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For true diversity in tech, the status quo needs to go

By Michelle Y. Bess / September 3, 2019

The diversity, equity and inclusion movement has seen its fair share of ups and downs since Tracy Chou highlighted tech’s diversity problem.

Since then, diversity and inclusion initiatives were treated as a quick fix to negative publicity around the technology industry’s employee demographics. The movement picked up steam when a journalist at the San Jose Mercury filed a Freedom of Information request forcing the big names in tech to disclose their demographic information. To soften the blow from the press, companies released their own statements about how they would diversify their workforces and build a culture of inclusion.

Since those first results went public, organizations have made significant strides educating employees on the value of diversity and engaging the C-suite to promote inclusivity. Annual diversity reports are a regular staple among the tech giants and public sentiment has shifted from “it’s not our problem” to “we have to do something about this.”

But the reality is most DEI efforts have barely moved the needle on diversity. Companies are talking about diversity more than ever, yet the same discriminatory problems in the workplace persist. To achieve a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, companies need to treat more than just the symptoms of inequity and challenge the way DEI initiatives are executed.

Tech companies are saying all the right things…

On the surface, companies committed to DEI make a concerted effort to educate their employees on the significance of diversity and to implement programs that support their cause.

Facebook, for example, developed an unconscious bias training course for its employees. At Sprout Social, we host monthly Guild Meetings for the entire organization to learn about different backgrounds, identities and cultures. It’s not uncommon to see outlined on a company website what employers are doing to tackle inequity, be it through one-off trainings or employee-led resource groups for members belonging to Black, LGBTQ+, veteran or disabled groups.

Equally important is defining what diversity means to an organization and using that definition to guide subsequent initiatives. Every company is different—what diversity means to companies like Microsoft is going to look drastically different from a startup or mid-sized company. When Apple first got started in the DEI space, they recognized a lack of racial and gender diversity in their workforce. As a result, Apple focused the majority of its efforts on expanding its pipeline of female and minority candidates through partnering with HBCUs.

…But the results leave something to be desired

Tech companies have developed a predictable formula for DEI work. There’s an educational component, the implementation of programs and resource groups, the hiring of a DEI lead and an annual report to document progress.

It’s a neatly packaged, step-by-step way of addressing diversity and inclusion that’s become the accepted level of effort among today’s tech companies.

But a closer look at the tech industry as a whole reveals that the number of women and people of color largely remains stagnant, a challenge that our own team is still working to resolve. Recent US government data shows black employees make up less than three percent of all Silicon Valley workers while Hispanic employees make up less than seven percent. Across all Fortune 500 companies, the number of black and female CEOs continues to drop steadily.

These numbers will stay the same unless companies acknowledge the current cycle of DEI work is broken. If companies continue to stay the course, we shouldn’t be shocked to see our numbers stay flat or even trend toward the negative.

Getting to the heart of the problem

The problem with today’s DEI approach is that companies are focused on the visible signs of inequity and exclusion instead of working to determine why DEI problems exist in the first place.

Bias trainings and the hiring of a DEI lead alone won’t change the number of Black people hired in the next six months or lead to the promotion of more women to the C-suite. The data shows one-off bias trainings aren’t enough to drive measurable change and many employers fail to take those learnings outside of the classroom and into the real world.

Consider an organization that’s done all the “right things” but struggles to attract and hire people of color. Maybe this company has mandatory bias training for all new hires and a catalog of business resource groups (BRGs), but the number of minority employees steadily drops year over year. What looks like a pipeline issue on the surface could actually be a more deeply rooted cause, like inequitable systems that exclude people of color and religious minorities.

Even the best of intentions can result in initiatives that unintentionally excludes underrepresented groups. At Sprout, for example, last year we sought to raise internal awareness around Women’s Equal Pay Day, educating employees on the time it takes for a woman to make as much as a white man. But after hearing from several employees, we recognized our acknowledgement of Women’s Equal Pay Day was not intersectional and excluded women of color from the initial conversation. This year, our Black@, Women@, and Cafecito BRGs have partnered up to acknowledge Black and Latinx Women’s Equal Pay Days and to encourage employees to share what they’ve learned with their networks.

Likewise, when we considered creating an interfaith resource group for all religions, several individuals highlighted a need for a separate affinity group specific for Jewish employees. It wasn’t until we specifically asked employees what challenges they faced and how to best support them were we able to start providing the resources they actually needed, rather than ones we thought they might need.

Remember: what happens in the world doesn’t stop at your company’s front door. Consider facilitating regular check-ins between leadership and BRGs to discuss external societal factors that contribute to an employee’s identity. Employees will bring things like visas being revoked or the shooting of an unarmed black man into the workplace with them, and the onus is on managers and leadership to respond in a supportive manner.

Your BRG and ERG leaders are valuable resources—as representatives, they can help leadership teams identify projects that support both business goals and underrepresented employees. In addition to things like bias trainings, offer workshops to employees belonging to the majority on how to be an effective ally and ensure everyone can bring his or her full self to work.

Companies need to recognize the status quo of operations won’t work for everyone and have to consider factors like geography, pay and culture to build equitable systems that support a truly diverse workforce.

Employees are starting to apply pressure

Another reason why today’s DEI initiatives largely fall flat is that they fail to account for the employee experience. When companies focus solely on bottom line metrics like hiring and retention, they risk ignoring the internal conversations highlighting what matters most to their workforce.

The next stage of the DEI movement requires companies to acknowledge and actively listen to employee frustrations. After years of watching organizations recycle the same diversity initiatives without measurable change, workers are placing real pressure on employers to produce results in a matter of months, not years. Pressure from employees at Edelman, for example, forced the PR firm to drop a controversial client while Googlers walked out over the mishandling of sexual harassment complaints.

Employers need to take seriously what their employees are demanding or risk the kind of public missteps that surface-level DEI initiatives cannot correct for. Diversity efforts are inherently in service of the real people who come to work every day, and examples like the walkouts at Edelman and Google prove that today’s employees expect and will demand more of their employers when it comes to DEI.

The work never stops

A decade ago, only a handful of tech organizations were talking about the diversity problem plaguing the tech industry; today, companies can’t jump on the DEI bandwagon fast enough. Since that initial enthusiasm, however, progress has largely stalled, whether from fear of the unknown or general uncertainty about what to do next.

But it’s worth remembering these conversations around DEI are only possible because companies faced their fears and challenged the old way of managing business operations in the first place. And if businesses are serious about achieving DEI at work, they’ll need to bring back that challenger mentality when evaluating the efficacy of their current initiatives. Keep questioning what else can be done to move the needle and don’t be afraid to try something that’s never been done. While some companies are content to play it safe, those that are willing to take risks and push back against the status quo will find themselves building truly equitable and diverse workplaces well ahead of the competition.

Michelle Y. Bess

Michelle Y. Bess

Michelle Y. Bess is the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Director at Sprout Social, a premier connector of people, a personal shopper and champion for people of color. Bess serves as Board Chair of Degrees of Change and Founder + Co-Lead of The Brave Space Meet-Up.
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