Technology and inclusion: film and food offer taste of culture

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By Harriet Swain

This article orginally appeared on the Finanical Times

The film Hidden Figures tells the story of three black female mathematicians who worked at Nasa, the US space agency, in the 1960s during the space race. They endured sexism, segregation and career obstacles that directly related to the fact they were black.

But the experience of staff at FDM, an IT support specialist, is very different. The company showed the film as part of a programme of regular events celebrating diversity and cultural differences. These events include a day when employees are encouraged to wear their national dress. Others see employees bring in their national dishes to share with colleagues.

Sheila Flavell, FDM’s chief operating officer, says a culture of inclusivity is ingrained in the organisation. “The more ethnic and racial diversity you have, it brings about new ways of thinking and it brings about new ideas,” she says.

A number of studies suggest that diversity improves the bottom line. A 2015 study by McKinsey, for example, found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their industry’s national average. FDM’s numbers on ethnicity are impressive. An average of 48 per cent of its annual intake of new recruits over the past three years have been from a black, Asian, and minority ethnic background. The numbers are even better — 60 per cent — for those on its returners’ programme, which started 18 months ago for women and men returning to work after a career break.

The company’s commitment to an inclusive working culture has existed from the beginning. When Ms Flavell’s husband, Rod, started the company 28 years ago, he immediately ensured a 50/50 gender split by employing his wife as the first staff member. The management team has maintained this ratio ever since and FDM has set up a diversity department. This commitment to inclusion has also been written into the staff handbook, backed up with staff training on unconscious bias, inclusion and diversity.

Sparta Global may be smaller, with 279 employees, but it is also making diversity a priority. Last year, 23 per cent of staff at the company, which supplies technology consultants, were from a BAME background. This year, it is more than half. When the company started in 2014 it was more focused on launching a successful service, says Lexie Papaspyrou, diversity and inclusion lead. Now it recognises how important a diverse workforce is to that success.

This recognition starts at recruitment, which is based on an applicant’s competency rather than their degree. This means many arrive having studied business rather than computer science or other Stem subjects. The company also works with organisations such as Code First: Girls, a social enterprise, and Codebar, a non-profit initiative, to reach potential employees in the community. The organisations’ free programming workshops and other events help Sparta find those who want to work in tech but may not have the support or confidence to apply. “It’s how we get our best consultants,” says Ms Papaspyrou. It is also key, she says, to look at people during the recruitment process as human beings rather than just the sum of their qualifications.

Achieving a diverse workforce, Ms Papaspyrou adds, has become easier over time. As more consultants arrive from different backgrounds, more offer to hold workshops or recruitment schemes for others like them. Ishbel Matheson, vice-president of corporate communications for World Remit, which specialises in money transfers for migrants, agrees that “creating a diverse workforce is a virtuous circle”. Employees from minority backgrounds recommend others, she says. 

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