Damon Carter shares examples of what hasn’t worked in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and provides practical solutions. While calling for progressive leadership, he outlines a key pathway to launching a successful DEI journey with measurable and sustainable results.
Since 2014, the US technology industry has openly acknowledged the immediate need to significantly increase the representation of people of color at all organizational levels, and particularly in management and executive positions. At that time, many technology companies recognized myriad positive business impacts of having a more diverse workforce, and they made a variety of public commitments to begin actively addressing this issue. Consequently, many of these strategic efforts focused on establishing diverse talent pipelines and enhancing recruiting tactics to create new opportunities for diverse technical talent.
In the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder, nationwide protests against unjust policing of Blacks and Hispanics, along with numerous acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ and Asian-Pacific Islander communities, brought about a renewed awakening regarding the cumulative impacts of systemic racism in our society. The protests also led to a heightened awareness of economic inequalities and employment disparities consistently experienced by people of color. Many corporations across America, including technology companies, expressly denounced systemic racism and made public statements committing to cultivate more diverse and inclusive workplace cultures that will create fair and equitable employment opportunities for people of color and collectively dismantle systemic racism in our society. For instance, a recent survey of 42 top tech companies discovered they collectively committed almost US $4 billion to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) moving forward.1
Unfortunately, the technology industry has continued to struggle mightily to make significant progress with respect to this matter, and the lack of representation of people of color persists today. According to a recent article in Fast Company:
[A] Wiley report found that 68% of businesses surveyed acknowledged a lack of diversity in their tech teams, with many saying they’re working to fix it. The report also found that 64% of those surveyed “said they believe people from minority backgrounds are discriminated against in the recruitment process for technology jobs.”2
In order to effectively address a systemic problem, technology leaders must apply a systemic solution.
There is a significant difference between seeking to improve diversity metrics for external gratification and making an internal commitment to being truly transformative by thoughtfully overhauling the work environment for the future. Moreover, cultivating an inclusive workplace culture is a fundamentally human issue that warrants a substantial shift in organizational behavior consistently applied over an extended period of time. Technology leaders must be willing to take a different approach by fully embracing DEI in a holistic and sustainable way.
The Reality of the Situation
People of color are significantly underrepresented across the technology industry at all levels, including executive, middle management, and technical roles. This includes technology-based firms and in other industries with IT functions. A Computerworld article from last summer examined ethnic diversity in the technology industry and reported the latest demographic data from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):3
White — 68%
Black — 7%
Hispanic/Latinx — 8%
Asian American — 14%
Furthermore, according to a recent CIO article, the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) reported: “Of the 25% of women working in tech, Asian women make up just 5% of that number, while Black and Hispanic women accounted for 3% and 1%, respectively.”4
Answering the Call for Progressive Leadership
Technology leaders must collectively leverage their resources and influence to drive transformational changes that will create fair, equitable, and just employment opportunities for people of color and all underrepresented groups. Unfortunately, to date there has been minimal progress despite previous commitments to begin addressing the lack of diverse talent. However, these commitments were likely made in response to the resounding external pressure mounted by government officials and the public at large to significantly improve their respective diversity metrics. That being the case, these various strategic efforts collectively have not significantly improved the overall representation of people of color in technology over the past several years.
In order to effectively answer today’s call for progressive leadership, technology leaders must begin taking a different approach that will lead to a fundamental shift in core organizational practices and procedures that have historically contributed to the disparate and unjust treatment of people of color. Therefore, technology leaders must fully embrace DEI strategy in a holistic and sustainable way to effectively transform the workplace culture for people of color. By wisely and thoughtfully employing a deliberate strategic effort over time, technology leaders can indeed successfully advance DEI practices in an impactful way for their respective organizations.
The following sections outline four leadership actions to help technology leaders successfully launch their DEI journey.
Step 1: Lead with Purpose & Conviction
Technology leaders must consider taking the following initial actions among themselves as they start their organizations’ own unique DEI journey, including:5
Acknowledge the problem. Given today’s prevailing social justice issues, silence from technology companies could easily be interpreted by employees as indifference or acceptance of the status quo. Instead, technology leaders must first acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in society and clearly communicate their desire to be a part of the solution for the organization moving forward. You cannot effectively address a problem without first acknowledging the problem exists.
