Diversity not just an ethical issue. It leads to growth

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Diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing. I’ve heard people ask: “Why should a woman get a management role over a man, if the man is just as good?” And I get the question, I really do. But it’s not a case of evening up the numbers for appearance’s sake – diversity is needed at all levels to make us better at our jobs.

I did a talk at Bucks Ad School in February, and there are more young women on the design course than men. That’s nothing new – when I graduated 13 years ago, there were just as many women as men. But how many women from my course are still in the industry? Just a few. How many in management positions? Just me. And it’s taken me longer to get here than my male counterparts – too long. And my experience is by no means unique.

In my career, I’ve worked with some incredible people and had some fantastic managers, but as a female designer I have been in the minority and as I’ve progressed, my minority representation has only gotten smaller. As a result, our voices have had less impact – our concerns fall by the wayside as issues that matter to the majority are prioritised.

And a lack of senior women makes it harder for junior women to find mentors who can empathise with their situations and needs. As a young person you don’t know what you don’t know, and experiencing any form of bias can be difficult to identify and especially difficult to overcome. An experienced mentor has been there before, can recognise things that you may not and can share their wisdom. I’ve only had access to three female mentors in 13 years, and it’s not for lack of trying.

But mine is only one story among many. I’m a white woman, and while being a woman in design is tough, there are many other minorities that have it far tougher, both in terms of experience and in terms of lack of support and empathy. But that’s not the only issue here. My sole professional purpose is to design solutions that meet the needs of real people. And real people are not all the same, and they are certainly not all white people from London.

Unconscious bias is rife in design. As an agency we need to create products and services that people want or need, and to do that we need to understand and empathise with them. But people are complex. Their needs are derived from their personalities, their cultural identities, their physical and mental wellbeing, their sexual identities and so on. They can’t be neatly segregated into boxes for our convenience.

As a designer, I do my best to relate to people’s needs. But even with the best of intentions, avoiding diversity bias is very difficult, if not impossible. While I can relate to women in a way that even the most enlightened man never could, I can’t fully empathise with the experiences of someone from a different race or culture.

That’s what teams are for. And as a lead, I want a diverse team to help me think differently. I want to be challenged and pushed and I want the best ideas possible that will help craft an experience that is right for the people we’re designing for.

We do research, user testing and review streams of data. And that’s great, but it takes time and it doesn’t always tell us everything, especially if we aren’t testing with the relevant groups of people. While we can diversify our testing, that’s not the point. It’s not about refining the idea, it’s about the idea itself.

A few years back I was put on an underperforming project. The embedded design team – mainly from London – were trying to figure out why, because the proposition and product had been tested and all signs suggested it should be doing well. But my colleague and I took one look at the product and we knew why. People in London, particularly younger people, are comfortable buying large ticket items online, because travelling to showrooms is harder and returning unwanted items is easier. But my mum’s generation don’t want to spend £300+ on something without seeing it. The moment we changed the proposition to research online, purchase offline, performance increased.

This wasn’t about me or my colleague being better than the other designers on the team or even bringing fresh eyes to the problem; this was about diversity. This was about me growing up outside London and understanding how my mum’s generation shop. This was about my colleague understanding how Asian cultures think about money and how it differs to others.

You are never going to get a diverse enough user base at the point of testing. It’s too late then anyway. The opportunity for the big idea has also already passed. It needs to happen at the earliest stage of design. And diversity isn't just about ethnicity, sexuality or gender – it's about age, culture, religion, geography, disability and education, all influenced by our experiences.

Diversity at management level leads to shared knowledge, empathetic mentorship and diversity through the ranks. This leads to broader, better ideas and empathetic designs. This in turn leads to rewards, recognition and growth.

So stop saying that diversity is about doing the right thing – it’s bigger than that. It’s about a better place to work, better business, better experiences and a better, more inclusive world.

Roberta Hardwick is a lead designer at Zone Digital.