Comment: Pushing the right buttons on gender diversity

Amazon has launched a new range of Echo smart home devices. Picture: John Devlin
Amazon has launched a new range of Echo smart home devices. Picture: John Devlin
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Lauren Gemmell, software development manager, Amazon Development Centre Scotland, believes that diversity matters when it comes to building trust.

Why is gender diversity in the technology sector such an important topic for business in Scotland? Well, other than the fact that diversity is fair, it’s also good for business.

At the Amazon Development Centre in Edinburgh, we employ dozens of software engineers, machine-learning scientists, designers and managers who harness the latest technology and computer science to help develop the systems that power our business. These innovations help millions of customers around the world discover the products they want from Amazon’s vast catalogue.

To help our customers, we need to understand them, so it’s important that our workforce properly represent the people we’re serving. No one can look at any one business outcome and say we achieved it because we have a diverse team, but I believe diversity of the workforce fosters true diversity of thought.

This is central to the work we do at Amazon, it’s even captured in one of our Leadership Principles – “Are right, a lot” which asks everyone to “seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs”.

There are a number of initiatives at Amazon to ensure we have a diverse team in place. Not because we want to tick a box, or even because it is simply the right thing to do, but because we have also identified the value in allowing people to feel welcome and to contribute to a team in an inclusive environment. Teams with a variety of different backgrounds can deliver a wide breadth of experiences and approaches, which in the end helps us deliver innovations for all our customers.

A big focus for Amazon has been to improve the gender balance at our development centre in Edinburgh. We created and implemented a number of projects to attract new candidates, with the goal of attracting more women to work as software development engineers here.

Our hiring bar was not changed, but subtle yet impactful changes to the process were made to ensure a more positive experience for the applicants, whilst mitigating unconscious bias.

The first trial of this was a success, as we doubled the number of female engineers employed at the centre and the project has been rolled out at other development sites in the UK. The changes implemented have been shown to improve the candidate experience for all applicants and are now part of standard process.

One of our most successful external initiatives is the work we do with the University of Edinburgh. Back in 2013, we launched the Amazon Women in Innovation Bursary, providing funding of £3,500 a year to help support a UK female student commencing an undergraduate informatics degree, for the duration of her course.

One of the privileges of my job, is being able to mentor the recipients, at various stages over their university career and help guide them in their early career.

We also run an “early insights” week, where female second year computer science students are invited to Edinburgh from all over Europe. We run a week-long hackathon with sessions on user experience design, Alexa skills development and project management.

It’s primarily for young women, but we invite male colleagues to speak and be a part of it. Why? Because gender inequality is a problem that holds us all back.

It isn’t fair to ask women to do all of the work to drive gender equality – we’re already a minority group, which is why we involve the men at Amazon to contribute, and they do happily.

Initiatives like this can only beneficial, not just to Amazon, but to the industry as a whole. We have an amazing talent pool here in Scotland, and naturally we want to harness and nurture this potential.

I was pleased to see the role of women in engineering recognised in the Scottish Parliament in June this year during a debate, and Amazon in particular being recognised as a leader in this field, but there’s more for us and industry to do.

It is therefore crucial that we actively and clearly challenge views that perpetuate any division, and instead welcome people of all backgrounds into the workplace and create a positive environment where people can thrive.

I’m looking forward to meeting more women in the industry, and being inspired by the incredible work they are doing, at the Scotland Women in Technology Awards in October, which Amazon is backing for the second year in a row.

It will be a night of celebration and will hopefully encourage more young girls to continue their interest in technology.