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.
Photo of Emily Taylor

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hey there, thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I’m Toby Mildon. And I am really excited today to be joined by Emily Taylor. Now, I have known Emily for a very long time. Emily and I first worked together when I was at the BBC, working in the accessibility team. Emily worked, or still works in her business, which is called Oxil, and Oxil is a cyber intelligence company. But at the time, the project that Emily and I were working on was an accessibility project, so we were trying to develop some technology to put text-to-speech software on the BBC News website. In other words, somebody could click a button on a BBC News article, and it would read the article to them, so particularly handy for somebody who’s blind or visually impaired who can’t read the BBC News website, or where perhaps English is their second language or they have a cognitive impairment, like dyslexia, for instance.

Toby Mildon: So that’s how I first got to know Emily. And the reason why I’m really excited to be talking with Emily today, is because I’ve always felt that Emily is a great ally and advocate for diversity and inclusion, not just from, I suppose the accessibility perspective when I was back at the BBC, but through a lot of the work that she’s done over the years. Emily is a lawyer by background, but now she’s the Chief Executive of Oxil, and I think that’s quite interesting in itself because there are not many women who are chief executives of technology businesses, so I’m particularly interested to dive a little bit deeper with Emily on that today. So Emily, it’s really great to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining me.

Emily Taylor: Thank you very much for inviting me on the show, Toby, and it’s always great to talk to you.

Toby Mildon: That’s cool. And I think we also need to point out, Emily, that this is going to be slightly different to the usual format of my podcasting, ’cause we’ve agreed that we just want this to be like a chat between friends. It’s unscripted. We don’t know where we’re going with this. [laughter] We will be talking about diversity and inclusion ’cause that is the main point of the show, but other than that, we’re kind of sailing in the wind, really, aren’t we?

Emily Taylor: We are. We are. But it should be fun. [chuckle]

Toby Mildon: So Emily, just, I suppose just to set the scene for the person listening to us today, can you let us know a bit more about what Oxil does, and I suppose how you got to this point? Because when we first started working together, we were working on an accessibility project,
but now your focus is very much on cybersecurity and intelligence. So yeah, it’d be good to understand a bit more about your business journey.

Emily Taylor: Thank you. So our full name, we always call it Oxil, but our full name is Oxford Information Labs, and we call ourselves a cyber intelligence consultancy. So what does that really mean? We’re trying to find a way of describing how we sit at the crossroads or the intersection between different disciplines, and I think that this is really what defines us, we bring together people who don’t normally sit together in the same business. So we have, as you know, Toby, a very long-standing software development team, Mark and Lucien, and Nathan, and they’re incredibly talented programmers and they’re also very articulate and very keen to understand the impact of what they do. And so the project that we worked together on all those years ago, text-to-speech, that was something that we all felt very passionate about, that it was a good thing, it wasn’t just… It was an amazing opportunity to work for the BBC, but it was also doing something that really felt like it was… To use the over-worn phrase, it could make a difference.

Emily Taylor: But also, I think it’s journey, what happened to text-to-speech and those small in… What we were doing was really clever and it was really innovative, and it got completely taken over by two things. One was, and I think you’d probably agree with this, that apart from Oxford City Council, the BBC, these very public sector, public-spirited organisations, that cared about the experience of visually impaired and other users who might struggle to read swathes of text. In the private sector there really wasn’t that much interest in it, but to put it mildly, it was a very difficult sell. But also the main thing was, when the browsers started to do their own thing, that completely took away the market. And that is the experience of being in a tech company. We’ve been around, 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.

Emily Taylor: But 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. And where we felt we can really offer something unique is at this intersection between policy and technology, and so we have a small team of policy researchers, and we do… In fact, one of our longest standing projects is, which we’ve been doing it for over 10 years, is about language on the internet, and that’s something that’s not often talked about in the context of diversity and inclusion. And technology is so weird because things that, you think with such a sort of innovative environment and the fact that everything is so new, it ought to be an incredibly welcoming place for people who are different, because you have to sort of think different, don’t you?

Toby Mildon: Yeah. Yeah.

Emily Taylor: And yet, the disappointment is that a lot of the inequalities are not just the same in tech, but more, more so, and that it really feels like it shouldn’t be like that.

Toby Mildon: Well, there’s been examples of technology perpetuating inequalities. There was quite a famous news headline a few years ago where Amazon had to remove artificial intelligence from its recruitment process, because it was screening women out of the… Yeah, out of the recruitment funnel. And that could have been because it was developed by an all-men engineering team, and so the AI just adopted the biases of the team at the time.

