Why Creating an Inclusive Culture is Key to Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce

By Dr. Bethany Edmunds, PhD – Director of Computer Science and Teaching Professor at Northeastern University’s campus in Vancouver, BC

We all know that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) matter greatly in the tech sector. But while the business case for diversity is strong, the gap between theory and practice remains wide. 

We like to think we’ve come a long way in the last several decades, but studies show that people who are minorities in the tech sector continue to face barriers to inclusion. As a result, many choose to exit the sector – and many others choose not to pursue a tech career in the first place. 

A 2021 Diversity in Tech report found that 68 percent of the 18- to 28-year-old respondents have felt uncomfortable in a job due to their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or neurodevelopmental condition, and half have left or wanted to leave their job because of a company culture that made them feel uncomfortable.

Fortunately, the days of hiring for culture fit seem to be waning, thanks to social movements such as Black Lives Matter and the global pandemic that have helped to shine the spotlight on our collective need to up the ante on adapting to new ways of working and expanding DEI initiatives – both in tech, and across all sectors. 

The key to adding diversity to the workplace may in fact be inclusion – ensuring that everyone, regardless of gender, ethnic background, age and abilities – is enabled and encouraged as equal team members, and feel comfortable and accepted for who they are.

The value of leading in inclusion

It’s long been proven that diversity in any environment – the workplace, educational institutions, communities – is an invaluable way to foster creativity, innovation, strength and even profits. But the challenge of attracting and retaining diverse people in the tech sector remains. And that may have a lot to do with the lack of inclusion efforts. 

While diversity is often focused on attracting employees (or students) to the field, inclusion is geared more toward retention. In other words, if people in tech don’t feel like they belong, or that their contributions aren’t recognized or valued, they’re more likely to leave. 

I don’t believe anyone should have to change themselves just to feel comfortable where they work and study. And I’ve seen some great examples of programs that are changing the dynamic for diverse employees. SAP’s Autism at Work program is an incredible example of inclusion in action. The program, which leverages the unique abilities of people on the spectrum to advance innovation by reducing barriers to entry and tapping into underutilized resources, has changed both hiring and retention practices at the company by training managers to adapt to employees with neurodiversity, rather than the other way around. 

Hiring managers have learned to recognize that the skills applicants need to succeed in a job are different than those typically associated with a successful job interview. And by separating interview skills from job requirements, SAP was able to open the door to more qualified neurodiverse candidates. The entire company has benefitted from these changes, and has continued to refine everything from expectations for team communication to unconscious biases in performance reviews.    

Another great example is our Align program at Northeastern University, which offers a master’s degree in computer science for those who don’t have a background in tech. At our Vancouver campus, our cohort is 49% female and non-binary, as compared to an average of 25% for most computer science programs, and our instructional teams work hard to access the latest research on diversity and inclusion best practices – and to adapt them for their classrooms. For example, rather than defaulting to the traditional lecture format, we look for opportunities to involve students in leading discussions and problem-solving sessions, ensuring that diverse voices contribute their perspectives. It’s a work in progress, but we’ve seen how giving everyone in the classroom equal weight allows for open dialogue, respect, and new ways of thinking. 

Making workspaces more inclusive

Another important component in inclusion comes via mentorship. While having a mentor can be valuable to anyone at any stage of their career, for minorities in the tech workspace, it’s crucial to have someone to lean on who can offer insights, guidance, and a friendly ear. 

Our partners at organizations like the Immigrant Employment Council of BC and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) offer invaluable mentorship opportunities for women, students, and new immigrants.

In addition to mentorship, the Digital Supercluster’s Athena Pathways and Athena Digital Leaders program led by AInBC offers scholarships, sponsored work placements, and high caliber training and workshops in partnership with Northeastern and other BC-based educational institutions — helping more women and new immigrants start or accelerate their career in AI, machine learning and data science. These programs are also imperative in tackling the gender and diversity gap in the tech sector locally as well as opening pathways for more traditional industries to better leverage opportunities in AI and machine learning.

And there are many other resources available to employers and organizations looking to boost their DEI initiatives with an emphasis on inclusion, including the TAP Network (formerly known as HR Tech Group) and Better Allies (subscribe to its weekly newsletter), two resources I have found to be particularly insightful. Both offer suggestions for small changes you can make to help others – especially if you come from a position of privilege, like I do.

While we all need to do better when it comes to inclusion, there are compelling reasons to invest the time and effort, beyond what we already know about fostering innovation, creativity, and profit. 

Hiring and retention is costly, and so is losing talent, especially in the tech sector. Putting the effort into ensuring diverse team members feel like they belong is about improving processes that range from hiring to performance evaluations to expressions of corporate culture. The more every team member is able to contribute, the more value employers get from that diversity. 

It’s time we focus more on inclusion as a key component of attraction and retention in tech environments, so that we can broaden the diversity of voices in these fields and ensure respectful, safe environments where everyone can thrive.  

About Dr. Bethany Edmunds:

Dr. Bethany Edmunds is the Director of Computer Science and Teaching Professor at Northeastern University’s campus in Vancouver, BC. She has a Ph.D. in Computer Science, with a specialization in Artificial Intelligence, and is passionate about breaking down barriers to create greater diversity, access, and inclusion within the tech community.  She brings together expertise in software development, machine learning, and educational innovation to create STEM opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities. Bethany has been named one of BC Business’s Most Influential Women in STEM, Business in Vancouver’s Forty under 40, and YWCA’s Women of Distinction. She was recently appointed as the Director of Women in Machine Learning (WiML).