Though it has made strides in the last decade, the tech industry remains extremely homogeneous. According to a 2022 Built In survey, one in four companies are more than 70 percent white, while almost 40 percent of women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) employees feel excluded from decision-making processes. If tech companies want to build an industry that truly looks toward new horizons, they need to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a central part of their values.
What Is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)?
DE&I stands for diversity, equity and inclusion. As a discipline, DE&I is any policy or practice designed to make people of various backgrounds feel welcome and ensure they have support to perform to the fullest of their abilities in the workplace. This kind of environment is created by following all three aspects of DE&I.
Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting. In the workplace, that can mean differences in race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic class. It can also refer to differences in physical ability, veteran status, whether or not you have kids — all of those are components of diversity.
Equity is the process of ensuring that practices and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.
Inclusion is the practice of ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. This means that every employee feels comfortable and supported by the organization when it comes to being their authentic selves.
Combining these three elements, DE&I is an ethos that recognizes the value of diverse voices and emphasizes inclusivity and employee well-being as central facets of success. To bring those values to life, companies must implement programs and initiatives that actively make their offices more diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces.
“We as employers need to make sure we’re including these individuals and that we’re giving them equity,” said Catalina Colman, former director of HR and inclusion at Built In. “We need to make sure that, not only do they have a job, but they have the same ability to get promoted, to contribute and have the same impact — in the world and in the workplace — as their peers.”
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Why Diversity Matters
Diversity in the workplace is important because with different backgrounds come different points of view, which ultimately leads to better ideas and solutions.
“From a business standpoint, different perspectives directly influence a product — how it’s made, who it serves, how it functions and so on,” Colman said. “More perspectives make for a better product.” People from different backgrounds with varying life experiences will be able to provide new perspectives that help refine and enhance processes.
“There’s a level of innovation that diversity contributes to,” Colman said. “People bring a unique framework to the job that enables them to approach problems differently and propose unique solutions. The more diverse voices there are in your organization, the better your outcomes will be, purely from a business standpoint.”
Even so, Colman urges employers to look beyond the business case: “I believe that if we give people the equitable opportunity to not only be employed, but to have employment with purpose and passion, our society can and will do great things. It’s a measurable good for everyone.”
Why Equity Matters
In order to ensure equal circumstances for all individuals across the organization, equity requires that employers recognize barriers and advantages. This is the crucial difference between “equity” and “equality.”
“Equity takes into account the fact that not everybody is starting at the same level,” explained Colman. “Take home ownership, for example. A bank can make the statement that the loan application process is equal and that they will not discriminate based on race, gender or ethnicity. That doesn’t take into account student loans, familial debt, socioeconomic status, what have you. These are prohibitive factors that hold some individuals back from receiving a loan.”
These limitations are what define barriers and give rise to advantages, ultimately leading to an inequitable process. Colman offers a second example of job application rates between men and women — women tend to apply to roles where they meet 100 percent of the criteria, whereas men will apply if they meet just 60 percent.
“That’s a manifestation of your application process being inequitable,” Colman said. “The solution would be to ask yourself: How can I standardize my job descriptions so everyone has an equal chance to apply? How can I encourage someone who is qualified to submit their application even if they can’t check every box? It’s about leveling the playing field so the barriers to entry are the same for every single individual.”
For example, rather than listing years of experience as a requirement, identify specific areas of experience or scope. Doing so opens the talent pool up to qualified applicants who may be earlier in their careers. Instead of “five to seven years of project management experience,” ask for “experience managing projects autonomously, from ideation to implementation.”
Inequity permeates every aspect of your business, requiring vigilance and swift action. “HR practitioners have to do the work to understand how it is we can go above and beyond to make an equitable organization for everyone,” Colman said. “You’re not going to be able to build diversity if you’re not taking the steps to be more equitable.”
Companies that establish equitable environments not only support diverse workforces, but also incentivize employees to invest more energy and passion into their positions. “Equity is why we go to work,” explained Colman. “We want to get compensated fairly for our work, we want to be challenged, to learn and to contribute. People often choose an employer based on those things, which boil down to equity.”
Why Inclusion Matters
While the workplace does require professionalism and etiquette, an inclusive culture should not bar individuals from being themselves.
“Employees should not worry about code-switching or shielding part of their identity,” Colman said. “They should be able to walk through the door without feeling like something about them has to change.”
Inclusion is what maintains diversity. Without it, employees will simply leave the organization. “If a candidate walks into a workplace and they’re the only woman or BIPOC employee, they’re going to question the employer’s authenticity and values,” Colman said.
“People want to belong, plain and simple,” she added. “And marginalized individuals want to know that they’re not going to be the token person to represent a demographic. They shouldn’t have to worry about that in the workplace; they should be focused on how they’re going to have an impact within the company.”
Why DEI is Important: Benefits of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
DE&I is vital to creating and maintaining a successful workplace, one founded on the principle that all people can thrive personally and professionally. Bringing together people of various backgrounds leads to new and creative ideas. More importantly, a DEI strategy contributes to a space where all employees feel they have intrinsic worth, not in spite of their differences but because of their differences.
“Every employee should feel valued at work, by their peers and their employer,” Colman said. “It’s not about just opening the invitation to everyone — it’s about making sure that every individual knows and feels they are welcome at your organization.”
And it’s not just DEI professionals like Colman who are calling for a drastic shift in the tech industry.
DE&I Issues Matter to Candidates and Employees
DEI has grown in popularity among candidates and employees. In fact, three-fourths of job seekers and employees treat DE&I as a major factor when weighing job offers and companies. Candidates recognize the positive effects of an environment that welcomes a range of backgrounds and want to join this kind of space.
However, employees aren’t the only ones who should be pushing for more diverse and inclusive cultures. Company leaders must also make the effort to implement DEI policies, and there are plenty of incentives for businesses to get started as soon as possible.
DEI Initiatives Improve the Long-Term Health of Companies
Companies that listen to DE&I advocates’ demands and make changes can benefit from a diverse and inclusive culture as well.
According to Forbes, increasing female partners’ shares by 10 percent often leads to a 10 percent rise in revenue. In addition, firms that display culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams are 33 percent more likely to lead their industries in profitability. When people feel welcomed for who they are, they perform at a higher level. It’s a win-win situation for everyone when companies take steps to diversify their workforces.
If the tech industry wants to truly be a place where innovation and ingenuity thrive, diversity, equity and inclusion have to take center stage. Employers must actively work to create meaningful change in spite of the history of injustice that has marginalized underrepresented groups within the workplace. This work is often spearheaded by HR departments.
HR’s Role in Implementing a DEI Strategy and Culture
For employers and people management professionals alike, the biggest challenge is knowing where to start.
“There’s no quick fix,” Colman said. “A lot of people immediately jump to figure out how they can make their company more diverse, but you can’t underestimate the importance of inclusion and equity. Without those two pieces, you’re not going to achieve true diversity.”
Understanding how each element of DE&I builds upon the others is important to creating a work environment that is equitable and inclusive of all individuals. Just like DEI is a multifaceted process, Colman encourages employers to lean on each other.
“It’s not going to be a single HR person that addresses the issue of DEI for a company,” she said. “Lean on your professional community. You’re not going to be able to have all the answers because you don’t have all the perspectives.”
The focus on DEI has prompted a huge shift for HR. “I think the mindset has always been to avoid talking about these things,” Colman added. “We typically put them in the handbook and address them in training maybe once a year. We didn’t want to make people uncomfortable. I think right now, the call to action is about understanding how to navigate that discomfort and how to use that to elevate your workforce. It’s about doing the important work that is long overdue and becoming inclusive and equitable.”
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is DEI in the workplace?
DEI stands for diversity, equity and inclusion. It is based on the idea that recruiting and supporting workers of various backgrounds is integral to a company’s success, and encompasses policies and initiatives designed to help all employees feel welcomed and equipped to perform their jobs at a high level.
How do you demonstrate DEI in the workplace?
Intentionally recruiting workers of marginalized backgrounds, hosting DE&I workshops and training sessions and offering mentorship and support to employees of diverse backgrounds are a few ways to demonstrate DEI in the workplace.
Why is DEI important?
DEI is important because it contributes to an environment where all employees, regardless of background, have fair opportunities to pursue work they’re passionate about while getting to be themselves in the workplace. By bringing in diverse perspectives, organizations also create a space where multiple voices are heard and innovation can flourish.