NTT DATA Services Vice President, Customer Experience Lisa Woodley discusses promoting diversity in tech

Woodley will be on the panel ‘The Evolution of AI vs Humans’ taking place at 10:25 pm EST at the Summit on October 28th.

During their panel discussion at The Women in IT New York Summit, Woodley and her fellow panelists will tackle the topic of the impact of AI and robots on the workplace — both as a force for good (higher productivity, efficiency and more) but also the issues they raise that technology leaders should consider: jobs put at risk, employers needing to manage transitions and how best to integrate AI into work teams.

As Woodley reflects on the topic, she shares how technology plays into her own team’s recruitment methods and the emphasis NTT DATA Services puts on promoting workplace diversity.

Why do you think there is still a problem with a lack of diversity within IT?

One of the biggest things I see is unconscious bias, but not in the way that most people think of it. People like to see themselves in the candidates they’re bringing in, and often find people who remind them of themselves, or who have qualities in common. There’s a sense of comfort and familiarity.

You then take an industry like IT, which started out as a predominantly white male career path, and that bias gets amplified. Each generation hiring the next who remind them of themselves. Not due to bias, but because they’re comfortable with people like themselves. That lends itself to, a kind of ‘positive bias’ in which you are positively biased towards people that remind you of yourself. In turn you are unconsciously biased toward anyone not like you.

It has only been in the last few years that organisations have started understanding how to train people to recognise that they’re doing this and adjust for it. It’s a matter of framing the interaction in the right way: When I meet someone different from me, I may be seeing those differences as negatives, when instead I should be thinking more about how those differences might complement and enrich the organisation.

Even as a female in IT, I need to be aware of this bias in myself. I may meet a woman that reminds me of myself, and automatically view the candidate favourably. But I need to recognise the value and importance of diversity of thought in my group. If I hire mostly people who think just like me, I’m essentially capping the teams potential to evolve and grow.

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Diversity, by the way, means not only diverse perspectives, but also diverse socio-economic backgrounds. For example, in my area of customer and user experience, that means a diversity of educational backgrounds to consider when you’re hiring — not just design or computer science degrees, but other degrees that may be relevant.

There’s also the phenomenon of women taking themselves out of the running for IT jobs. I read a recent study that found that women only tend to apply for jobs for which they’re 100% qualified. If they don’t meet 100% of the stated job qualifications, they won’t apply. It is important that we reinforce to women the fact that we don’t have to be 100% qualified. Women can – and should — take risks.

From the time we were little girls, we were told not to take risks. But the reality is that when you look at applying for jobs in emerging technology such as AI, nobody has 100% of the qualifications needed. This area is simply too new, and if you wait until you’re 100% qualified, you’re going to miss out on opportunities.

As a woman in IT, how have you gone about promoting diversity within the workplace throughout your career?

I’ve been doing digital since it was called e-business. And early on, people thought of me as a creative or a designer, so it was easy for them to not think of me as a technologist. But thinking back to the start of my career, around 2001, every designer working in the online world had to have a certain level of programming skills.

It took me years to realise “Wait, I’m not purely in graphic design, I’m actually in technology.” It was only when I started working at a tech company that I started to think of myself as a woman in IT. And my experience is not uncommon. Many women hold absolutely pivotal roles in IT, but are thought of as the human-centric, psychology-focused person that’s on the periphery of IT.

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But human-centricity is not peripheral. It is core to IT today and will continue to increase in importance. Tech companies need to recognise the importance of these disciplines and actively build the diversity required to get different perspectives. I have already taken action to achieve that.

For example, as I moved into leadership positions, I worked with my team at NTT DATA Services to transform the way we interview candidates for new roles. Our goal was to achieve true diversity, which incorporates all the things we traditionally associate with diversity but extends also to diversity of thought and demeanour. If you’re looking for super confident go-getters who nail interviews, you’re only going to get one type of person. And a candidate performing well in an interview doesn’t tell you about what they’re going to bring to the job, how they would complement the team or expand the ways the team approaches and solve problems.

First, we removed names from resumes. This gave us an opportunity to focus on what the person has done and mitigated the risk of unconscious bias. Then, when we actually talked to the person, we asked them to think of an experience or interaction that they really enjoyed. Our follow-up question was to ask them how they would go about redesigning the experience or interaction to improve it. We’re designers, so it’s all about changing the experience.

What we found was that when we get people talking about something they know and love, and ask them to think about how they would change it, they tend to forget they are in an interview and they step outside of themselves. That helps us see how the thought processes they bring to correcting a problem. It also helps us learn their level of passion for design challenges.

If I were to bubble this up for someone who isn’t in the design community, I would say this. Completely rethink how you are interviewing new candidates. Ask yourself: Do you want someone who’s good at tests? Or someone who can bring you new perspectives?

Each of us needs to demand that these changes happen. I’m not necessarily talking about setting targets, but you have to push, to ask “Where you have gone to get these candidates? Are we getting them from our own network? Because if we are, they may have the same way of thinking.”

Part of what you have to do to advocate for this is to go back to your recruiters and say you want a diverse candidate pool from different places. At NTT DATA Services, we have a diversity and inclusion program as well as employee resource initiatives for underrepresented groups, so they’re already doing a lot of this.

Could you please expand on the panel session you’ll be participating in during the WIT New York Summit?

I knew it was going to be a good session when I was slightly intimidated by my fellow panelists. I like experiences that scare me a little bit! It will be an interesting discussion, and it is being set up in a slightly provocative way: AI vs human. We’ll be discussing whether we should be afraid of AI, or whether we should be embracing AI.

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It’s a broad topic, but we each bringing very specific perspectives. Most of us are not saying ‘Yay, AI, let’s blindly turn everything into machines!’ Many of us are saying ‘Yes, AI holds great promise, but…’, really thinking about the benefits that AI can offer, but also what the risks are, and how to plan for those risks.

What’s fascinating to me about this panel is the diversity of the backgrounds of our panelists. We have a panelist who’s a Fellow at MIT; a former military analyst who’s now started her own business and is trying to eliminate bias in AI; a panelist who’s consulting with the UN; and then we have me, who’s currently working for a technology company, but also has a degree in philosophy and is a professor of user experience.

It will be fascinating to get so many different perspectives on something that’s in the headlines every day. For example, Bill Gates and Elon Musk say we should be afraid of AI. And I agree that we need a healthy dose of fear on this topic, because we see risks of bias in AI.

But we’re also going to address the incredible potential AI has, from something as simple as relieving us of burdensome or repetitive tasks to improving our lives in many other ways. I think our biggest challenge will be fitting this discussion into the short period of time we have.

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