That was the conclusion of a recent event in east London that discussed workplace diversity in the UK. The panel event drew on expert opinions from the public and private sectors and took place at the innovation centre Plexal in Here East, Stratford.
The event was accompanied by results from a survey of 2,000 UK adults by the Social Inclusion Unit, formed by Plexal and political charity My Life My Say. The research highlights how people feel government and business have a responsibility to support social inclusion. Only 30 percent of people feel technology companies support social inclusion effectively.
Rajesh Agrawal, Deputy Mayor of London for Business, said at the event that he believes social inclusion is one of the most important issues facing London. Agrawal outlined some of the programmes City Hall is putting together to help tackle inequality and stated technology can help create social inclusion:
We believe that business has a big role to play in society, in particular technology companies, because of their reach and how important their products are to our lives. We must use technological change to our advantage – if our workforce is well-trained and prepared, then we will be able to ride this tidal wave of technological change. We must turn the threat of technological change into an opportunity for us all.
His opinion chimed with the panel, which drew on the perspective of experts like Nana Badu, Founder and CEO of Badu Sports and Badu Community, who – having come from a low-income background himself – is eager to encourage organisations and individuals with power to think about how they can do more to help boost opportunities for people from marginalised communities:
I’m 35 and I’m only now learning how to network. Why were there barriers in my local community that prevented me from learning those skills? Not everyone has abilities and see lights at the end of the tunnel. You must think about who you are helping and who you want to include. Inclusion must be wholistic. Starting young definitely works – make people feel welcomed and you can help change the narrative. We have technology and information. We must use our privileges to help and support disadvantaged communities.
That sentiment resonated with Mariéme Jamme, who is Founder and Chief Executive of educational foundation IAMTHECODE. She was born in Senegal, trafficked to France as a teenager and moved to Britain as an eighteen-year-old. Now a successful businesswoman, Jamme said it is crucial to not forget where you have come from:
I wanted to spread the knowledge that the UK gave me. When you are given an opportunity, your duty is to give back to the community – and I realised I could help so many young people to code. We’ve been going two years, we’re in 64 countries and we’ve already taught 13,500 young girls how to code. I’m trying to get as many women to be able to code and be entrepreneurs by 2030. Inclusion requires skills – and once you have these skills, you have dignity.
London Assembly member Jennette Arnold said these kinds of programmes demonstrate the importance of sharing best-practice evidence on social inclusion. Arnold said technology – and the businesses that use technology and employ people – will be the key to success:
This isn’t a quick fix; this is a generational issue – it can take 20 years to drive inclusion and fairness. We must use technology to create an open sharing of information. We must start working with young people at the earliest possible stage. We mustn’t let openness, honesty and a willingness to learn to be lost – and we have the technology now to help us do that. But there’s so much more than needs to be done, particularly regarding investment in infrastructure. Without the right investment, it’s going to take so much longer.
Panellists gave examples of how business can boost social inclusion. Sarah Atkinson, Head of Inclusion and Diversity at techUK, said her membership organisation is creating a collective approach that works from the classroom to the boardroom. Atkinson said some of her members are working on initiatives that are helping to broaden inclusion:
We’re seeing strategies around recruitment and we’re seeing firms remove bias from adverts, so that they really have an open and inclusive recruitment process. And once you get people into these organisations, you need senior-level accountability – you need to hold people accountable and drive inclusion through the business in order to retain some of this brilliant talent we need.
Tom Morrison-Bell, Government Affairs Manager at Microsoft, said his company runs a number of initiatives relating to inclusion, but suggested the firm’s focus on accessible technology is probably its key area of work. He said Microsoft is increasingly building accessibility services into its productivity tools, such as AI-powered captions in PowerPoint:
We see disability as a lens to innovation. When we’re hiring, we look to the strengths that people with disabilities provide. The accessibility tools we’re building into our software are becoming part of our everyday work. Many of the technologies we take for granted today, such as voice and touchscreen, are technologies where people with disabilities were the power users who had constraints and who helped drive innovation.
Finally, Khalia Newell, Vice President at Barclays, said her firm runs a range of inclusion initiatives, especially for local communities in Tower Hamlets. Newell said her experience leads her to conclude that the topic of inclusion is sometimes over-engineered. Newell encouraged attendees to think locally and treat your neighbour as you would yourself:
We look at big schemes, but you should look at the people next door – literally next door – and see if you can help them learn something. Looking at the people around you could be a great start. I sit on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for STEM and we’ve been considering accessibility for younger people. Is the curriculum for STEM really fit for purpose when it comes to inclusion? If you incorporate STEM as part of the curriculum in primary schools, you’ll be surprised how engaged children will become.
Some compelling stories and some useful lessons learned that can provide guidance to others. This is a crucially important topic and one where shared experiences are