Emily Taylor: Yeah. And that’s so disappointing, isn’t it? But yes, when you start to think, “Well, how could that be true?” A lot depends on the training data that artificial intelligence is trained on, if it was all Amazon recruits of all time. And I think this is part of the reason why it highlighted this is, when you put it all together, you’re not getting a very diverse picture. And although, there are plenty of women working in technology, as you said there’s not many CEOs, and really the kernel of where things are being created in the technical development teams, overwhelmingly these are White male, young people under 35. And when you’re looking at emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, which clearly has so many wider 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Emily Taylor: Again, you feel like the teams creating those programs need to be more diverse. It’s like, I often hear people working in policing or other sort of public safety roles saying, “Well, the communities that are doing this job need to reflect the communities that they’re serving.” And I think that we don’t think of that in engineering at all.

Toby Mildon: No, I can relate to that ’cause I did some work with the police force. And one of the reasons why they wanted to get me in was because they realised that the police force itself did not represent the diversity of the city that it served. And if it did represent the city that it serve, that they would then get better policing outcomes, which they are measured against by central government. And there’s been some horrific stories about how I think a lack of diversity has led to problems with technology, we’ve had autonomous vehicles hitting Black people. 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, certain criteria, and this software said to this 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’s his response on Twitter, and it went viral. And we’ve also had hand dryers that don’t turn on with people who have got darker skin tones. So there’s been all sorts of issues, big issues, and I think it stems from a lack of diversity on the team. You just have that blind spot, major blind spots.

Emily Taylor: Yeah, I agree. And also, the experience of elderly 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, who, the way she interacts with people is in-person and on the phone, and for her, online shopping is a completely weird thing to do. And also the exclusion of that generation and older generations, people who are struggling 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 easily end up locked out of systems feeling really stupid and frustrated. I was looking at the Stack Overflow, this is a huge survey of developers done each year, and it’s really fascinating, and don’t often report… The headlines aren’t really… They don’t really emphasise this, but there’s always really interesting demographics about the programming community. And only 2% of programmers, 2% are over 55 years of age.

Toby Mildon: Wow. Yeah.

Emily Taylor: And the vast majority, over 70%, are under 35. And you just have a different world view.

Toby Mildon: This issue had just been perpetuated over the last two or three years with the pandemic, with so many businesses moving services online. Yeah, even key things like booking your Coronavirus injections, you do it online or through an app on the phone. Having the Coronavirus passport, again, on the phone. People having to do more shopping online. Obviously, you remember Jonathan Hassell, who was my boss at the BBC, and now he runs a digital accessibility company, testing websites and such like. And he tells the story about how his mum struggled to do online shopping during the pandemic, she just could not get her head around using the Tesco or the Waitrose website. And 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.

Emily Taylor: Yeah. I totally relate to that. In fact, what we did with my parents was we just did their online shopping for them, and made sure… We would either… We’d just sit with them on the phone when it was like the deep lockdown and just take their order and order it up for them and then get it delivered because that was just, in the end, the only thing that would work. And 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, and that the tools make certain demands or assumptions about people’s abilities that are just not correct for the whole population.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. And yeah, if these supermarkets had created their systems with older people in mind to begin with, they might actually have ended up with a better product overall, one that even you and I would find easier to use.

Emily Taylor: Yeah, I think so, because it would be really intuitive with great big buttons and the flow would be really, really obvious. I’m starting to get to this myself, I have tried… We’ve moved
online shopping, the grocery provider, and I just cannot figure out how to do the app, and I keep on doing these big orders, and it never goes through because you have to kind of go into what feels like the danger zone to save your order, and it feels like, “Oh no, I might end up checking out and buying all this stuff and I’m not ready yet.” So, what I see among older users is that they trust things that they shouldn’t trust, and they don’t trust things that they should trust in the online environment. And generally, there’s just such a sense of unease and discomfort with the whole thing that really just shouldn’t be, because above all, 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, or fairer, or include… That’s what I think it should be about, and it doesn’t seem to be working that way at the moment, always. Not always, sometimes.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. I like what you said earlier about how your business operates at the intersection between technology and policy, ’cause that felt in a way, inclusive to me. And you said something like, “We are different,” and that reminded me of inclusion. In diversity inclusion, we talk about intersectionality, which is where you might have a couple of identities and therefore face extra discrimination. Being a Black woman is a different experience to being a White woman, for example, or being a woman with a disability is different to being a woman without a disability. So that’s the intersectionality. And how actually, I think your business philosophy is about embracing difference, rather than running away from it. Can you tell me a bit more about your philosophy or thinking behind that?

Emily Taylor: Thanks for calling it a philosophy, because you’re just sort of… Often you’re just… Especially 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, and you don’t often have a moment of reflection where you think, “Well, what are we about?” But we do have a very strong identity and a very strong sense of wanting to do things a bit differently to the way a lot of offices and a lot of businesses work. All of us have, whether it’s a disability or whether it is actually having small children or elderly parents, or pets, or something that is a different dimension to our life, which means that a straight 9:00 to 5:00 presenteeism type of culture is not always going to work. And long before the pandemic, we have always tried to understand what’s going… Without being intrusive, but to understand the challenges people face in their lives, and see whether we can create jobs around those people and get the best out of them.

