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I recently came across this exchange in the comment section of an article on diversity in tech that caught my eye. 

Commentor 1: This diversity theme is wearing thin. 

Commentor 2: Diversity isn’t a theme or a buzzword. It’s an incredibly complex need to include half the population in an industry they have long since been kept out of. 

Not to overanalyze this little exchange, but there’s a lot to unpack here — and it is emblematic of a larger issue. There are some individuals who are clearly missing the point around the value that greater diversity brings. At the same time, there are also many thousands of people who feel shut out of an entire industry which affects them in a very direct way — and they are stunned by how this could not be considered important.

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The challenge? Getting to a place where there is an understanding that everyone, universally, benefits from having a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. Diverse work environments create room for different perspectives, promote novel ways of thinking, enhance problem-solving and spur innovation.

Is there really a diversity problem in tech?

Let’s first reaffirm that yes, even now in 2022, diversity in tech is a concern. Tracking with a report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), recent research from Zippia found that, “Men hold 75% of U.S. tech jobs and are offered 3% higher salaries than women.” Compared to industries in general, “the high-tech industry employs a smaller proportion of Black Americans (7.4% versus 14.4%), Latinx Americans (8% versus 13.9%), and women (36% versus 48%).”

Specific to the representation of Black talent, the Kapor Center’s 2022 State of Tech Diversity report found that, “Between 2014 and 2021, the industry produced only a 1% increase in Black representation within technical roles in large tech companies. Black talent represents a mere 4.4% of board roles, 3.7% in technical roles, and just 4.0% in executive leadership.”

On top of that, a wage gap persists, with Black workers who are on average “paid 4% less than peers and often hired in lower-level roles than their qualifications justify.”

Why is there a lack of diversity in tech? 

Beginning in 2017 with the #MeToo movement and propelled by the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there was a strong call for all companies, including tech, to rethink their approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). In the years that followed, across the spectrum of industries, companies were put in a position of self-reflection and choice about how they would tackle this issue going forward.

For tech companies, the issues seemed particularly ingrained in the culture and difficult to solve. So, what if we just step back and ask the experts why there is a persistent lack of diversity in tech? Here’s one answer to consider.

In an Information Age article, Laura Smith, former Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Bolt, a San Francisco-based software company, describes it this way. “It’s easy for companies to view the lack of diversity in tech as a pipeline problem or a legacy issue – it’s a comfortable diagnosis that would mean that it’s someone else’s problem, another area’s fault,” says Smith.

“The uncomfortable truth is that the pipeline and the industry are like a colander: The whole structure has holes,” Smith added. “From getting individuals interested into the field, from equitable access to programs and entry-level opportunities, from uncomfortable and unaccommodating cultures that leak diverse talent to a lack of recognition and development of underrepresented individuals that do find their way into organizations, we have so many holes to fill before we start seeing diverse and inclusive workplaces become the norm in tech.”

One of the “holes” that Smith mentions is centered around the fact that people don’t have a sense of belonging. That’s confirmed by research from the consulting firm, Capgemini which indicates that “globally, only 24% of women and ethnic minorities in tech roles feel like they have a sense of belonging in organizations, despite 75% of leadership executives believing the opposite.”

The research behind how DEI attracts and retains employees

As daunting as it may seem, tech companies are realizing that tackling DEI is no longer an option—not if a company wants to grow and thrive. Prospective hires and current employees don’t just want diversity, equity and inclusion, they expect it. Let’s look at a small portion of the overwhelming amount of research that indicates that DEI is becoming essential to recruitment and retention.

The Built In 2022 State of DEI in Tech Report states that:

  • 67% of employees said they would be more inclined to stay in their current role if their employer improved its DEI efforts, a jump from the 51% who indicated this in 2020.
  • 58% said DEI initiatives are very important to them when considering a job opportunity. 

Wiley surveyed 2,030 technologists and found that:

  • 68% reported that they have felt “… uncomfortable in a job because of their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or neurodevelopmental condition.”

This isn’t just about making all people in the tech industry feel included and valued — as important as that is. It is also about the very survival of a company and being able to differentiate itself in the hiring marketplace.

A struggle to make progress, but there are hopeful signs

Progress has been slow, and many tech companies are struggling to find their footing with advancing DEI. Built In’s research says that “In spite of the promises many companies made in the past two years to take action on DEI, 35% of surveyed companies reported they are still in the beginning stages of building a DEI program. Additionally, 30% of tech professionals said their companies either don’t have any DEI programs in place or are making a very poor effort.”

