CUTTER BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY JOURNAL VOL. 34, NO. 9
Noelle Silver focuses on the challenges women of color and other underrepresented groups face in the technology industry at all points along the career continuum. She discusses how hiring and promotion practices aren’t designed to embrace the uniqueness of these women, often resulting in their inability to be given a fair chance at open positions.
Women — and particularly women of color — are chronically underrepresented in tech. The situation is even more alarming for Black, Latina, and Native American women. Today, Black, Latina, and Native American women make up just 4% of the computing workforce — and things are getting worse, not better.
— Reboot Representation
According to the Reboot Representation Tech Coalition, an alliance of leaders and companies seeking to double the number of Black, Latina, and Native American women earning technology degrees, community is the element that attracts women to the field and keeps them in the industry longer. Here are five actions we can take to help the DNA of the technology industry evolve and create a better world for all.
1. Be Open to Different Cultures & Backgrounds
During every phase of growth, it’s important to consider different backgrounds and cultures as you consider whom to hire and promote. If you only make your decision based on job title or degree, for example, you will eliminate candidates who have already been unfairly passed over or decided to learn through nontraditional means. It doesn’t mean they are not capable. If you are not intentional, you will eliminate good candidates before even considering them.
It is also important to think about inclusive wording and messaging points when writing job descriptions. So many hiring managers copy and paste job descriptions year after year without taking the time to be thoughtful about who they are targeting and creating space for in their organizations. When creating new leadership roles, default to hire from within. I have watched organizations and leaders hire some people on potential and hold others back because they weren’t a perfect fit. You have a wealth of talent in your own organization, and more often than not women and people of color are passed over for opportunities.
2. Create a Diverse Work Environment Where Everyone Feels Included
This is easier said than done, but it is achievable. Employee resource groups aren’t enough; we need to establish leadership practices that encourage sharing ideas and an openness to listening to each other, even if there is disagreement. We need to normalize psychological safety in teams. We need to teach our teams to communicate with empathy and compassion, and learn to disagree and commit. I honed the practice of “disagree and commit” during my time at Amazon, as it is one of the leadership principles the company tries to instill in every employee. This approach encourages open and transparent discussion about possible options and leverages a data-driven approach to determine the outcomes and next steps. The trick is that once a data-driven decision is made, no pocket vetoes are allowed. There is no one waiting to say “I told you so” because everyone agrees on the decided direction. This takes practice and communication.
3. Encourage Employees to Bring Their Whole Selves to Work
We have a symphony of talent, interests, motivations, and values. Allowing employees to be themselves and bring their whole selves to work, including family lives, hobbies, and interests, can help them operate at their best, align with their best work, and serve in the best way, leading to happier employees and higher productivity.
“Code switch” is the term used to describe what some people of color (and any divergent thinker) have to do to be seen as the same, to avoid conflict, and avoid backlash. Code-switching is defined as the process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. There is even a successful NPR podcast with this very name. But this practice may feel inauthentic. It’s important not only to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work but also create an environment that is accepting of this authenticity and vulnerability. There are several ways to do this; creating social media campaigns that encourage people to share all the things they care about outside work is one approach. Use company all-hands meetings to celebrate “15 minutes of fame”1 and allow people to submit their proudest accomplishments, work or otherwise, and share them with the company. Ensure that you allow the creation of channels in Slack or Teams for individuals to share with each other a little more about their lives. This will breed trust, and with trust teams will work better together, creating more value for the business and humanity.
4. Attend Conferences Focused on Inclusion of Underrepresented
There is very little difference in technical content or expertise between mainstream events and underrepresented group events. As a top speaker globally, I have observed that the circuit of speakers at technical conferences is often the same. So when in doubt, choose to attend conferences created for underrepresented groups. Conferences like Afrotech, Lesbians Who Code, or Women in Analytics provide exceptional technical content and the chance to meet and mingle with people who are different from you. Envision a symphony of talent and aim to join conversations where your unique voice can make an impact. We also need to create and celebrate more role models in this space. Ensure that the event you attend has a balance of ethnic diversity, gender diversity, and neurodiversity among the people speaking and presenting. If it doesn’t, ask the organizers to add more. If it does, celebrate it. If you are a member of an underrepresented group, consider submitting a talk and taking the stage. The world needs to see and hear what you have learned.
5. Offer More Opportunities for Training & Education
This is how my career began: school didn’t work for me. I needed a nontraditional way to obtain knowledge, learn to code, and find early success in my career. Today, it is often thought that the only path to a technical career is through academia or a college degree, but I am proof that there are many ways to get into the industry.
Technical training and coaching can help underrepresented groups develop skills they need for high-tech jobs, but accessibility is a challenge. How do we make sure that kids and young adults know a career in tech is possible? How do they know they can learn to code, that it is not only available but also achievable? This is why I created Lift Up Tech. One component of this program helps underrepresented individuals find a role in tech they like, which is only the beginning. Participants also receive mentoring and career planning support. Communities like Lift Up Tech and others are being created around the world, based on Reboot Representation’s finding, mentioned earlier, about how community and support help boost the number of people who get started and stay in technology. Now we need companies to see the value in these programs and support these groups.
Inclusive practices are not just about having a diverse team of individuals. Supporting inclusive practices is about creating and maintaining a culture of openness and transparency. It’s about building a sense of psychological safety and allowing the healthy and empathetic exchange of ideas. It’s about realizing that systemic bias exists, and to change and combat it in our companies, we have to hire and promote differently. We have to celebrate differences and elevate leaders who build bridges and inspire others to be themselves. We are still in the early days, and we have a long way to go, but you can make a difference. You can be the change.
1“15 minutes of fame.” Wikipedia, accessed September 2021.