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Why diversity is key for New Zealand's technology industry to flourish

The ascendance of New Zealand’s technology sector as a key driver of our economy’s success cannot be ignored. But for our success stories to build something better than just another Silicon Valley of the South Pacific, they need to make changes now to be better at the one thing Silicon Valley keeps failing at - diversity in the workplace, urges Xero’s Craig Hudson.

The success of New Zealand’s technology sector is something to truly celebrate. Our companies, large and small, are punching above their weight and taking on the world with their unique Kiwi solutions for the issues and products that matter to people in today’s modern age.

The dollar-figure behind our industry’s exporting efforts recently broke through the $1 billion mark for the first time last year. We’re witnessing double-digit growth across geographies, market sectors and company sizes, and with that is an increase in the number of new tech sector jobs becoming available in our cities. In layman’s terms, our New Zealand tech companies are going big or going home.

The success of companies like Xero and Orion Health internationally is what’s leading to the idea that our hub of tech companies in Wellington has become the new Silicon Valley of the South Pacific (don’t believe me? Ask Google).

Yet while the reference is likely meant as a compliment to the clout of our tech sector, striving to become the next Silicon Valley is something New Zealand needs to steer clear of - especially when it comes to following in the footsteps of the diversity mis-steps companies there are making.

The gender-related problems that surfaced recently at tech giant Uber have put diversity in tech back under the spotlight. Men (privileged, educated, Pākehā men) dominate Silicon Valley’s top companies. For the hundreds of start-ups there, the problem is even worse. Data released just last month found that out of 500 tech start-ups in San Francisco with fewer than 100 employees, only 23% are female, compared with 36% at 10 top tech companies including Apple, Amazon, Oracle, Airbnb and Twitter.

Is this the type of work environment New Zealand’s tech companies want to emulate? I doubt it.

Why diversity in technology is important

People working in software and technology already know how important it is to have this representation in their work. Take testers, for example. They’ve built tools called “personalities” that are created to model a specific user or customer, to try and look at a tester’s work from that personality’s view of the world. While they’re designed to be helpful, they’ll never substitute a real-life person who can bring an entire other world of thoughts, perceptions, and reactions to a product, app, or software. In the end, the more diverse a development team is, the more a company’s software or product can potentially appeal to a much wider world.

Have you ever wondered what someone who is blind, or deaf, or even colourblind can bring to the table? How about someone with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, or Tourette’s Syndrome (amongst others)? Someone whose primary language isn’t English? Or who doesn’t conform to your understanding of gender binary?

With their world experience, they bring a different perspective and can help to develop things into your software of product that can open up the company to a whole new market. To put plainly: increasing your company diversity is just plain good for business.

How New Zealand companies are faring

Most New Zealand companies, even outside of the technology sector, aren’t doing so great at building diversity into leadership positions or roles of influence. As an example, statistics released earlier this year on the number of women in senior positions in New Zealand’s top companies show that not a lot has changed. In fact, compared to our rivals across the ditch, Australia is pulling away from us when it comes to gender diversity, reaching close to a quarter of ASX’s top 200 companies.

At Xero, we’re not perfect. We know we can do better when it comes to diversity too. But we’re starting to see some positive change across the company in the last couple of years, particularly when it comes it gender diversity. Our executive team are 50% women, and 40% across all our people. We are also above the industry average in a number of areas, including product and platform, where a quarter of our staff are women (compared to the industry average of 15%). Just recently, Xero hired its first Global Diversity and Inclusion Manager, whose entire remit is to promote, encourage, and strengthen diversity amongst our people.

The technology sector in New Zealand is at an inflection point. The export earnings gap between tech and diary is closing, and our sector is hitting critical momentum. Let’s work on improving diversity across our industry now before things start to run away on us. 

Craig Hudson is Xero New Zealand country manager.