Q&A: Diversity initiatives with Amazon UK

In this Q&A below, Ben Farmer — head of HR, UK Corporate, Amazon UK — explains why improving diversity levels should be a business priority for organisation’s looking to thrive.

Have the recent levels of gender diversity in tech improved?

During my career, I’ve seen a massive improvement in diversity of all kinds — and I hope that companies like Amazon are seen as playing a positive role in pushing that agenda forwards — but there’s still more to do. We’re continuing to invest in a host of initiatives to change attitudes both internally and externally, and to create new pathways into the industry for young women and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups.

One useful indicator is to check the male-female ratio of our UK internship, graduate and MBA programmes, so it’s been encouraging to see an equal split in recent years. That tells me that the joint efforts by education, industry and government are starting to shift the ratio, so women are more naturally attracted to tech careers, both in engineering and business roles.

It’s also important to remember that cultivating a gender diverse organisation requires long-term thinking and collaboration amongst industry, educators and government. In the UK, we’re suffering a gap in the STEM skills pipeline across all genders, and this is particularly pronounced among young girls. We want to work across society to ensure there’s a long-term solution to that shortage of future STEM professionals, whatever there gender or background.

Why is having a gender diverse workforce so important?

As well as being the right thing to do, the bottom line is that diversity is good for business. For a company like Amazon, innovation is crucial to our success and diversity helps to drive that innovation by giving us new ideas and a better understanding of customers’ needs. We have hundreds of millions of customers worldwide who can benefit from new innovations created by diverse thinking from a diverse workforce.

It’s not just about gender diversity to tick a box — we want to build a culture that helps those voices to feel confident in speaking up, so that their ideas are heard and considered. We’re a company of builders who bring varying backgrounds, ideas and points of view together to invent on behalf of our customers. That’s our message to prospective employees: if you love to build and invent to delight customers, you’ll love working at Amazon.

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What initiatives are Amazon running to combat the diversity gap?

We’re a merit-based organisation. That’s a process of continuous improvement, so we’re always working to improve the programmes we use to help advance more women into senior and technology-focused roles.

In recent years, we have launched programmes like the Amazon Women in Innovation Bursary which supports six female students at Kings College, Edinburgh and Cambridge universities studying information-focused degrees such as informatics and computer programming. We also run AWS re:Start, a training and job placement programme designed to educate young adults, military veterans and their spouses on the latest software development and cloud computing tech.

Sponsorships are another great way to shine a light on female innovation, so we’re involved with Information Age’s Women in IT Awards, Women in Tech Awards and the TechWomen50 awards.

Ben Farmer is Amazon's most senior HR professional in the UK.
Ben Farmer is Amazon’s most senior HR professional in the UK.

For LGBT+ communities, we also back the annual Pink News Awards (in fact, I was a judge for last year’s awards) and I was delighted to work with glamazon, our LGBT employee affinity group, to launch a new company-wide transgender toolkit and guidelines last summer.

In a broader sense, diversity always comes back to company culture. One defining characteristic of Amazon is that we’re customer obsessed — so we cannot be focused on just one type of customer, and our employees have to reflect our customer base. Our Leadership Principles also play a key role, creating a universal standard which we refer to every day, from interviews and employee assessments to every aspects of our day-to-day business. They help to mitigate unconscious bias and create a level playing field for everybody. A key aspect of our ‘Are right, a lot’ leadership principle is that leaders “seek diverse perspectives”.

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How important are female role models?

Absolutely vital. We know that a young person’s interactions with positive role models can change the course of their career for good, but we also don’t believe that responsibility solely sits with women. It’s just as important that all leaders are strong role models and demonstrate inclusive ways of working.

We always encourage our employees to take time to create those interactions with young people — whether it’s public tours of our Fulfilment Centres, workshops, or the flexibility they need to work with charity partners or other stakeholders. I know plenty of Amazonians who are independently passionate about younger generations, so they’ll take time to give talks in local schools or take part in mentoring schemes to help young female and BAME people to raise their career aspirations. It’s also why our Amazon Women in Innovation Bursary comes with an Amazon mentor for students in addition to financial support.

Of course, that learning process doesn’t stop when you leave school, so we find employee affinity groups and internal mentoring schemes are another great way to develop potential leaders – Women in Engineering, Women@ and the Women in Finance affinity groups are all vital, plus there’s glamazon, People With Disabilities and the Black Employee Network for other communities.

We also celebrate the success of our female employees through industry awards and recognition. Just last year, for example, eight Amazonians were recognised by awards including the OUTstanding 50 LGBT+ Future Leaders, the FT’s HERoes Awards and the TechWomen10 awards.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...