Reflect and discuss. Technology leaders should create safe spaces for their leadership teams to collectively reflect and confidentially discuss the extent to which implicit biases have negatively affected the organization’s workplace culture.
Make a genuine commitment to being better. Technology leaders must make a firm commitment to mitigating the negative impacts of all forms of social injustice in the organization for people of color and cultivate a workplace culture that consistently promotes equality for all.
Technology leaders must actively lead with conviction by reimagining the workplace culture and establishing a new vision that consistently demonstrates equality, equity, and justice for all employees, at all times.
Step 2: Build Genuine Connections
Technology leaders must work to thoroughly understand the specific elements of the existing workplace culture that have contributed to the present state of inequality for people of color and all marginalized groups of employees.6 This includes developing a clear understanding of key diversity metrics and identifying areas of strength and opportunity across the organization. Furthermore, obtaining a deep understanding of the current state of the work environment requires leaders to thoughtfully engage, listen, and learn from all employees adversely impacted by disparate treatment in the workplace. Technology leaders should take the following actions:
Develop an informed perspective. Before engaging employees to discuss how to establish a fair and equitable workplace culture, technology leaders should conduct their own preliminary research to better understand the unique experiences of people of color. Proactively educating themselves about how people of color have historically been treated in the workplace will go a long way toward building personal credibility with all marginalized groups and will have a profound impact on their ability to make genuine connections.
Listen to understand. Technology leaders must be open to having challenging conversations with people of color regarding their experiences at work. Most importantly, leaders must reassure people of color that their perspective matters to the organization and that their feedback will directly influence the fostering of a fair and equitable work environment. Technology leaders should remember to express gratitude to all participants for their vulnerability and commit to following up regarding next steps in the process.
Create a “speak-up” culture. Technology leaders must employ inclusive leadership practices to cultivate a workplace environment where all employees feel valued and respected on a daily basis. According to research from Coqual (formerly known as the Center for Talent Innovation), the key characteristics of a speak-up culture include the following:7
Ensure that everyone speaks up and gets heard.
Make it safe to risk proposing novel ideas.
Give actionable feedback.
Take advice and implement feedback.
Empower team members to make decisions.
Share credit for team success.
Furthermore, technology leaders need to commit to establishing genuine connections, rooted in mutual respect and trust, with a segment of the employee population that has historically been made to feel ignored and disconnected. According to Michael Slepian, associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School:
Learning about individuals’ unique strengths and unique experiences, and showing recognition for these, is what leads employees to feel valued and respected. This is what enables going beyond surface-level inclusion in favor of real, individual-based inclusion. Inclusion efforts may be well meaning, but without a backbone of support and respect, they may seem less than genuine.8
Step 3: Take Deliberate Strategic Actions
Next, technology leaders must thoughtfully apply targeted strategic actions to directly address prevailing inequalities for people of color in the workplace.9 Ideally, technology leaders should utilize familiar management practices, with proven tools and resources, to effectively develop and implement a comprehensive DEI strategy. Additionally, technology leaders must create a dynamic action plan to improve the organization’s current state by identifying specific talent strategies that target each stage of the employee lifecycle. Several examples include:
Recruitment. Establish strategic partnerships with nonprofit organizations leading community efforts to create new recruiting pipelines for diverse technical talent, particularly early-in-career IT professionals. For instance, Year Up provides a free six months of job training, followed by a six-month internship, with the goal of closing the opportunity gap. The program includes IT and software development and support.10 TechPACT, an organization founded by CIOs and technology leaders, seeks to close the digital divide and improve representative diversity by asking its members to take a pledge to “advancing inclusion, diversity, and equity with my team, my partners, and my community.”11
Development. Create targeted professional development strategies for people of color and encourage networking opportunities, both internally and externally. Several examples of diverse IT professional associations include the IT Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), the Black Data Processing Association (BDPA), and the Hispanic IT Executive Council (HITEC).