Emily Taylor: Because I know myself from trying to hold down a full-time job when I had very, very small children, just the relentless demand of just being somewhere else from 9:00 until 5:30, often longer and the fact that school life is not set up in the same hours as office life. And you also actually do want to try to do your best for your family as well as your work. These shouldn’t be incompatible demands. And so, 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 work experience. And something that we’ve been doing recently is, we’ve got a couple of people who are long-term unemployed with disabilities, and just saying, “Well, how much work can you cope with?” And we’ve got to about half a day a week, but that sort of person who’s in that situation
who has got a huge amount to offer society and people, and feeling incredibly excluded and has told me, “Oh, well, I’ve done other jobs and they’ve said I’m unemployable.” And it’s just, you’re not unemployable because you can see that people have lots of talent, and it’s just a question of putting them in the right… We’re all disabled, or we are all out of our comfort zone if we’re in the wrong environment.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. Well, that’s very much like the social model of disability says that, it’s things like physical barriers, attitudinal barriers, policy barriers that actually disable us, whereas a lot of people think along the medical lines of disability, it’s because of a health condition or impairment that somebody is disabled and they need to be cured or fixed. And I think what I like about what you’re saying is that, as an employer, just being flexible in the way that you employ people, you can get the best out of them. It reminds me, I did an interview with somebody, Jane Hatton, who runs a job board for disabled people called Evenbreak, she is on one of the previous podcast episodes. In the early days of her business, she employed… There were two brothers actually, and they’ve both got ME, and therefore they’ve got fluctuating energy levels, and she employed them to do data entry. Yeah, putting job entries on the website, basically. But it worked well for her and them because they could do those job from home, with an internet connection, and they could do some data entry for half an hour, go and have a rest, get their energy back up, come back and do it again. And because she was flexible, they’re still working for her now. And I think her business is, must be at least… Yeah, at least 10 years old, I think.

Emily Taylor: Yeah. I can really relate to that. And I’ve always believed that if you give people a work environment that suits them, then they will reward you with loyalty. It doesn’t always work out. And actually, in a small business, there’s not really anywhere to hide, so if you are not performing for whatever reason, it becomes obvious. 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, are based on that Taylorism of people as units of productivity, and then they unit into an office. Actually, there isn’t the same need for that, and we all found in the pandemic, we were really lucky because we just picked up our laptops and went home, for two or three years.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Emily Taylor: And we were able to sort of continue working. In fact, we’ve never been busier. But I was aware that a lot of other friends or family had huge adjustments to make, from going out of the office environment to working from home. But there isn’t really 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 something that is enhanced and served by your work that, not like one person in work and one person at home. And I’m increasingly coming across sort of email signatures from people, particularly in the civil service, you say, “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 really like that. But it’s also just highlights that a lot
of people are working when they can, because they’re doing other things during the typical window. Which, when you think about it, there’s not particularly a 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 really matter whether you do it in the middle of the night or in the middle of the day, really, does it? As long as it gets done.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. I’m interested to understand about what your experience has been like as a woman CEO in tech industry, it’s something that I mentioned at the opening of the show. And I don’t want this to come across as like patronising, but there are not many women who are CEOs within the tech space. And so I’m just interested to know what your, I suppose, what your experience has been.

Emily Taylor: Well, what can I say? I’ve always found technology to be a really great industry to be a woman in, because actually a lot of people in tech don’t quite fit in the world, in the traditional sense. And a lot of us who came in to technology 20 years ago, like I did, at that first real wave of the commercial internet, and we had all been doing different things, so there’s lots of different backgrounds there. I never really felt excluded. I do find that often you get mansplained to a lot on technology, not from the people in Oxil who are really great, and I love working closely with real technical people who I can trust completely. And I think this has really helped me in my career because I can ask my people really stupid questions about how things work, and ask them to keep explaining it to me until I understand, and understand in my way.

Emily Taylor: Then I can be more confident with the technology, or speaking about the technology when I have to speak to others, but I haven’t found it. I found it a very flexible environment to work in in my earlier career, and with really 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 completely. And I think that because the environment I work in is quite small and very close, and we’re a very close-knit team, I do think that, what I hear is that women… The few women who are programmers in those big, big, big teams, describe a very toxic environment at times.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Emily Taylor: And so I’m aware that maybe my experience is not typical, and I think that that’s a really 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 kind of guys in hoodies who are all socially a bit weird and stuff, and that can normalise a lot of behavior, under the guise… Sometimes… I don’t know… 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, and 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 actually just bad behavior or bullying, but it’s forgiven in that way. Clearly, people who do struggle with social situations and
do 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, almost like a boastful way to excuse, really, oppressive behavior in some situations. I think that often people do have choices about the way they behave, even if they have difficulties. It’s a difficult thing to articulate and I’m probably getting it wrong.

