As technology reaches deeper into our everyday lives, Aviva’s Monique Shivanandan believes it is increasingly critical that IT organizations bring diverse perspectives to innovation.
Although digital technology has become woven into almost every aspect of business and society over the past decade, the teams behind most IT products and services — from online banking to smartphone apps — still don’t show the kind of diversity that might reflect that digital ubiquity. And, according to Monique Shivanandan, group CIO of global insurance giant Aviva, that’s a looming issue for most organizations: those that don’t effectively mirror the diverse nature of their markets in the make-up of their tech teams will not only produce narrower innovations but are also destined to fail.
In this new world, as she highlights in our exclusive video interview, IT organizations need to be populated with more than just the ‘white male brains’ who have traditionally been drawn to the profession. “When you think about where technology is now versus what it was,” she says, “we need to build products that are good for everyone.” And if the task of developing new products is the sole purview of one narrow group, then the solutions won’t necessarily “fit the world that we live in.”
“You need the diversity of thought. You need people to challenge, to think from different perspectives. If everybody around you thinks the same and agrees, you’re going to be really happy with what you’ve built but only those people that look and think like you are going to want it. Diversity — having different perspectives, people coming at challenges with different emotions, different learnings, different understandings, different backgrounds — is just so much more exciting.”
It is also a critical factor for success, she believes. When technology is part of everyone’s everyday lives, “any organization that is homogenous, where everyone looks the same and has the same opinions and perspectives, is simply going to die.”
That is particularly applicable when it comes to addressing gender imbalance. The fact that roughly 40% of all consumer technology purchases are now made by women makes it imperative that organizations create a healthier mix within technology, she says.
“As an industry, we still don’t have the numbers [of women in IT]; we don’t have the participation that we really need,” she observes. Today, women hold only 10% to 15% of the leadership positions in technology organizations.
Some of that has its roots in early education, when — at least historically — boys have been channeled more positively towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). That situation has changed in recent years in many societies, with a much larger proportion of girls studying STEM subjects at secondary and tertiary education levels. “I think we’re getting there,” says Shivanandan, but the positive results of that “will take a few years to filter through.”
The area where she thinks organizations need to focus more intently is at a slightly later career stage. “There’s not really a problem when men and women are entering the workforce — in my experience it’s about 50/50 in the technology sector. Yet women do seem to drop out in their late 20s and 30s — [in many cases] to take care of children. To come back is often a very hard re-entry,” she observes. The upshot is a dearth of women in middle management roles.
Women who do succeed in senior management positions have an important role to play in encouraging greater participation of women at all levels. That includes mentoring talented young women within and across organizations, recognizing outstanding achievements with dedicated awards and sponsorship programs, and increasingly projecting “that being a technologist is good.”
Shivanandan runs a series of summer programs for women in their late high school and early university years, in which they are “taught technology skills and shown what it’s like to be a professional woman in the technology space.”
What’s particularly encouraging in recent years, she says, is that the rise of digital has changed perspectives, especially among young women. “Digital’s a great catalyst — it’s a great way to reach people. They now see that it’s cool to be a technologist and they want to be a part of this revolution.”
But there is still some way to go: “As a society we really do need to figure out how [to create diversity in key professions like IT] because we need the best minds working on these things.”
• Photography: Greg Funnell