Without Diverse Leadership, Tech Will Be Slow to Change

Diversity and inclusion needs to be a focus at the senior level — not just in entry-level positions.
Brian Nordli
June 17, 2020
Updated: July 9, 2020
Brian Nordli
June 17, 2020
Updated: July 9, 2020

Cecily Joseph has been here before. In the wake of mass protests against police brutality and mass discrimination against Black Americans, tech companies across the country have come to the realization that people are fed up with the status quo. They’ve released statements and made vows to do better. Some companies have taken more proactive steps, like Apple, which announced it would be investing $100 million into a racial equity and justice initiative.

These gestures are promising, but they aren’t new, said Joseph, who spent more than 25 years pushing for diversity and inclusion initiatives while working in Silicon Valley. What she hasn’t seen, and what has continued to be hard to come by within the tech industry as a whole, is actual, substantial change.

“Now there’s this urgency again for diversity ... but I don’t know if tech companies are really going to change.”

“In the beginning, no one talked about diversity at all, and then it became loud for a while when companies like Google started publishing their [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] reports,” Joseph said. “Even though companies started to get a little more comfortable around hiring more women, no real progress has been made. Now there’s this urgency again for diversity ... but I don’t know if tech companies are really going to change.”

That lack of growth can be seen in a recent user survey conducted by Blind, an anonymous social network for tech and finance professionals. Based on responses from 2,800 total users, the survey found that only 10 percent of Black Silicon Valley tech professionals saw their ethnicity or race represented in upper management, compared to 76 percent of white respondents.

User surveys like these should not be mistaken for scientific polls — Blind users, who signed up to discuss the tech industry anonymously, are certainly not a random cross-section of the population, and the questions were not subjected the scrutiny scientific surveys are. But they can paint a useful picture of respondents’ lived experiences.

And the picture this survey paints is stark.

Feel represented in upper-level management

  • White respondents: 76 percent
  • Black respondents: 10 percent
  • Source: Blind. (Includes respondents who answered “yes” to the question.)

Blind coded the survey into its back end so that every tech professional on its mobile app would see the questionnaire at the top of their screen, no matter where they are on the platform. The survey was limited only to tech professionals and was conducted from June 1 to June 8. (Survey questions did not draw a distinction between ethnicity and race.)

The survey also asked respondents whether their companies’ upper management reflected their values, and if their organizations demonstrate an understanding of racial differences in the workplace. The questions stemmed from the conversations Blind saw on its platform of tech workers commenting on the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We realized that protests are the first layer of what this Black Lives Matter movement is going to be, and once you take that a step further, we’re going to have to start talking about diversity and inclusion and the institutions where racism is embedded,” said Fiorella Riccobono, who conducted the survey. And because of its anonymous nature, she believes that it offers a more accurate reflection of the industry’s opinions than a company’s internal survey.

The results offer a snapshot of a larger issue within tech companies that needs to be addressed — a lack of representation in leadership. Apprenticeships and bootcamps can help increase the number of diverse applicants at the entry level, but it’s on companies to ensure fairness in promotions and hiring at senior levels. If they don’t, meaningful change will be hard to come by.

Joseph and National Diversity Council founder Dennis Kennedy offered some insights on what companies can do to fix that.

My values/moral code are represented in upper management

  • White: 31 percent
  • Black: 12 percent
  • Hispanic or Latino: 26 percent
  • Native American or American Indian: 10 percent
  • Asian or Pacific Islander: 25 percent
  • Other: 15 percent
  • Source: Blind

 

Diverse Leadership Is Needed to Reflect the Values of a Diverse Team

Joseph said she is tired of making the business case for diversity. It’s something she’s been doing since she started working in tech, and the benefits have been covered in countless studies.

Take Gartner, for example. In 2018, the research firm found that 75 percent of organizations with frontline decision-making teams that reflect a diverse and inclusive culture outperform less inclusive teams by 50 percent.

And yet, tech leadership rarely reflects that diversity, and Joseph believes it’s because that messaging still falls on deaf ears.

“I don’t think people in tech buy the business case,” Joseph said. “They know what the business case is. They know: ‘Oh, it’s going to make us better. We’re going to be more innovative and competitive because we have different types of people at the table.’ But I do believe the tech industry feels like it’s doing great and doesn’t need to change.”

Involving a diverse range of perspectives in the conversation is important, because it’s hard to know what your own blind spots are — a lesson Blind itself learned in conducting this survey. While brand and content strategist Rio Penabella said it gained momentum on social media, the company also received pushback that it didn’t track the opinions of categories like Middle Eastern or North African tech workers.

“It was a learning experience for us that, when it comes to diversity, we have to expand it even further,” Penabella said.

Beyond the business impact, however, a lack of diversity at the leadership level can also stymie well-meaning D&I efforts. When an employee doesn’t see someone who looks like them in a leadership role, it can create a feeling of disconnect, Joseph said. They may feel that their values aren’t represented within the company or that they have to fit a certain role or personality to succeed.

A lot of times, Black people feel just like they do in the everyday world: They can sense racism, they feel excluded from things and they feel that the majority of the white population and leadership doesn’t really get or care about their issues.”

In fact, in Blind’s survey, 12 percent of Black or African-American respondents said upper management reflected their values or moral code.

A lot of times, Black people feel just like they do in the everyday world: They can sense racism, they feel excluded from things and they feel that the majority of the white population and leadership doesn’t really get or care about their issues,” Joseph said.

The result is an environment where Black employees and other people of color don’t feel like they can reach their full potential — and, as a result, they leave, added Dennis Kennedy, founder of the National Diversity Council.

