companies for Women Technologists by the Anita Borg Institute, placing it above Google and Facebook as a top company for women in tech. However it recognises that gender itself is non-binary by refusing to allocate male- or female-specific toilets in its futuristic new Manchester space.
→ PODCAST: Inside Tech: The social inclusion conundrum
The importance of inclusivity around race, religion, age, disability and sexuality is what led to Lynch’s current role, head of diversity & inclusivity for the UK, being created.
“Diversity and inclusion is a mindset for us. Everybody in our organisation has an understanding and an appreciation of the importance of being inclusive,” Lynch adds.
ThoughtWorks' offices at Federation House in Manchester
So what does inclusion mean in a business context? And why is it so important?
Business psychology firm Mind Gym describes it as a workplace where no one feels the need to bend themselves out of shape to fit in. If they do, this leads to wasted mental energy, causing the employee’s performance and wellbeing to suffer.
Indeed, any businesses with the mindset that diversity is about ticking boxes and political correctness are running the risk of doing more harm than good. Studies have shown that companies with diversity but no inclusive culture fail to innovate and also generate a lower operating profit, whereas those with high inclusive engagement post almost triple the operating profit of those without it.
“It’s important to make sure the people building software four our clients are representative of the people using it because they will more likely know what the users are going to ultimately need,” says Lynch.
“Tech is perceived as a very young industry but the population is ageing so people are living longer and using technology. Is it helpful if the tech industry is perceived as ageist, whether that’s justified or not?
“We’re also talking about disability. We’re looking to make the organisation as inclusive as possible by factoring in the different needs of different types of people.
“We have an internal forum called InterTWines which is a collection of people who are passionate about diversity and inclusion who may identify as being in one or more minority groups and we go to those people to find out how to make our events as inclusive as possible.”
Lynch says that ThoughtWorks listened to employees who identified as neurodiverse – for example living with autism, dyslexia or bipolarity – before dedicating a ‘quiet’ room devoid of technology which people can use to switch off in.
The company also seeks to tackle the problem of ‘unconscious bias’ by reviewing CVs blind and being aware of gender-coded language in job descriptions. Its interview process is the same around the globe, whether the applicant is in India, Manchester, New York or Brazil.
Market principal Phil O’Neill, responsible for ThoughtWorks’ operations in the North of England, explains why it moved into the Federation.
“The Co-op wanted to create this digital hub around the inclusive values which we share. They wanted to open the doors for people who maybe didn’t go through redbrick universities and private education,” he says.
“Our conversations started in 2016… we wanted to create a community space where we have our ThoughtWorkers but also people from organisations we have partnerships with, such as Reclaim, who are supporting some of our most vulnerable people in society.
“Through them we’re bringing in young people aged 13, 14 and 15. How do we show them that there’s a place at ThoughtWorks for them in the future?
“We’ve built a space where we’ve got scientists, technologists and journalists [for example] actively coming together – all like-minded individuals and having an impact upon society.”
Social inclusion is also a key part of Lynch’s focus. “When you think about a career in tech, I’m fairly confident that the majority of people think you need to study a degree in computer science or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” she says.
“There are barriers there for people who don’t see university as a path for them – whether that’s through choice or circumstance.”
ThoughtWorks helped tech giant Expedia undergo a full digital transformation while it also built the Co-op’s membership platform and shopping platforms for Morrisons. But it is a project with Stockport Council which could have a significant impact in the age of austerity and budget cuts to local government.
Signposts allows simple and secure sharing of information across multiple agencies such as the police, NHS and council.
“The council has many investigators tasked with finding out why children are not in school, for example,” explains O’Neill. “Looking into the children’s families and speaking to the NHS can be a very time-consuming process.
“The premise was to pull that data together so that people within those agencies, with the appropriate access rights, can click in to the platform and find out what is going on.
“The software is open source so other councils can plug it in and have that impact immediately for free. There is no licensing and people’s taxes aren’t being spent on the same software over and over again.
“The councils can then help us add extra value to this platform and improve it.”
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