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We screwed up with diversity at the Hi-Tech Awards launch events. Here's how we're going to do better

Following criticisms in earlier years, the New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards have been on a journey to make the awards night a more diverse affair. But the organisation recently – and fairly – copped criticism when the speaker line-up released for its launch events featured 15 men and just one woman. Here, Hi-Tech Awards vice chair and trustee Vaughan Rowsell shares what went wrong, and how the organisation is going to ensure it improves its practices going forward.

Diversity is hard. Trying to make a big change in an industry is harder. And weirdly, it’s super hard to make in an industry that is so up for being agile, fast to fail and one that prides itself on learning from mistakes. The New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards and the trust governing them has been trying to make a positive change for the last four years. We have experimented with formats, changed how we judge criteria, invited more and more diversity to the events and positively celebrated it as we have went. I’m a trustee and vice-chair of the trust, so I’ve seen it first hand.

A few days ago we sent out an email inviting you all to the launch events for the 2019 Hi-Tech Awards programme. In that email, we announced a line up of speakers who will be at those nationwide launch events. They were all, bar one, men.

Firstly and obviously, this isn’t good enough. We screwed up. Despite all our effort and focus on diversity at the Hi-Tech awards and events over the last few years, we still made a mistake. We are sorry for this, and are looking and why we screwed up and we are going to learn and keep trying to do better.

So what happened? Someone, a human, made a mistake. They sent out communications about our upcoming events with the unconfirmed speaker list. At the time of the email being sent, the only confirmed speakers were men. This was a mistake and it was not and is not our plan or policy to have the launch events with just male speakers.

First, I should explain our events. We, the Hi-Tech trust, are a not-for-profit and are volunteers who are passionate about developing and celebrating the tech industry in Aotearoa New Zealand. The well-known event we run is the New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards. Last year, we turned the awards into a celebration of diversity. We worked hard (and will continue to work harder) to get everyone thinking about and celebrating diversity in our industry. It was difficult. We are an organisation that is 25 years old next year, and we were a little set in our ways and we hadn’t done anything like this before. We learnt a lot and are continuing to learn that the problem is a tough one, it’s got many layers, and honestly it will take time for the industry to evolve. But we want to play our part in helping the evolution.  

So when we messed up the comms in an email about our upcoming launch events, it gutted us. It put all the hard work hundreds of people have put into the goal to make a change for the positive at risk. It made it look like we don’t care. We do.

The launch events are the smaller after-hours events where we announce the opening of the awards programme. They are smaller, but not less important, from the perspective of diversity. We have been working hard over the years to improve the format of these events to make them more accessible. Different venues, times, considering no alcohol. Getting the speaker mix right is the main part. For whatever reason, perhaps because these are more casual and not a big time commitment we struggle to lock down the confirmed speakers until we are almost at the event date. That seems counterintuitive but that seems to be how it is and why we usually hold on to the speaker list until we’ve fully locked it down. However, this time, as mentioned, by mistake we sent out a list which had only the lineup of confirmed speakers at that time – mostly men. Since then, we’ve confirmed more female speakers and we will confirm more because that’s what we aim to do and we know it can be at the last minute we get this right.

Our other event we run is the Alumni event. This is the half day long event on the same day where we have speakers present on lessons learned and provide inspiration. It’s a great way to get us all in a room to learn from each other. We put a lot of focus to invite a diverse group of speakers to this. It’s a big commitment to present and give up a day. So we were thrilled to confirm early a great lineup of speakers for this:

  • Analogue to Digital: The Art of Collision – Frances Valintine, founder of Tech Futures Lab and The Mind Lab

  • Landing whales through love bombing, creating product magic and evangelising: How to win those big deals offshore – Jo Mills, co-founder of Fuel50

  • There and Back again: The Endace journey and lessons learnt – Stuart Wilson, CEO of Endace  

  • The State of innovation in NZ: tech, productivity and R&D – Vic Crone, CEO of Callaghan Innovation

  • Founder Fatigue: How to avoid burnout – Vaughan Rowsell, founder of Vend

  • So you want some cash: Panel discussion on investment options for your business – Bridget Unsworth (NZVIF), Brooke Bone (Milford Asset Management), Lance Wiggs (Punakaiki Fund)

  • Playing brand catch up, aligning your brand with culture and purpose The F&P Healthcare story: Fiona Cresswell, GM Marketing and Operations.

We have a 50/50 mix of men and women, and yes, we are not quite there yet on celebrating ethnic diversity. We were so focused on this event, we overlooked the comms about the launch events.

We know it’s hard to get female speakers, and we don’t confirm our speaker list until we are 100 percent sure we have the mix right. We have learnt speakers drop out, and we need to have backups. We know men are more likely to put themselves forward, and we need to do more to encourage women to come and speak. We have been learning these lessons over the last few years. But this time, we screwed up.

Even though we talk about this stuff and our lessons internally, constantly, we didn’t have a clear enough policy. Someone, in haste but meaning well, sent out the comms for the launch events with the unconfirmed list. We didn’t check it. People make mistakes, and it was an honest one but WE failed because we didn’t have a clear policy or checks and balances around this. We are going to put something further in place to prevent this in future.

Diversity is hard, and anyone saying it’s easy are wrong and that’s understandable as they are probably like I was a couple of years back. I thought it’s an easy problem to solve. We just take a positive approach, talk openly about it and engage with the growing vibrant community already there and make sure we have a 50/50 mix of speakers as a start. It’s much harder to change an industry.

People are everything to our industry. We want more of us in it and innovating and making it world class. Diversity is wonderful, it brings all our good and some of our bad together and as a bunch of passionate humans we will have moments of brilliance and times where we royally screw things up. But we try and be better every day. We are sorry for this mistake but we will keep learning.

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