Cyber intelligence consultancy tackling inequalities

In this conversation, I spoke with Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Information Labs, known as Oxil. The company is a cyber intelligence consultancy working at the intersection of different disciplines. It is also notable for its own culture of inclusion and a female CEO.

My guest for this conversation was Emily Taylor, the Chief Executive of Oxford Information Labs, a cyber intelligence company. I have known Emily for a long time since we worked together on a project when I was at the BBC in the accessibility team. We were trying to develop some technology to put text-to-speech software on the BBC News website, meaning people could click a button on a BBC News article, and it would read the article to them. This function is handy for somebody who’s blind or visually impaired and can’t read the BBC News website, or where English is their second language, or they have a cognitive impairment, like dyslexia, for instance.

Emily is a lawyer by background and a great ally and advocate for diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, not many women are chief executives of technology businesses, so I’m particularly interested in diving deeper with Emily on that topic.

I asked Emily to set the scene by telling me more about what Oxil does and how she got to this point in her business journey?

‘Oxford Information Labs is a cyber intelligence consultancy, and we always call it Oxil. So what does that mean? We’re trying to describe how we sit at the crossroads or the intersection between different disciplines. I think that this is what defines us. We bring together people who don’t usually sit together in the same business.

We have a long-standing software development team, Mark and Lucien and Nathan. They’re incredibly articulate, talented programmers who are keen to understand the impact of what they do. So, for example, the BBC accessibility project that Toby and I worked together on, text-to-speech, was something that we all felt very passionate about. To use the over-worn phrase, it could make a difference.

What we were doing was innovative, and it got completely taken over by two things. First, apart from Oxford City Council and the BBC, these public sector, public-spirited organisations that cared about the experience of the visually impaired and other users who might struggle to read swathes of text, in the private sector, there wasn’t that much interest. So, to put it mildly, it was a difficult sell. The other thing was when internet browsers started to do their own thing, that completely took away the market.

That is the experience of being in a tech company. This year we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary. It’s still very much the same team of people at our core. Although we’re expanding, we have wonderful new staff members as well. In those 20 years, we’ve seen so many technological changes. What you have to do is to be able to still meet whatever opportunities there are. We can offer something unique at this intersection between policy and technology. We have a small team of policy researchers; one of our longest-standing projects, for over ten years, is about language on the internet. That’s something that’s not often talked about in the context of diversity and inclusion. Technology is so weird because you might think with an innovative environment and everything is so new, it ought to be an incredibly welcoming place for people who are different because you have to think differently. Yet, the disappointment is that many inequalities are not just the same in tech, but more so and it shouldn’t be like that.’

I am reminded of an example of technology perpetuating inequalities. A few years ago, there was quite a famous news headline where Amazon had to remove artificial intelligence from its recruitment process because it was screening women out of the recruitment funnel. But, of course, that could have been because an all-men engineering team developed it, so the AI just adopted the team biases.

Emily said, ‘A lot depends on the training data that artificial intelligence is trained on. If it was on Amazon recruits of all time, you’re not getting a very diverse picture when you put it all together. Although plenty of women are working in technology, there are not many CEOs. The kernel of where things are being created in the technical development teams are overwhelmingly made up of White male people under 35.

When you’re looking at emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, which has so many broader social impacts, whether you’re dealing with a person or a machine, machines taking decisions, machines screening out different candidates, you can see that the opportunities for things that are right or wrong are huge.

I feel that the teams creating those programmes need to be more diverse. For example, I often hear people working in policing or other public safety roles saying, “Well, the workforce that does this job needs to reflect the communities they’re serving.” Yet we don’t think of that in engineering at all.’

I can relate to that because I did some work with a police force. They wanted to get me in because they realised that the police force itself did not represent the diversity of the city it served. To be representative of the city that it served would get better policing outcomes, which they are measured against by the central government.

