Few other industries are as ambitious and revolutionary as the tech industry. It’s a place where sci-fi becomes real life and where even exploring the galaxy isn’t that much of a long shot.
But if tech is the industry of the future, how come it’s so stagnant when it comes to diversity?
Around 62 percent of jobs in tech are held by white people, and only 25 percent of computing roles are held by women. This lack of diversity has painful consequences — a study by Dice found that out of 9,000 respondents, 48 percent of Black participants experienced racial discrimination at work, and 57 percent of women said they’d been discriminated against based on their gender. What’s more, 26 percent of Americans have a disability of some type, many tech companies don’t include disability as a part of their diversity reporting.
“The reason it’s important for companies to center DEI is to create space for those of us who have been held at the margins for so long to contribute, innovate and move our economy forward.”
This is a huge challenge that HR leaders in tech are struggling to address. Education is one of the most powerful tools to combat stigmatization and inequality, yet only around 32 percent of companies make DEI training required for their employees. It’s only the first step, but an effective DEI training program can open the door to making tech a more exciting, fulfilling and equitable industry for everyone.
“The reason it’s important for companies to center DEI is to create space for those of us who have been held at the margins for so long to contribute, innovate and move our economy forward,” said Cianna Carillo Walker-Flom, DEI program manager at New York based real estate tech company Ribbon. “In order to do that, we have to really center our stories, and demonstrate how impactful and how necessary we are to the workplace, and to our culture.”
DEI Is More Than Items on a Checklist
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) aren’t just buzzwords — they can have a very tangible impact on a company’s relevancy, it’s office culture, and even it’s bottom line. Studies show that companies with high racial and ethnic diversity perform 35 percent better financially than national industry medians, and organizations with diversity in leadership earn 19 percent more revenue than their more homogenous peers.
Dollar signs aside, the biggest reason that companies should support DEI initiatives is simple: It’s the way of the future. Statistics show that, when it comes to racial demographics, each generation is more diverse than the one prior, and currently around 94 percent of employers say they have committed to supporting DEI within their companies.
“Homogeneous spaces mitigate creativity, and they don’t serve innovation,” said Walker-Flom. “Companies that are diverse and inclusive lend themselves to being cutting edge and innovative players, in tech and beyond.”
Organizations that neglect DEI risk a lot more than just becoming stagnant. Recent studies show that over 80 percent of employees want to work for inclusive companies, and 40 percent of employees who experience harassment or discrimination at work end up quitting their jobs. With the Great Resignation in full swing, stepping up DEI training can spell the difference between a loyal team and an empty office.
“We are currently in an employee’s market, and people are leaving the workforce in droves,” said Court Roberts, DEI and L&D advisor at San Francisco-based events platform Marco Experiences. “Employees have learned, if they aren’t happy, they can just get up and leave. When employees leave companies, it’s often because they’re not experiencing a sense of belonging.”
Investment Has to Be Genuine
To demonstrate true commitment to DEI principles, companies have to do more than just pay lip service to the concept. Around 13 percent of employees keep track of their employers’ progress on DEI initiatives, so if your company’s leadership is all talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion, your employees will notice.
“There’s a lot of examples of companies who’ve only done superficial DEI work, but at some point, the edifice starts to fade, and people see the cracks,” Walker-Flom said. “That will have a significant negative impact on your staff internally, and with your stakeholders as well.”
Workshops and training events are one way to make a concrete commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at your company. But for these workshops to make their desired impact, leadership must be able to show that DEI training is more than just a checklist item, and to connect workplace inclusivity both to company values and to employee well-being.
“There’s a lot of examples of companies who’ve only done superficial DEI work, but at some point, the edifice starts to fade, and people see the cracks ... That will have a significant negative impact on your staff internally, and with your stakeholders as well.”
For Wei Gan, Ribbon’s CTO and co-founder, DEI investment is a given. It’s a fundamental aspect of not only his company’s culture goals, but its market goals as well, he said.
“DEI is core to our mission because, to make homeownership achievable, we need to help historically marginalized communities in housing and real estate,” Gan said. “We can’t level the playing field for homeownership without building a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment within our own company.”
