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Diversity is the engine of innovation, so it's crucial we make changes now for future success

FIONA MCDONNELL: We can fill the talent shortage in tech and boost innovation, performance and profitability by employing diverse teams.

women stem

This is part of a blog series on women in STEM. We'll be sharing further contributions throughout July from speakers from the  Women in Science and Engineering Conference 2019

The contributions of women in the technology industry are too often left out of history books. During the Second World War and up until the mid-60s, women were well-represented and were the largest trained technical workforce of the computing industry.

While the trends are positive, with the number of women in tech gradually rising, it’s time for UK business to quicken the journey of achieving gender parity in UK innovation.

Fortunately, today we are at an important moment in history where diversity and inclusion is now being realised as a necessity for business success – not just a “nice-to-have”. The research is there: diverse teams perform better, innovate faster and ultimately deliver right down to the bottom line. But ultimately, this is about doing the right thing and making sure that women and girls are given the same opportunity to thrive in these important careers. 

Diversity is not just who you are, where you’re from or your orientations: it is the contributions you bring. A balanced team of diverse people brings a wealth of experience and perspective. This is the source of real innovation.

At Amazon – a business that’s driven by innovation – hiring and developing the best talent is absolutely vital, and we know that diversity drives better innovation, which  is a key source of growth in our economy. That’s why we partnered with WISE to help create a roadmap to increase the number of women working in STEM roles. WISE research showed that women make up 23% of STEM occupations across the UK, but falling to only 15% of management roles. Together, we used new research to better understand the barriers and challenges to boosting female representation in the UK’s innovation economy, especially as the industry is severely underperforming in terms of senior female leadership.

The bottom line is that lack of diversity is holding back business’ progress: our research with WISE shows that increasing the number of women in STEM could add £3bn to the UK economy, so there is a material commercial benefit as well as being the right thing to do.

We polled over a thousand women working in innovation roles in the UK and found that nine in ten women experienced barriers in their career, with over a quarter experiencing more barriers than enablers. We were concerned to find that almost two in every three women working in innovation-focused roles across the country have had to overcome challenges on their own to succeed in their careers. Six-in-ten admit to having to overcome challenges on their own to remain successful in their careers. In terms of the actual barriers women reported facing, the top three were: lack of confidence, dealing with male-dominated cultures and lack of recognition from senior managers.

Whilst this research is eye-opening, without action it is just good intentions – it is crucial that every company takes time to understand their own specific challenges and hurdles to tackle. At Amazon, we looked at the areas where we needed to do more. To drive change and ensure that more women are empowered to pursue and progress, equipping individuals with skills is again just a piece of the challenge. We need to think about organisational context as we set up to change things too, so we launched Amazon Amplify – a UK wide new programme, designed to increase the number of women in technology and innovation roles across our business and help inspire the next generation of female innovators.

Our research confirms that industry engagement at education level is key to encouraging women to fulfil their ambitions of a career in innovation and technology. We have extended the Amazon Women in Innovation Bursary scheme, working with universities – including King’s College London – to provide funding for up to 24 promising young women from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they can pursue degrees in high-tech innovation, including Electronic Engineering, Robotics & Intelligent Systems, and Computer Science.

Ultimately, we must recognise that pretty much every major industry is now tech-enabled – and we all face this talent shortage and so must recognise the need to embrace diversity to enable future success. The long-term opportunity lies more broadly than STEM. By embracing diversity and making it common-place in company culture, the benefits will naturally follow. We should be confident that the investment will deliver a direct, positive impact for innovation, as well as business performance and profitability.

Together, however, I do believe we can level the playing field between men and women in the workplace and make a significant difference for the future trajectory of our innovation economy at what is undoubtedly a pivotal time in our history.

Fiona McDonnell is Director of Consumer Retail at Amazon and also leads the drive for greater diversity across the business .