There have also been some horrific stories about how a lack of diversity has led to problems with technology. We’ve had autonomous vehicles hitting Black people, for example. Whenever I do unconscious bias training, I always tell the story about some software that the British government created to automatically check our passport photos, whether they pass or fail, specific criteria, and this software said to a Black guy who uploaded his photo, “It looks like you’ve got your mouth open.” And he replied saying, “My mouth isn’t open. I’ve just got big
lips.” That was the response he posted on Twitter, and it went viral. We’ve also had hand dryers that don’t turn on with people who have darker skin tones. So there’s been all sorts of big issues that stem from a lack of diversity on the team.

Emily also cited the experience of older people interacting with technology. ‘Increasingly, to get any services at all, you have to be confident using your phone, accessing the internet, not really talking to people. I look at my parents, particularly my mother, and online shopping is a weird thing to do. There’s the exclusion of older generations, people who struggle to remember things like passwords. We all struggle to remember passwords but imagine being older and actually that very short-term memory is starting to fade, and you can quickly end up locked out of systems feeling really stupid and frustrated.

I was looking at the Stack Overflow. This is a massive survey of developers done each year. The headlines don’t emphasise this, but there are fascinating demographics about the programming community. Only 2% of programmers are over 55 years of age. The vast majority, over 70%, are under 35.’

This issue has been perpetuated during the pandemic, with so many businesses moving services online. Even booking your Coronavirus injections, you have to do it online or through an app on the phone. Getting the Coronavirus passport was, again, on the phone.

Jonathan Hassell was my boss at the BBC. Now he runs a digital accessibility company, testing websites. He tells the story of how his mum struggled to do online shopping during the pandemic. She could not get her head around using the supermarket website. He tells the story about how she was on the phone too, I think it was the Tesco helpline, for two hours, to try and get her shopping done.

‘I totally relate to that. With my parents, we just did their online shopping for them. We would either sit with them on the phone when it was in deep lockdown and take their order and order it to be delivered because that was the only thing that would work. These are very independent, proud people, and they are made to feel more excluded and more disabled because of their age and their unfamiliarity with the tools that make certain demands or assumptions about people’s abilities that are just not correct for the whole population.’

I agree entirely with Emily. If these supermarkets had created their systems with older people in mind, they might have ended up with a better product overall, one that everyone would find easier to use.

‘Exactly, they would be intuitive with great big buttons, and the flow would be obvious. I’m starting to experience this myself. I’ve changed online grocery shopping provider, and I cannot figure out how to use the app. I keep on doing these big orders, and it never goes through because you have to go into what feels like the danger zone to save your order. It feels like, “Oh no, I might end up checking out and buying all this stuff and I’m not ready yet.”

So, I see among older users that they trust things that they shouldn’t trust, and they don’t trust things they should trust in the online environment. And generally, there’s just such a sense of unease and discomfort with the whole thing that there shouldn’t be because technology should be serving people. That’s what it’s there for. It’s not an end in itself. It’s there to make things more efficient, fairer, and inclusive. That’s what I think it should be about, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to be working that way.’

Thinking about what Emily said about Oxil being different and operating at the intersection between technology and policy felt, in a way, inclusive. In diversity and inclusion, we talk about intersectionality, where you might have a couple of identities and therefore face extra discrimination. For example, being a Black woman is a different experience from being a White woman, or being a woman with a disability is different from being a woman without a disability.
So that’s the intersectionality. I wondered if Emily’s business philosophy is about embracing difference rather than running away from it? So I asked her to talk about her philosophy and the thinking behind that.

‘Thanks for calling it a philosophy! When you’re running a small business, you’re spending most of your time in the hamster wheel running around, desperately trying to make things work. So you don’t often have a moment of reflection where you think, “Well, what are we about?” But we have a strong identity and a strong sense of wanting to do things differently from how many offices and many businesses work.

Every team member has a different dimension to life, which means that a straight 9:00 to 5:00 presenteeism culture is not always going to work. But, whether it’s a disability or having small children or elderly parents or pets, long before the pandemic, we tried to understand the challenges people face in their lives without being intrusive. We can then create jobs around those people and get the best of them.