Advancement. Ensure people of color are included in annual succession planning efforts.
- Institute exit interviews, stay interviews, and/or focus group sessions to identify and proactively address negative employee experiences.
Step 4: Activate New Community Engagements
In today’s social and political climate, both employees and consumers increasingly expect companies to get actively involved in supporting social justice initiatives.12 According to a recent Forbes article:
While the changes companies have made haven’t gone unnoticed, Americans expect more, with 55% saying they want to see brands do more than make statements and monetary donations. And they’re rewarding those who step up: According to a recent survey of nearly 4,000 American adults by marketing consultancy Ketchum, 20% of consumers are more likely to support companies and leaders who publicly advocate for social justice causes and prioritize diversity and inclusion in their charitable efforts and hiring practices.13
Therefore, technology leaders must embrace opportunities to partner with other companies and nonprofit organizations to help address relevant social justice initiatives in their local communities. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, proposes that organizations consider the following three questions first:14
Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?
Can you meaningfully influence the issue?
Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?
It is important for technology leaders to clearly communicate the overall purpose of the social justice initiative to all employees and clearly explain how it aligns with the company’s core values. They should also invite employees to get actively involved in supporting new community engagement and directly engage the board of directors to strategically support it.
It is important to commit to addressing a social justice issue that is bigger than the organization’s current sphere of influence. Taking this approach opens the door to establishing new strategic partnerships that create continuous learning experiences for all parties involved in the community engagement.
Leadership in Action
The Technology in Business Schools Roundtable (TBSr) is a global organization composed of technology leaders who are responsible for managing IT in business schools across the US and Canada.15 The organization is devoted to providing opportunities for technology leaders in higher education to collaborate, learn, and share best practices through networking sessions. Earlier this year, several members of the TBSr board of directors committed to inviting its membership to engage in a robust discussion. They acknowledged the various challenges and opportunities currently facing technology leaders in business higher education related to effectively promoting diversity and inclusion. Below are several clear examples of how the TBSr board of directors effectively applied the four DEI leadership actions to initiate their own journey.
Example 1: Lead with Purpose & Conviction
First and foremost, the group collectively acknowledged a lack of diverse and inclusive workplace practices across the technology industry, including in business higher education. They also made a genuine commitment to determining how the organization could play an active role in regularly educating, engaging, and inspiring its membership to cultivate diverse and inclusive workplace practices in the future.
Example 2: Build Genuine Connections
During a series of regularly scheduled board meetings, the group openly discussed various DEI issues that they have observed in their respective organizations and shared personal stories with one another. As a result, the group began to lean into uncomfortable topics of discussion regarding prevailing DEI issues in technology based on their professional experiences and differing points of view, which resulted in genuine connections and new mutual understanding among group members. Additionally, the group shared helpful resources and best practices with one another and began to foster a continuous learning environment focused on DEI workplace practices by identifying specific talent strategies that target each stage of the employee lifecycle.
Example 3: Take Deliberate Strategic Actions
Next, the board identified specific strategic actions that they believed the organization could effectively apply to promote diverse and inclusive workplace practices among membership. For instance:
Recruitment — expand institutional memberships to include more HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) partners.
Development — identify and share actionable DEI best practices with membership.
Advancement — share all job postings with membership to promote career mobility in higher education.
Retention — create affinity groups among membership to obtain targeted feedback.
Example 4: Activate New Community Engagements
Lastly, the board hosted a virtual webinar session for the sole purpose of initiating an open dialogue regarding DEI with the entire membership. They educated the membership about the cumulative impacts of systemic racism on people of color in society and reviewed key strategic actions that technology leaders can take to begin cultivating a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture. The board president announced the organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.16 Attendees were also invited to participate in several roundtable discussions to solicit their feedback regarding the organization’s proposed DEI strategic actions. Each roundtable discussion was hosted by members of the board, and topics included HBCU outreach and engagement, DEI best practices in business higher education, potential DEI strategic partners in the community, and promoting authenticity and belonging in IT higher education.