Toby Mildon: But essentially, behavior creates culture. And in another episode I interviewed Megan Sunshine who is a Manchester University graduate, and is a big eSports gamer. Yeah, in her interview, she was describing the toxic culture within the eSports gaming industry, this kind of very masculine lavish culture where, frankly, bullying doesn’t get challenged.

Emily Taylor: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: And I think, obviously, your space, Oxil is a great company and you’ve created a great culture. But unfortunately, there are organisations where there is that toxic culture, and behavior just gets brushed to one side. And particularly, I’ve talked to loads of organisations where behavior does not get challenged if you’ve basically got a star player who’s guilty of that behavior, even though they’re the big rain-maker for the company, or they’re a big tech genius, and nobody wants to upset them because they might leave and upset the business. [chuckle]

Emily Taylor: Yeah, and it’s one of the things that we say we won’t tolerate as aggressive techies, we don’t tolerate aggressive techies in our work and we don’t… You do have… You do come across aggressive techies in the wider world, but it’s very difficult to cope with. And as you say, there is a sort of, an elevated status, the wizard, the genius, whose eccentricity is forgiven, yeah, and people are different and eccentrics are wonderful. But where it tips over into bullying or repression or… I even find… We were talking about this, weren’t we, Toby, that sometimes I’m on, 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 womanly bits [laughter] of it. And it’s what you were talking about, about unconscious bias. And also my own conditioning.

Emily Taylor: I look at people who are coming into adulthood now, and there are 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 that, like constantly being interrupted in conversations or not really participating in a conversation as a 50-50 level, and being judged if you do push any of those metrics, I suppose. And because we are conditioned and we accept it, we don’t push for change in the same way. I had a real wake-up call a couple of years ago, where a younger woman on my staff was frankly being bullied by a client, and I think it was quite gender-based. And the support that we got when we escalated it further up, the client was absolutely amazing, and it made me realise how much in my career, in my younger career, I would have just not mentioned it and just put up with it because that’s the way it goes. And speaking out doesn’t get you anywhere anyway. But I feel encouraged that
things might be changing.

Toby Mildon: I hope they are. I hope they are.

Emily Taylor: I hope so. [chuckle] I hope so. It’s not easy though, isn’t it?

Toby Mildon: A lot of organisations that I talk to nowadays are putting in measures to help people speak up when they notice bad behavior, whether that’s kind of formal channels through HR or they’re implementing an app that allows people to anonymously report bad behavior, so that the organisation gets a heat map of what’s happening where in the business, that kind of thing.

Emily Taylor: That’s interesting. Yeah.

Toby Mildon: So there’s lots of tech out there that can help. Before you head off, the question that I ask everybody, just as we close the show is, what does inclusive growth mean to you?

Emily Taylor: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. And for me, it’s not any one particular thing, but it is an attitude, which is to try to get the benefit of people’s differences, because it can give you different perspectives. I really believe, in the policy world where, where I spend a lot of time, that you can really end up blind-sided if you don’t consider the perspectives of others. And also just from a very practical point of view, when you’re a small company, looking… You’re all competing in job market, you’re not gonna be able to pay the biggest, shiniest salaries. 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 they can live there, where their life can be supported with their work.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. That’s brilliant. And if the person listening to us right now wants to learn more about what Oxil does and your team, where should they go for that information?

Emily Taylor: Visit our website on oxil.uk, and you can look at our publications. We’re hiring at the moment. And also on news feed, where we just sort of… I’m sure we’ll be putting this podcast up there as well, we just sort of put up little bits of what we’re doing here and there, so there’s plenty to look at there and learn a bit more about what we do.

Toby Mildon: Great. Well, Emily, thank you ever so much for joining me today, I love talking to you.

Emily Taylor: Yeah, I always love talking to you, Toby, and it’s…

Toby Mildon: We can go on for hours I think.

Emily Taylor: We could, and it’s so great talking to you, and thank you very much for inviting me on the show.

Toby Mildon: You’re welcome. Thank you, Emily. I look forward to seeing you soon.

Emily Taylor: Okay. See you soon.

Toby Mildon: And thank you for joining in to Emily and I today, hopefully you enjoyed our conversation, taking some stuff away for your own organisation. If you do need any further support or help, feel free to reach out to me, I’m at www.mildon.co.uk. Obviously, if you’re interested in cybersecurity and things like that, then do reach out to Emily and her team, and her website. Until the next time, thanks very much for tuning into the show.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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