From trying to hold down a full-time job when I had small children, I know the relentless demands of being somewhere else from 9:00 until 5:30 and often longer. School life is not set up with the same hours as office life. When trying to do your best for your family and work, we shouldn’t find these incompatible demands. I suppose that’s the way we approach things. We try to get young people into this world of technology, and we often have school-aged kids for work experience.

Something that we’ve been doing recently is we’ve got a couple of people with disabilities who are long-term unemployed. We’ve asked them how much work they can offer. The person in that situation with a considerable amount to offer society feels incredibly excluded. Someone told me, “Oh, well, I’ve done other jobs, and they’ve said I’m unemployable.” People have lots of talent, and it’s just a question of putting them in the right environment. The wrong environment can disable everyone.’

What Emily says is like the social model of disability. Physical barriers, attitudinal barriers, and policy barriers are what disables us. A lot of people still think along the medical lines of disability, where it’s because of a health condition or impairment that somebody is disabled and they need to be cured or fixed. I like what Emily says as an employer, that by being flexible in how you employ people, you can get the best out of them.

It reminded me of another interview for the podcast I did with Jane Hatton, who runs a job board for disabled people called Evenbreak. In the early days of her business, she employed two brothers with ME. Therefore, they’ve got fluctuating energy levels. She hired them to do data entry. It worked well for her and them because they could do their jobs from home, with an internet connection, and they could do some data entry for half an hour, go and rest, get their energy back up, come back and do it again. Because Jane was flexible, they’re still working for her now. And I think her business is at least ten years old.

Emily told me she could relate to that example. ‘I’ve always believed that if you give people a work environment that suits people, they will reward you with loyalty. But unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out. There’s not anywhere to hide in a small business, so it becomes evident if you are not performing for whatever reason. But that said, I think that a lot of the working patterns that we’ve just translated from large factory environments into the office are based on control, as people as units of productivity. There isn’t the same need for that as we found in the pandemic. Many of us were lucky because we just picked up our laptops and went home for two or three years. And we were able to sort of continue working. In fact, we’ve never been busier.

But I was aware that many other friends or family had considerable adjustments to make, from going out of the office environment to working from home. But there isn’t the same need if you are working and trying to balance the rest of your life, which isn’t something you should be just hiding. It should be enhanced and served by your work, not like being one person at work and one person at home.

I’m increasingly coming across email signatures from people, particularly in the civil service, that says, “Look, I’ve got young children, I work really stupid hours, it doesn’t mean you have to. If I send you an email at a weird time, I’m not expecting you to be working then,” and I like that. But it also just highlights that many people are working when they can because they’re doing other things during the typical window. When you think about it, there’s not a particular reason for that to occur. If you’re meeting people, you have to coincide. But if you’re doing work on documents, if you’re doing like that example of data entry, it doesn’t matter whether you do it in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, does it? As long as it gets done.’

I was interested to understand what Emily’s experience has been like as a woman CEO in the tech industry. I mentioned this during my introduction. I don’t want this to come across as patronising, but there are not many women who are CEOs within the tech space.

‘Well, what can I say? I’ve always found technology a great industry to be a woman in because many people in tech don’t quite fit in the world in the traditional sense. A lot of us who came into technology 20 years ago, like I did, at that first real wave of the commercial internet, had all been doing different things, so there are lots of different backgrounds there.

I never really felt excluded. But I often find that you get mansplained to a lot on technology. Not from the people in Oxil who are great. I love working closely with real technical people I can trust completely. This has helped me in my career because I can ask my people stupid questions about how things work and ask them to keep explaining it to me until I understand and understand in my way.

Then I can be more confident with the technology or talking about the technology when I have to speak to others. So I found it a very flexible environment in my earlier career, with great people. So I have this experience, which is very positive being a woman in technology, and yet, I
can’t ignore the fact that all of the statistics are telling a different story altogether.

That might be because the environment I work in is relatively small, and we’re a very close-knit team. I hear that the few women who are programmers in those big teams describe a very toxic environment at times. So I’m aware that maybe my experience is not typical, and I think that that’s a tough nut to crack because that goes down to culture, the way people do things, the role models, the way that we depict programmers as these kinds of guys in hoodies who are all socially a bit weird and stuff, and that can normalise a lot of behaviour under the guise of something else.

