The Business Cost of Ignoring Diverse Voices

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Virtual Reality tends to make women feel nauseous. Being a racial minority means being under scrutiny all the time and it’s overwhelming to experience. Women are part of their own problem in reinforcing sexist attitudes. That there are thousands of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, is an experience Aboriginal women carry with them all the time in all aspects of their lives. Smart men would just keep their privilege and say nothing about the sexism they benefit from in business and in life.

These quotes  – far reaching statements that are inflammatory to some, welcome and well-spoken truths to others – are from A Panel from the Margins, part of the DMZ Ryerson International Women’s Day celebrations held yesterday. Created by Tech Girls Canada in partnership with DMZ, the event was planned for the discussion about diversity in the technology industries to come from voices that are seldom heard from in the broader community in general and from the business community specifically.

 

“For those who have been silenced, we are going to do this together,” moderator Saadia Muzaffar promised before opening the event with a fireside chat with Toronto-based activist and politician Olivia Chow. Chow, who spoke of her 27-year-long campaign seeking a formal apology and compensation for victims of Canada’s historical head tax on Chinese immigrants, cautioned attendees to remember that, “there isn’t a lot of time to feel sad or disappointed.”

The panel discussion that followed highlighted what progress has been made and how much work there is still do to if society and business are to create a true culture of equality.

Racism, because it does so much damage in the form of overt expression and micro-aggressions, represents a huge loss of energy and potential.

“The norm that’s set becomes your norm whether you like it or not,” said panelist Zee Adams. Adams talked about having to withdraw from interactions at some points to “reset the force field.”

And, that idea of protection is not just about reducing feelings of being overwhelmed.

“Why do some airbags save men and kill women?” panelist Huda Idrees asked. Product design and testing often does not take diversity into account and the resulting products can cause harm to certain populations at worst and leave needs completely unmet at best.

Desmond Cole, the lone male on the panel, emphasized that ‘diversity’ itself is a problematic term. “Who is allowing whom to diversify?” he asked. “What are we diversifying from?”

In speaking from his own experience, Cole spoke of a public resistance to diversity. “Every time we interview a woman of colour,” Cole remembers, “we invariably get an email that says, ‘why is this biased person on your show?’”

While men are the beneficiaries of the sexist status quo, they are not alone in perpetuating it, Cole said.

“It’s equally important to talk about cases where women contribute to the problem,” said panelist Foteini Agrafioti, who spoke to her own experience as a computer science student on this issue. “I would work on a team that was predominantly male and I would subconsciously take a back seat,” she said.

While some women exclude themselves from science and technology, exclusion by others is still a common practice. Panelist Erica Violet Lee spoke of being automatically placed in adapted math classes in high school.

“We need it now to help defend our lands and waters,” Lee said. “We need it now to help defend our lands and waters. That’s why I’m going back to comp sci and tech.”

It is clear that not respecting diversity in every aspect of business, leaves all of us without a culture of equality.  We don’t have products that address the needs of many populations. Business cultures exact more resources from people of colour and women than from others. And self-exclusion and administrative exclusion are preventing many from achieving mastery of skills our earth and economy desperately need. According to the panel, inequality is clearly costing everyone more than we can afford to lose.

Photo credit: Keifer Wiseman

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Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott is the Managing Editor of B2BNN. Her technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun and the Bay Street Bull. She is the author of the short story collections Love from Planet Wine Cooler and Dry Stories. Links to recently published pieces can be found at www.katebaggott.com