Leaders Must Show Up
If a company shares statements about their DEI initiatives, it might seem like it’s leadership really values diversity and inclusion. But on a deeper level, the story could be very different. When leaders boast about their commitment to DEI, but fail to live up to those commitments within their companies, their words fall flat and they risk alienating their employees. It’s such a common occurrence, there’s term for it: diversity theater, Roberts said.
“A company could be putting out DEI statements or sharing who they’re donating to, but internally, leadership might not reflect those values,” said Roberts. “There can be great intentions, but if employees don’t see leaders at the training, they’ll feel disenchanted.”
Conversations about diversity and inclusion provide constant opportunities for learning, and leaders aren’t exempt from learning alongside their employees. Conducting successful DEI training means not only facilitating as a leader, but also participating as a listener and ally, Walker-Flom said.
“I was grateful that when I arrived at Ribbon, they already had a foundation of employee resource groups and a DEI committee,” she said. “Leadership really bought in and was leading on this work.”
Ask for Input, but Don’t Overburden
The purpose of DEI training is to encourage cultural competency and empathy, but that can’t be achieved unless leaders are attuned to the needs of those employees most impacted by discrimination and workplace inequity. But there’s a fine line between asking your employees for feedback and putting pressure on them to take an educator role — leaders must be able to incorporate employee perspectives into their DEI training strategy without overburdening them.
“Sometimes marginalized groups in the organization haven’t been consulted first,” Roberts said. “Or, even worse, they’ve been asked to do all the work. Collaboration and partnership need to happen.”
“Sometimes marginalized groups in the organization haven’t been consulted first ... Or, even worse, they’ve been asked to do all the work. Collaboration and partnership need to happen.”
Surveys that preserve anonymity can give your employees space to talk about what they need most from a DEI training without putting them on the spot. Backing the formation of identity-based ERGs at your company can also help your employees form communities and develop a sense of belonging with their peers, making them feel safer to use their voices and speak up about what they’d like to see changed. Beyond these strategies, leaders also must educate themselves independently about racial justice, gender inequality, disability activism and other issues, rather than asking their employees to do the educating for them.
“Our formula is to give our staff opportunities to talk about their experiences first and for us to hear what’s needed. That sets us up to identify what types of workshops folks want to see,” Walker-Flom said. “After that, make sure that you’re following up to ask what their experiences were like with those workshops, if there’s anything else they wish was covered.”
Find the Right Person
While leaders are responsible for putting together training workshops, Roberts said the number one mistake HR managers make when organizing DEI training is thinking they have all the answers.
“There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than saying you have a solution to a problem you’ve never experienced,” she said.
People leaders can schedule and plan for DEI training events, but they aren’t always the right people to host them. Depending on what the culture of your company is like, it may make sense to partner with an external DEI coach who can lead training events without being influenced by intra-company biases. If your company has the budget for it, you can even hire a DEI manager who can tackle these issues full time.
Sometimes, your own employees may express a desire to lead workshops and educate their peers. But once again, be careful to not overburden your own teammates. Diversity and inclusion work is work, even if your employees volunteer to do it. Some companies have taken steps to recognize this by offering compensation to employees who step up to lead on DEI initiatives.
“Those of us who hold marginalized identities and are passionate about this work tend to be the ones who raise our hand to participate on top of our full time jobs. Often, people from marginalized groups do this additional labor without adequate recognition or rewards,” Walker-Flom said. “One way to mitigate that burnout is to reward your staff for doing the extra labor.”
Know the Signs of Success
Workplace discrimination and exclusion are sensitive issues, and even if your company’s approach to DEI is less than ideal, your employees may not feel comfortable enough to speak up about it. When you’re looking for proof of your strategy’s effectiveness, you’ll have to watch for more subtle clues.
“Someone’s tenure at a company is affected by many, many factors — for me, whether the underrepresented people in our company are sticking around says a lot,” Roberts said. “Engagement is also really important to measure.”
Just as you’d use anonymous surveys to plan ahead for your DEI workshops, you can also use them to gather feedback and fine tune your approach soon after the fact. But while surveys can give you insight in the short term, tracking the success of your DEI initiatives can be a lot trickier. The most significant way to identify whether your training programs are effective lies within your company’s culture, Robert said.
“Any HR professional will tell you that reporting on things that are relational based is really challenging,” said Roberts. “Ultimately, I think psychological safety and trust are two of the biggest benefits and outcomes of diversity and inclusion work.