As you know, Toby, I have a son who is on the autistic spectrum, and lots of people in programming are on the autistic spectrum. So I often hear bad behaviour being excused or normalised as, “Well, they’re a bit on the spectrum.” And I feel like, “Well, actually, my son is very polite and doesn’t behave like that,” and that’s just bad behaviour or bullying, but it’s forgiven.

People who struggle with social situations find themselves misunderstood or coming across in a way that they didn’t intend or upsetting people, I can completely relate to that, and I live with that. But I don’t view it as something that is sometimes used, almost in a boastful way, to excuse, really, oppressive behaviour in some situations. I think that people often do have choices about how they behave, even if they have difficulties. It’s difficult to articulate, and I’m probably getting it wrong.’

Emily is correct that, essentially, behaviour creates culture. I interviewed Meg Sunshine, a Manchester University graduate and a big eSports gamer, for a previous episode. She described the toxic culture within the eSports gaming industry as a very masculine culture where, frankly, bullying doesn’t get challenged.

Oxil is a great company, and Emily has created a great culture. But unfortunately, there are organisations where there is that toxic culture, and behaviour just gets brushed to one side. I’ve talked to loads of organisations where conduct does not get challenged if you’ve got a ‘star’ player guilty of that behaviour. Perhaps because they’re the big rain-maker for the company, or they’re a big tech genius, nobody wants to upset them because they might leave and upset the business.

‘We don’t tolerate aggressive techies in our work. Of course, you come across aggressive techies in the wider world, but it’s still challenging to cope with. There is a sort of elevated status, the wizard, the genius, whose eccentricity is forgiven. But, of course, people are different, and eccentrics are wonderful, but where it tips over into bullying or repression.

Sometimes I’m either on a panel or speaking publicly or doing some media comment, and I often find that if I’m on a panel with men, the moderator or the chair will often turn to the man for the technical explanation, and then I can do the sort of softer bits. It’s about unconscious bias. And also my own conditioning.

I look at people who are coming into adulthood now, and there is a lot of stuff they just won’t put up with and are calling out, and I really admire that, and it makes me think about how conditioned my generation of women were, and are, to put up with things like that. Constantly being interrupted in conversations or not participating in a conversation at a 50-50 level, and being judged if you do push any of those metrics, I suppose. We are so conditioned, and we accept it, so we don’t push for change in the same way.

I had a real wake-up call a couple of years ago, where a client employee was frankly bullying a younger woman on my staff, and I think it was pretty gender-based. The support that we got from the client when we escalated it further was amazing. It made me realise how I would not
have mentioned it in my younger career and put up with it because that’s the way it goes because speaking didn’t get you anywhere anyway. But I feel encouraged that things might be changing.’

I hope they are changing! A lot of organisations that I talk to nowadays are putting in measures to help people speak up when they notice bad behaviour, whether that’s through formal channels and HR or they’re implementing an app that allows people to anonymously report lousy behaviour, which gives the organisation a heat map of what’s happening where in the business, that kind of thing.

So there’s lots of tech out there that can help. Before Emily headed off, the question that I ask everybody, just as we close the show is, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I’ve been thinking about that. For me, it’s not one particular thing, but it is an attitude to try to get the benefit of people’s differences because it can give you different perspectives. For example, in the policy world, where I spend a lot of time, I believe that you can end up blindsided if you don’t consider the perspectives of others. And also, just from a practical point of view, when you’re a small company competing in the job market, you’re not going to be able to pay the biggest, shiniest salaries. So what can you offer to employees that is a bit different? And I think that what we can offer is that kind of environment where their life can be supported with their work.’

To find out more about Oxil and see their publications and news feed visit the website. They’re hiring now, and there’s plenty to look at on there whilst learning a bit more about what they do.

Cyber intelligence consultancy tackling inequalities - Mildon