Why diversity of thought is a foolproof recipe for business success

Cloudera Inc

By Keir Garrett*
Tuesday, 18 June, 2024


Why diversity of thought is a foolproof recipe for business success

It’s widely understood that businesses with strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies generally perform better when it comes to driving profitability, employee retention and innovation. However, in today’s competitive business environment and specifically within the rapidly changing technology sector, I also believe that we need to be championing diversity of thought if we really want to get ahead.

Let’s face it, hiring people that all look and sound the same or have similar shared experiences has its limitations.

A good leader recognises that everyone has something unique to contribute when it comes to creating a successful team. Much like transforming a disparate group of ingredients into a culinary work of art in the kitchen, building a diverse team in the workplace is about bringing together the right mix of talented individuals and knowledge that comes from different backgrounds, perspectives and life experience. This combined diversity of thought, when harnessed in the right way, can achieve truly amazing things.

Breaking the diversity ‘mould’ needs a different mindset

Diversity helps us to explore the art of the possible, fostering innovation and encouraging ideation. We need to be aspirational and aim for what I like to call audacious hairy goals.

However, there is still much work to be done. According to 2023 government data, women represent 38.4% of all full-time employees and 68.5% of all part-time employees within Australia; however, these figures shrink considerably when looking at roles within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Currently, women hold only 15% of STEM jobs within Australia and just 8% of these companies have women in the CEO position.

I am sometimes asked about why I chose a career in technology. For me, the attraction was the excitement of working in a sector that has such a fast-paced and ever-evolving rate of change. In our lifetime, we’re discovering AI-driven innovation, agility, business strategy growth and alignment — when only a decade ago, conversations were all about bottom lines and ensuring the check and balance of the reporting books.

Reflecting on my own career journey, I was once interviewed at a technology company where I was told I didn’t “fit the mould” because I came from a different industry background. I challenged this, pointing out that the business was struggling and perhaps the ‘mould’ the interviewer was so attached to was broken. There was also a notable lack of women on the team. Another time, the hiring manager at another major technology multinational asked how I felt about being the only woman leader in a team of men. While I responded that I didn’t realise my gender was a qualifying criterion for the role, I also knew then that their environment wasn’t going to be the right fit for me.

Successful DEI needs to be more than HR policies or an annual day on the calendar where we all get together, eat lots of cake and give ourselves a ‘slap on the back’ via our social media feeds.

In the name of progress, we need to be willing to break away from traditional thinking and practices. If we bring the right people on board who think about change and make the seemingly impossible possible, we can achieve just about anything.

Proving traditional norms around technology careers wrong

Australia, like many countries, continues to face a technology talent drought, if the government’s first jobs and skills report is anything to go by. Approximately 70% of IT occupations continue to experience shortages in areas like cybersecurity, data science and software engineering.

To close these gaps, we need to level the playing field to enable qualified people from different backgrounds to access these jobs. This means finding creative ways to encourage more girls, women, First Nations people and workers from lower-income or less traditional education pathways to gain the skills they need to secure jobs in our vibrant technology sector.

The government’s STEM Equity Monitor shows that girls’ confidence in STEM subjects is generally lower than boys and tails off further as they get older. In 2023, girls only made up about one-quarter of enrolments in Year 12 STEM subjects and women represented 37% of enrolments at university.

There’s also a common misconception that you need to take an IT course to excel in a career in technology. The reality today is that some of the best data engineers, scientists and academics have emerged from unexpected backgrounds. In many instances they learnt on the job, or through an internship to employment pipeline. My daughter initially studied forensics but, perhaps due to the popularity of shows like CSI, couldn’t find work in her chosen field. Many of her skills learnt studying forensics were transferable to the technology sector and she’s now shaping her future in the field of data engineering.

When I review a CV or job application, I don’t just focus on what the candidate has studied. Instead, I look for ‘soft’ qualities such as aptitude, tenacity and resilience. Hiring people with these qualities is what sets us apart from our competitors. Given the right tools to thrive combined with their experiences and differences, it’s never long before the business starts seeing tangible returns.

Changing the narrative around diversity

The case for continuing to build a truly diverse workforce in all areas grows more compelling each year. It is encouraging to see that barriers to entry within the technology sector are continuing to be broken regardless of gender, race, education or religion. Individuals are also becoming far more assertive and recognise they can stand up and forge their way through hard work, lived experience, confidence and capability.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to actioning DEI initiatives is managing unconscious bias in the workplace. Technology leaders can successfully drive change by first identifying the areas in their organisation that need to change. Then it’s about setting clear, measurable goals to track progress. These data insights can also reveal any hidden biases and redirect attention to how DEI policies can be improved and successfully actioned.

While it is a long journey that requires genuine effort and attention, the data is there for leaders to act on. As a technology leader, it’s one that I am proud to be part of.

*Keir Garrett is Regional VP ANZ at Cloudera. Keir brings more than 20 years of management, strategic consulting and digital transformation experience to Cloudera, and has successfully developed lines of business in global markets and across multiple industries, both directly with customers and in collaboration with the partner ecosystem. Most recently, Keir spent two years at Crayon in the role of Chief Executive Officer and prior to this was Head of Software, Cloud, Advisory, Professional & Managed Services Sales at Datacom. She has also held several senior positions at Microsoft, SAP and Infor.

Top image credit: iStock.com/Prostock-Studio

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