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Tech’s Blind Spot: Why the Tech Industry Can No Longer Ignore Socially Mobile Talent

The tech industry is lagging behind in embracing talent from less privileged backgrounds. Only 19% of the tech sector’s workforce comes from working-class roots, a stark contrast to the 33% in other industries. This isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s a barrier to creating products that make a real impact.

Deep audience insight is a prerequisite of innovation and is made much harder when recruitment sidelines entire communities of talent. Imagine a photographer framing a landscape through a narrow lens, capturing only a fraction of the scene. This is like the tech industry navigating the digital world without the full spectrum of social diversity in its workforce. It’s like exploring a panorama with a zoomed-in focus, missing out on the richness of the entire view. When a team lacks a wide-angle perspective, the tech sector misses the breadth of insights required to truly connect with its audience.

The dangers of a homogenous workforce become clear when examining other sectors like journalism. 54% of top journalists are privately educated versus only 7% of the population as a whole. This disconnect leads to a narrow portrayal of society, contributing to the UK’s dwindling trust in media. The UK has one of the lowest levels of trust in news in the developed world, with only a third of people trusting what they read in newspapers. We’ve created a national media lacking national appeal. 

The tech sector, celebrated for its design thinking, often falls into the same trap. The illusion of building for ‘anyone’ often leaves the nuances of communities to be ignored. Tech products created by undiverse teams can have big and dangerous blind spots. Just take smartphone cameras with biases against darker skin tones as an example; a design flaw led to black people being rendered nearly invisible in photos. Or look at the Indiana state algorithms that led to millions of food stamp denials due to not understanding the way most people fill out forms. Simple assumptions made when designing for ‘anyone’ can exclude whole groups of people when no one on the team truly knows how to design for them. 

The rise of generative AI, with its reliance on large language models which use patterns identified in past data to generate meaningful outputs, has made the urgency of reforming tech recruitment even more clear. If not carefully managed, AI models can inadvertently perpetuate or even amplify past biases in their outputs, affecting fairness and perpetuating discrimination in applications ranging from legal decision-making to personalised recommendations. Indeed, machine learning researchers have warned that more talent from underrepresented backgrounds is needed in the workforce to ensure AI does not inherit past biases. However, currently, nearly three-quarters of firms are failing to reduce biases in their AI solutions.

At Zero Gravity, we’ve turned the tech industry’s challenges into our playbook. Founded to scale social mobility, we’ve assembled a team that doesn’t just understand our user base—they are our user base. My own journey from a single-parent background in West Yorkshire to Oxford University and to founding Zero Gravity has not only instilled in me a belief in the necessity of social diversity but also that it can be a competitive advantage.

Social diversity isn’t just about avoiding blind spots; it’s about matching the best talent with the right job roles, powering productivity and boosting revenue. In an industry battling for talent amidst tech layoffs and economic shifts, embracing socially mobile talent isn’t just noble—it’s smart business. BCG highlights a 19% revenue boost in companies with diverse management, and studies show fund managers from modest backgrounds outperform their affluent peers. At a national level, the UK would receive a £39 billion boost to GDP if it could achieve the same level of social mobility as its European neighbours.

Tech should have a huge competitive advantage when securing socially mobile talent. That’s because, at its core, tech is accessible, demanding fewer traditional barriers to entry than fields like law or medicine – with lower costs, less geographical restrictions and less time required to build the necessary qualifications. Historically, the tech sector has been known for embracing unorthodox people from all backgrounds, from Steve Jobs, an adoptee who dropped out of Reed College to co-found Apple in a Los Altos garage, to Jack Ma, who went from an English teacher to founding Alibaba, to Jan Koum, who grew up in poverty and later founded WhatsApp.

By reconnecting with its unconventional roots, the tech industry can champion socially mobile talent again. In this regard, embracing socially mobile talent is not merely a moral imperative but a strategic necessity. Doing so will not only rectify imbalances within the tech industry’s ranks but will also ensure that the technology we rely on every day reflects and serves the diversity of society itself. In this way, the tech industry can fulfil its true potential as a catalyst for positive change, driving both economic growth and social progress for generations to come.

Zero Gravity was recently crowned the Super Connect for Good 2023 Global Winner powered by Empact Ventures and Hays.

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