‘Focus on the concept of diversity, not just the numbers,’ says Dropbox’s Judith Williams

1 Jul 2016

Judith Williams, global head of diversity at Dropbox, delivering her keynote from the Inspirefest stage. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

In a keynote spanning the full breadth of the diversity issues facing tech, Judith Williams, global head of diversity at Dropbox, challenged companies to go beyond “just the numbers” to create truly diverse and truly inclusive teams and products.

Williams took to the Inspirefest stage at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, to deliver a keynote that would bring us from inherent and acquired diversity to unconscious bias and pattern matching, to universal design, all tied together with one concept: that inclusivity isn’t just a box you tick.

“We need to be inclusive. But we actually need to go beyond that to make sure people feel included,” said Williams, citing stories of ridiculous pre-maternity-leave bonding ideas, and the ‘let’s go to the pub’ fallback, as examples of inclusivity gone awry.

But the serious, endemic issues in the tech industry go beyond inclusivity.

An important section of Williams’ keynote looked at our unconscious biases and the tendency towards pattern matching – gravitating towards people who look and think like us – that exist not just at the higher echelons of tech companies, but at all levels.

These may be carried over from our cave-dwelling days.

“Our unconscious biases evolved to help us navigate a dangerous world. If you think about all of the animals that were evolving when we were evolving, we were not the biggest, we were not the strongest, we did not have the longest claws, or the sharpest teeth.

“But we did have these big brains, and we could band together with groups of people who were like us to be successful.”

But the fact that it’s an evolutionary behaviour shouldn’t stop us from changing that behaviour.

Williams defines unconscious bias as an error in the way we process data. And, she says, “if it’s a processing error, we can debug it. We can fix it”.

She pointed to Hollywood as one of many sources for that fix, saying that the onus is on directors and writers to create stories that encourage people from all walks of lives to picture themselves in tech.

“They can paint a vision of society that is what we aspire to be. Not just what we are.”

But changing our behaviour should go beyond just ‘widening our funnel’, and targeting and hiring people who are different from ourselves.

Williams spoke about universal design – the idea that “when we make things, we should make them for everyone”.

Turning to the example of Google’s self-driving car, Williams highlighted the fact that what’s cool for the majority of us is life-changing for blind people, saying that that should of course be a consideration for Google’s design team.

And that brought Williams back to one important point: “When you change the conversation, you get a different perspective”.

Williams closed with a challenge for each and every one of us in the audience.

“Everybody in this room has the opportunity not to just imagine a future, but to build a future.”

Let’s get on it.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.


Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic