For the tech sector, the nationwide conversation on racial justice in 2020 presented an opportunity to address long-standing criticisms of a lack of progress on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. As The New York Times reported, “While Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. labor force, just 4 percent of top earners in the tech sector were Black in 2019, less than the already low 6 percent in other industries.” Following several high profile murders of Black Americans through the summer of 2020, the number of tech company pledges to promote diversity, equity and inclusion reached 535, worth $4.56 billion in 2020, as reported in MIT Sloan School of Management’s Ideas Made to Matter. Did such numbers represent a new, industry-wide commitment to ensuring workers of color meaningfully share in one of the most significant drivers of U.S. economic growth?
Recent data suggest a sobering answer: that the tech sector is hiring fewer diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals and laying off a disproportionate number of workers of color. Many companies are under economic pressures that may seem like they supersede DEI initiatives. However, failing to stay the course on DEI has the potential to cause lasting harm to the tech sector, perpetuating inequity and potentially damaging the long-term competitive prospects of the companies themselves.
These key takeaways were underscored by a recent Aspen Institute Business and Society Program discussion with experts on DEI in tech at this crossroads for corporate commitments to workers of color. Linda A. Hill of Harvard Business School moderated a panel consisting of Kelsey Butler, equality reporter at Bloomberg; Bek Chee, general partner and chief people officer at TCV, and David Delmar Sentíes, author of the forthcoming book, What We Build With Power: The Fight for Economic Justice in Tech.
Together, these panelists explored the causes of the DEI challenges facing the tech sector and provided insightful perspectives as to what can be done to create a truly diverse and inclusive tech industry.
What we’ve seen in the last six months or so is big, name-brand companies like Amazon, Meta, Twitter, have made real, deep cuts to their DEI team. Something that has come up in my reporting in addition to that is it’s not just these household names. In the last two months, I’ve spoken to over a dozen people who were in DEI roles, were laid off, but were maybe on a team of only one or two that are now completely decimated. – Kelsey Butler
Kelsey shared that her reporting confirms the existence of a DEI problem in tech – job postings for DEI roles have decreased in comparison to other HR-related roles, and many DEI professionals in the industry have been laid off.
U.S.-born Latinos, such as myself, and Black folks, coincide on a 28% college completion rate. I tell people, ‘Look if you have a B.A. requirement for this job, you are limiting from consideration 72% of potential applicants of color in this town without even so much as looking at a resume.’ What we have done as a society is we have chosen to route people through an extremely expensive avenue to get to the high growth careers that allow people to live in their own cities. We have created a bifurcated economy and until education can be free, or until people can access these types of jobs without having gone to an expensive institution, we will continue to see an unending yawning stratification of wealth in our cities. – David Delmar Sentíes
Part of what bars people from diverse backgrounds from tech employment is the requirement of a college degree in hiring. David explained that most programming roles don’t actually need a college degree, and that this unnecessary, expensive barrier prevents many black and brown people from even being considered for roles for which they’re qualified.
Corporate America, in my opinion, is largely dominated by a structure of top-down, and so the first order of business that I think is necessary is actually to put excessively capable leaders in roles. I think it’s putting people in positions of power who have influence and decision rights at the organization, regardless of the role they’re in, and diverse in DE&I and an equitable organization, as part of their personal career path. I think if you don’t find those people… I think it just becomes a PR thing. – Bek Chee
Key to establishing a long-term commitment to DEI is getting corporate leadership to become personally invested in it. Bek advocates for putting people who are personally dedicated to DEI in leadership positions so they can establish a top-down commitment to it.
Too many initiatives that are out there that I have seen are concerned with bringing bodies in the door and there is no expectation of power. There is no expectation of giving someone some degree of agency or influence… I think the work is not done until people see a pathway to their own advancement and to the increase of their own influence over their particular domain at work. – David Delmar Sentíes
I think it is always about power, and I became a business professor because I know that being powerless is deeply corrupting, and it’s as corrupting as being powerful. So how can you help everyone be powerful and bring voice to their values? That’s what I think about when I do whatever I’m doing as a professor. – Linda A. Hill
Many diversity initiatives start and end with getting a certain number of people from underrepresented groups in the door. While this is important, both David and Linda emphasize that it’s even more important to make sure these people have power and influence in their organizations.
In the full dialogue, the panelists offered even more insights into the systemic issues that have led to poor DEI in the tech sector and how their root causes can be addressed. Watch the whole conversation to learn more.