Through this dynamic strategic effort, the TBSr board of directors successfully initiated an engaging conversation with its membership and learned how to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in a meaningful and sustainable way for the organization.
Starting Your DEI Journey T.O.D.A.Y™
All technology leaders need to determine how best to proceed with answering the call to effectively cultivate a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture in their own way. It starts by taking one deliberate step at a time toward building a dynamic workplace culture that consistently provides people of color with fair, equitable, and just opportunities in each area of their own employee experience. There are several key leadership commitments that are integral to the development and implementation of any successful DEI strategy, including:
Transparency. Be open and honest with all employees and the local community about the organization’s DEI strategy, including opportunities for improvement and planned strategic actions to properly address them.
Ownership. Acknowledge that the current workplace culture is not where it needs to be with respect to DEI and hold yourself accountable for being a part of the solution moving forward.
Dialogue. Consistently promote constructive discussions with all employees in order to clearly communicate the DEI strategy, solicit their feedback, and provide regular updates regarding the organization’s progress toward desired goals.
Accountability. Establish key performance indicators to regularly track progress against desired DEI goals, provide regular updates to all internal and external constituents, and ensure appropriate measures are instituted to hold all technology leaders accountable for doing their part on a daily basis.
Yearning. Always demonstrate a strong commitment to getting better every day through your own personal growth and show a willingness to do the work required to make a difference in the lives of people of color, no matter how long it takes to do so.
Technology leaders must also acknowledge that their unique DEI journey will be daunting, intimidating, and controversial at times, for various reasons. This being the case, it is imperative for technology leaders to embrace the idea of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” If the organization elects to play it safe by implementing DEI strategies that are conservative in nature and do not challenge the status quo with respect to current workplace practices and procedures, then the company is not doing enough to shift the workplace culture in a new direction, as necessary. Instead, technology leaders must be willing to step into uncharted territory by employing DEI strategies that are progressive and innovative. To successfully advance DEI workplace practices in technology that will ultimately transform the overall employee experience for people of color, all technology leaders must learn to truly value their own DEI journey more than the desired destination.
I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.
— Langston Hughes
1Melendez, Steven. “One Reason for the Tech Industry’s Great Resignation: Lack of Diversity.” Fast Company, 13 August 2021.
2Melendez (see 1).
3Gruman, Galen. “IT Snapshot: Ethnic Diversity in the Tech Industry.” Computerworld, 16 July 2020.
4White, Sarah K. “Women in Tech Statistics: The Hard Truths of an Uphill Battle.” CIO, 8 March 2021.
5Carter, Damon. “How IT Leaders Can Effectively Address Systemic Racism.” CIO, August 2020.
6Carter, Damon. “Creating an IT Culture of Inclusiveness and Belonging.” CIO, September 2020.
7Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, et al. “Innovation, Diversity, and Market Growth: Executive Summary.” Coqual, 2013.
8Slepian, Michael. “Are Your D&I Efforts Helping Employees Feel Like They Belong?” Harvard Business Review, 19 August 2020.
9Carter, Damon. “Ready, Set, Change! Building a Fair, Equitable and Just IT Culture.” CIO, November 2020.
10White, Sarah K. “How Year Up Is Redefining and Diversifying the IT Talent Pipeline.” CIO, 5 November 2020.
11Heller, Martha. “IT Execs Join Forces, Pledging to Promote Diversity in Technology.” CIO, 31 March 2021.
12Carter, Damon. “How (and Why) to Address Systemic Racism Through Community Engagements.” CIO, January 2021.
13Philogene, Haniyah. “As Corporations Double Down on Social Justice, Americans Say They Still Have a Long Way to Go.” Forbes, 14 July 2021.
14Argenti, Paul A. “When Should Your Company Speak Up About a Social Issue?” Harvard Business Review, 16 October 2020.
15“Welcome to the Technology in Business Schools Roundtable (TBSr).” TBS Roundtable, 2014.
16“TBSr Commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging.” TBS Roundtable, 2014.