Leaders are reportedly feeling the pinch. Wiley research asserts that 68% of businesses feel there is a lack of diversity in their workforce, but many are unsure how to address it. Similarly, Capgemini research found that “90% of organizations worldwide are having trouble implementing inclusion practices and designing services within technology teams.”

But there are hopeful signs. Companies are committing to DEI, and there is evidence that they will be significantly increasing their investment in areas such as intentionally sourcing diverse talent, implementing inclusion tactics and conducting robust DEI training programs. 

Breaking through the barriers

The good news is that there are some concrete ways that professionals working in tech can advance DEI. In fact, that’s the only way it will work. We are way beyond the idea that somehow DEI belongs to those in HR and it’s solely their problem to solve. Going back to our original exchange, Commentor 2 had it right. DEI is not just a theme, program or initiative. For it to have impact, it has to be part of the very fabric of the organization in a way that involves everyone.

“DEI is a business strategy, not just an HR strategy. While a big part of it overlaps with HR and operations, it must encompass the entire organization for it to make real changes and be successful.”

—Stephanie Barnes, senior sourcing recruiter at Amazon and diversity and inclusion consultant in Medium.

Start your journey from where you are

If your organization is largely homogeneous, the idea that you can turn this around immediately is unrealistic and can set the organization up to fail. Work toward major aspirational goals, but set your immediate sights on achievable milestones. Consider what you can implement right away, such as education and training, and what may need more time, such as stripping out biases from all systems and processes.

Action: Assess where you stand on the DEI continuum and determine both short and long-term goals.

Make it a business objective. Because it is. 

It’s clear that DEI is critical to an organization’s ability to not just survive, but thrive. For that reason, it needs to extend beyond HR and become a business objective for every division, department, leader and individual. In addition to the compelling research above on retention and recruitment, research from Forbes found that “diversity is a key driver of innovation and is a critical component of being successful on a global scale. A majority of respondents agreed that diversity is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that foster innovation.”

Action: Include DEI objectives in business planning and have it cascade throughout the organization with related accountability in place.

Create awareness (without shaming or blaming)

The key is to use information about the tech industry’s lack of diversity to generate awareness. However, the tricky part of that is to do so without shaming or blaming, which can polarize large factions of the company, leaving it paralyzed to move forward. The challenge is to make sure that everyone feels like they are part of the solution.

Action: Make sure that any communication and education efforts are broadly inclusive.

Identify and work with resistors

If there is widespread resistance to DEI in the organization, this needs to be considered and plans shaped accordingly. If there are pockets of resistance, then you can tackle these preemptively. But in both cases, the key is to make the case that having a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture benefits everyone, universally.

Explore the foundations of the resistance. If people don’t feel connected to the culture, look at what specifically is affecting them negatively. Could it be fear of being left behind? Or fear that they will never have a sense of belonging, no matter how hard they try? 

Action: Include pulse checks to find out how people are feeling about their sense of value and belonging in the organization. Determine common threads and proactively address the issues.

Implement concrete actions that demonstrate progress

Creating some immediate “wins” toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture creates positive momentum. Consider, what can you do right now to make a difference? Are your hiring, interview and advancement practices as inclusive as possible? Do your meetings foster a sense of belonging for everyone involved? One way to affect this is to ensure that your education and training are shaped around creating an inclusive culture that can help uncover biases and address difficult issues like these. 

Action: Shape your education and training around creating some immediate wins, while at the same time making inroads into tackling complex issues incrementally.

“Training should include how to have difficult/courageous conversations about bias in the real world.”

The ACT Report: Action to Catalyze Tech: A Paradigm Shift for DEI

What are tech companies doing to address DEI? 

Curious to see what other tech companies are doing to address DEI? You may want to look at the work the Aspen Institute is doing.

Over 30 CEOs and executives from large “technology organizations, including Airbnb, Apple, Dropbox, Etsy, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Salesforce, Spotify, and Uber, have committed to being founding signatories of the ACT Report, pledging to hold themselves and their companies accountable to accelerate progress toward achieving DEI success.”

Together, they represent more than 500,000 tech employees. Echoing some of the summarized points you’ve read here, the report offers additional research, insights, and perspectives into how organizations can break through barriers to advance DEI.

With much commitment from major players in the tech field, progress will continue. The results will be well worth the time and investment. With this newfound energy, it is possible to hope that the tech industry will not only become increasingly diverse in the coming years, but will be more equitable and inclusive for all.

Natasha Nicholson is the director of content marketing at Kantola Training Solutions.

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