As scores of headlines expose systemic racial injustice and COVID-19 thrusts organizations even deeper into digital transformation, it’s clear that we’ve arrived at the corner where technology and social equity meet. But it’s a far cry from a friendly encounter – more like a bad collision. Recently, we’ve seen news of Facebook’s unacceptably imbalanced workforce and some organizations are even rolling back longstanding inclusion programs, including Google.
There’s just no way around it: Tech is still playing an active role in perpetuating some of the challenges we face around social equity. If we don’t make changes from the top down, the industry will not only miss the mark on recruiting diversified talent but will also continue to function like an exclusive club, playing an adverse role in our society and reinforcing system inequities. Eventually, products and services will fail to meet the greater needs of society. Innovation will be stunted.
The good news is that this troubling dynamic can be mitigated – even reversed. After all, the tech sector prides itself on being a legion of determined disruptors, right?
Recognize your organization’s role and take action
In recent years, forward-thinking business leaders have spent countless hours trying to drive home the value proposition of diversity and inclusion to partners and investors. I believe we’ve reached the point where those sitting in the board room generally understand that being silent is no longer an option. However, some business leaders are hesitant to take a stance beyond diversity mission statements and supportive social media content. While these are great first steps, we need to do more than just talk about it. We need to be bold and we need to take action.
Understandably, most brands and business leaders aren’t expert authorities on social justice and equity. But it’s not an excuse. Inaction is a mistake. Now is the time to conduct a social equity audit and ask some questions that may be difficult to answer all at once: Where are the gaps in your organization and how can you bridge them? Where are the gaps in the geographic and digital communities you serve? How can you improve your supply chain of suppliers and vendors to promote social equity? Where in the conversation about inclusion, Black Lives Matter, gender gap, the digital divide, or systemic inequity does it make sense for your company to weigh in? What support or resources can your company provide? How can you improve and monitor your progress?
Answering these questions can help your organization develop a working blueprint for building social equity into your business operations internally and externally, ensuring that your role in supporting social equity is backed by tangible actions and measurable results.
Design your products and services for more equitable outcomes
As business leaders focus on what social equity means within their workforce and internal operations, we cannot ignore the intrinsic link between equity and economics. In particular, as players in the larger economy, every organization should actively analyze the product and service lines they’re putting on the market. Consider the broad spectrum of diversity in your audience, everything from race, gender, sexual orientation, geographic location, religion, disabilities, age, health, etc. Then you must understand the impact your products and services have on all segments of your audience and how widely accessible they are. Who are you leaving out? Who are you potentially hurting?
For starters, immediately discontinue products, services, or revenue streams that explicitly harm underserved communities. For example, this could include dating apps that encourage sexual racism with search filters or any companies that engage in or are attached to predatory lending practices. It’s also necessary to look at your product suite and identify implicit or unintentional biases. Examples of this would be harmful algorithms that create “filter bubbles” or location data for apps that redline neighborhoods, which explains why Pokémon Go offers fewer PokéStops in minority neighborhoods and thereby limits minority participation by its design.
The next step requires investment of time and money, deploying a formal research and development (R&D) effort so you can address any inequities your organization is inadvertently creating. This effort may lead to refining or even completely overhauling product design — including navigation, language barriers, technology requirements, aesthetics, user interface, algorithms, and more — to improve the accessibility and user experience (UX) across various communities. Be sure that you include a diversity of test users in your product development and testing processes so you can build UX with their first-hand input in mind. Making social equity R&D an ongoing investment will keep your organization ahead of the curve, allowing you to redesign products and launch derivatives to provide the best possible coverage of the marketplace, particularly underserved audiences.
Mend the digital divide
Internet access and the ability to effectively use digital technology are imperatives for full participation in our society’s economic and social activities. Increasingly, people are going online for important life choices, from finding lower prices for products and services to making better informed decisions about their healthcare.
With the rise of virtual learning sweeping the U.S. amid the COVID-19 shutdowns, the digital divide has never been more menacing. More than one-third (35%) of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual household income below $30,000 a year lack high-speed internet connectivity at home, compared with just 6% of such households earning $75,000 or more a year, according to recent data from Pew Research Center. Broadband gaps are particularly prevalent in Black and Hispanic households with school-age children, especially those with low incomes. These are harrowing trends, suggesting the education gap will continue to spread.
Not having internet access in today’s economy puts citizens at a distinct disadvantage. It also disconnects them from the organizations that could potentially serve them. Allowing the digital divide to persist is not only socially irresponsible but also potentially detrimental to innovation within the technology sector. As tech leaders, we have both a moral obligation and a clear incentive to invest in a pipeline of future talent which, currently, we are sorely missing out on due to the digital divide and subsequent education gaps. Investment in mending the digital divide will also empower new classes of consumers that are currently being shut out of the tech landscape and digital economy.
It takes a village
In a shifting marketplace where change and challenges swarm, businesses need strong leadership to adapt and deploy products and solutions to solve our greatest problems. Currently, most companies are focused on bolstering liquidity, rerouting supply chains, and implementing business processing automation or virtualization solutions. But these efforts will be for nothing if we lose connection with our communities.
I don’t intend to undermine the many leaders that are making great strides in fostering inclusive cultures, eliminating biases in hiring and driving engagement in their organizations. But I’m also not afraid to say it: Insulated action will only get us so far. The conversation needs to move beyond just hiring Chief Diversity Officers (though I do think there’s merit there) and diversifying our boards (which definitely still needs to happen). It’s not just about our own organizations. It’s about bridging the gaps in our economy. And as providers of technology intended to improve how we live and work, our industry has a prominent role to play in the transformation.
If we’re going to achieve social equity, we need a collective effort across the entire tech industry, and it starts at the top. Now more than ever, business leaders need to focus on the systemic issues that impact our communities at large and then advance strategies that bridge social gaps, empower end-users, and disrupt inequity.
Sean Clayton is co-founder and CEO of Myosin, a data-science powered marketing platform and consultancy. A Dallas native and 15-year digital media veteran, he also serves as a strategic advisor to cross-industry technology and consumer brands.