“If I’m working at a company and there are no African Americans in leadership, and there aren’t any in second-tier or third-tier leadership, I understand that I’m not going to be there very long,” Kennedy said.

Meaningful change needs to start at the top, Kennedy said.

“The failure to include is the failure to lead,” Kennedy said. “You have to have leadership. If you don’t have leadership, you don’t have inclusion.”

My upper management demonstrates an understanding of racial differences in the workplace

  • White: 47 percent
  • Black: 19 percent
  • Hispanic or Latino: 34 percent
  • Native American or American Indian: 36 percent
  • Asian or Pacific Islander: 44 percent
  • Other: 40 percent
  • Source: Blind

 

CEOs Need to Prioritize and Value Diversity

For better or for worse, a company’s CEO and executive board are a reflection of the organization’s values.

A company can hire a chief diversity officer and vow to hire a more diverse team, but if the CEO isn’t investing resources into programs or advocating for diversity and inclusion across the business, those efforts won’t get far, Kennedy said. A company’s CEO is the one who sets the business goals, invests resources and has the final say on hiring and recruitment.

“Your CEO and chairman has to lead that effort to make sure their team is representative of their workforce,” Kennedy said. “We have diversity. What we don’t have is leaders who ensure an equitable workplace where people have the opportunity to grow and move up.”

The first step a CEO needs to take is to have frank conversations with their employees about racism and racial inequality. It’s not enough to talk broadly about diversity, either, Joseph said. She’s been in plenty of meetings where executives don’t feel comfortable discussing racial equality, and, as a result, nothing changes.

“It was so hard to have a conversation about race, and I think it’s because of the same reason we’re all having the conversation now,” Joseph said. “We’re all struggling with the fear of saying the wrong things or how to initiate the conversation, and not investigating our own bias. So rather than do it, people push back.”

“What you do next is sit down, create a plan for how you’re going to bring more Black people to your company, build a more inclusive work environment and use your resources to advocate for racial equity and justice.”

It’s not easy, but those conversations can help uncover issues of systemic racism in the community and within the company, and, as a result, lead to actionable next steps to address those issues equitably.

From there, CEOs need to align their companies’ business goals and values with diversity and inclusion.

“The next step is to really make this real,” Joseph said. “What you do next is sit down, create a plan for how you’re going to bring more Black people to your company, build a more inclusive work environment and use your resources to advocate for racial equity and justice.”

Building a NetworkFor Women of Color in Tech, It’s ‘Hard to Grow’ Without Representation

 

Set Goals and Make Diversity a Priority

Hiring in tech is often based on who hiring managers know, and when leaders are primarily white, male graduates from prestigious universities, their teams reflect those networks.

If an organization wants to break that mold, it needs to gather data on its workforce. The research can help them pinpoint issues like turnover, lack of representation on a team or failure to promote. From there, they need to set goals.

The diversity goals can be as specific as increasing the number of Black sales reps by 5 percent in the next year, or broader, like increasing the percentage of Black employees promoted within the company. Either way, they should be actionable and implemented at every level of the company — not just the entry level.

Hiring managers and recruiters should be rewarded for expanding their recruitment networks and meeting those goals. Companies should provide training and support to make sure employees from underrepresented groups are promoted. In tech, change doesn’t happen without goals, and the same holds true for diversity.

A lot of times, executives say, ‘We can’t make goals because we don’t do quotas,’” Joseph said. “I dismiss that as an obstacle. That’s not reality. When a company thinks something is important, they set goals. We can make aspirational goals around hiring and promotions.”

At a company Joseph used to work for, the CEO wanted to increase the number of women on its board. When it came time to add two new board members, the company broadened the search outside of its usual network of C-suite executives.

“When a company thinks something is important, they set goals. We can make aspirational goals around hiring and promotions.”

In doing so, the company was able to bring on two women, who brought valuable experience and perspectives to their roles. One board member had extensive international experience, and another member had worked at the highest levels of military cybersecurity.

Both women joined the board because the company made it a priority and widened its recruitment network, Joseph said.

Ultimately, these goals aren’t about excluding one group of candidates over another, but about taking direct actions to remove bias and support diverse employees throughout the job cycle, Joseph said.

“We want to make sure we’re hiring and promoting the best people, Joseph said. “Because there’s a goal at the company to see diversity at all levels, it becomes about making sure we’re equipping our Black and other diverse employees with the tools they need so that they can become the best. That’s what needs to happen.”

 

Consider Diversity When Developing Partnerships

If a company isn’t hiring, there are a few steps it can take to still push for diversity and racial equity. The first step is to make sure any layoffs aren’t concentrated on the diverse employees in the office, Joseph said.

“Start looking at a way to diversify that pool, because that’s going to help bring more diverse people into the economy.”

Beyond that, a company can take a look at its supply chain and third-party services and prioritize diversity. Partnering with diverse law firms, accounting firms, SaaS providers and consultants can increase opportunities for diverse talent.

“Start looking at a way to diversify that pool, because that’s going to help bring more diverse people into the economy,” Joseph said.

There is no quick fix for diversity and inclusion at leadership levels — it’s a journey. As tech leaders reflect on their own diversity initiatives, they need to look within at the role systemic racism has played in shaping their own workforce and leadership, and act.

“It is unacceptable that Black people are not participating more fully in leadership roles in tech,” Joseph said. “I was lucky somebody hired me and gave me a shot. Why isn’t that opportunity expanded more broadly? Just like systemic racism exists in health care and the criminal justice system, it exists in technology companies too.”

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