A little while ago, our family car needed to go to the shop for repairs. I asked my wife if she would prefer to take it, but she refused. She worried that if the undoubtedly male mechanics saw her, they wouldn’t treat her fairly.
She’s not alone in imagining this is the case. In fact, there is now a female-owned auto shop in Pennsylvania that caters to women, offering salon services while they wait for an oil change. Patrice Banks, the owner and a former materials engineer, also hosts a monthly car clinic for women.
Banks’ business proves that all it takes is a concerted effort to break down diversity barriers. Her business has many parallels to science, technology, engineering and math fields in Silicon Valley. The technology industry has garnered a poor reputation for its diversity. When it comes down to it, auto repair is a technology sector. Its skills are housed in the same STEM umbrella as jobs in coding, big data and basically every other scientific discipline. And the social barriers that create an unconscious — and sometimes shamefully conscious — message that it is not friendly to newcomers has its roots in the same reason my wife doesn’t believe she has a fair shot at an auto shop.
One of Patrice Banks’ automotive class students put it simply: “I did not know that girls could go into the automotive field.” Technology companies can stop enabling this cultural message by making a real effort to be more diverse themselves.
As employees and creative thinkers in STEM fields, we pride ourselves on logical thinking. We imagine we are always hiring the best employee based entirely on facts, rather than on personal bias, and that this will result in the best workforce. But any good, logical thinker knows that you have to address your own biases to get real results. Science itself has proven that STEM is full of subtle biases that challenge our ability to be diverse.
To cultivate a successful environment for diversity to thrive, it’s not enough to ask those underrepresented to “lean in” and forge their own path ahead as an outlier. All businesses should encourage grassroots diversity in STEM, where we can foster a future workforce that better reflects society as a whole. In my experience, the long-term outcome is clear — diversity in STEM education leads to diversity in the workplace, making technology companies function better.
When successful companies set out to hire or staff a project, diversity needs to be at the forefront of their thinking. Personally, I have witnessed an environment where people produce better work by making a concerted effort to be inclusive. More players at the table from varied backgrounds ensures your products and solutions are more well rounded, and it avoids your company from falling prey to any of the embarrassing tech-industry missteps rooted in a homogenous workforce. Creating a wider network of employees that represents different genders, races, physical abilities, and economic and geographic backgrounds means that your products and services will mirror that diversity.
Technology is so ubiquitous that it’s shameful to think of it as a boys’ club, or any other demographic modifier. The people we imagine as our generation’s great modern thinkers are engineers and scientists. Being exclusive about who gets to contribute to future advancements only limits the way we can improve modern life. On a daily basis, each and every person on the planet is interacting with, benefiting from and demanding more from their technology. Not listening to those voices and failing to serve those needs is not just bad corporate citizenship, it’s bad business.