Closing the DEI Gap
CUTTER BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY JOURNAL VOL. 34, NO. 9
Benjamin Duke hammers home the need for more actions and fewer words. He highlights how companies have stated their verbal commitment to DEI, but their results do not reflect these commitments. Black employees are left feeling a misalignment between their company’s public comments about supporting racial justice while failing to address the concerns of their Black employees.
The case for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is overwhelming. It has long been recognized that technology company staff rosters are insufficiently diverse. Tech industry studies report that the situation is worse now than it was in 1984.1 An often-cited report from the World Economic Forum provides a stark warning: at the current rate of progress, it will take another 100 years to achieve global gender equality.2 A wide range of business studies have shown that companies that incorporate DEI into their mission are often market leaders and more profitable. These business studies also found that both diverse boards and diverse teams outperform.3
Words vs. Actions
Well-intentioned company mission statements are often deprioritized, leaving employees to voice concerns over working for tech companies with a public image of promoting diversity and inclusivity but whose words often have not been subsequently matched by action. In a recent Forbes article, career coach Ashley Stahl wrote, “Between 2014 and 2020, Black and Latinx workers at Facebook rose by only 2% per group. In 2018, at the most recent count, Google listed only five Black female executives among their top 357 officers — that's just 1.4%!”4 Similarly, Wired magazine described the actions of tech companies such as Google, Amazon, and Pinterest as “diversity theater” for their failure to address concerns of Black employees while publicly supporting racial justice.5 It is all too often that company payrolls bear little resemblance to the demographic profile of the area they serve.
Examples of good DEI hiring and working practices include making recruitment teams deliberately gender diverse and setting goals to promote more women to management positions. While hiring practices and retention need to improve across all underrepresented demographic groups, this article will focus on women, people with physical disabilities, and people who speak English as a new language, and how diversity measures can consider their needs.
The Call for Flexibility
A societal attitude that home and childcare duties should be carried out by women is widespread in many countries.6 During the COVID-19 global pandemic, more women than men lost their jobs or felt they had to stop work.7 But the IT sector initiated, and needs to continue with, COVID-19-induced societal transformation toward remote work. Thought leadership is required to engender corporate acceptance of flexible working, recognizing that employees can fully function in their roles while working remote.
Workers with disabilities also benefit from flexible work. For employees who wish to work on site, corporate institutional structural barriers can be removed by adopting a policy of upgrading assistive technology to help them become more productive. However, these employees may have adapted their own homes to suit their particular individual needs. It is often easier for this population to work from home than to travel to the office. It is cheaper for employers to allow a person with a disability to work from home than to pay the conversion costs for this staffer to come into the office. A member of staff with a disability could move on within a year of the conversion expenditure, leaving behind a setup that often cannot be used by anyone else.
Certainly, it is possible that tech company DEI initiatives, which include being able to work from home if desired, will increase profits in the long run, alongside a staff satisfaction dividend. Thought leadership is required to oversee this small change in working practices.
More transparency is necessary in the tech industry as well. But as with business in general, it is difficult to get information on corporate recruiting practices at the granular level of the individual company. Thus, we cannot find out national statistics regarding how many tech companies have adopted the identified best practices of implementing diverse recruitment teams and diverse candidate pools. An ideal senior interview shortlist should include a minimum of one disabled person, one woman, and one woman of color, each of whom is a different person.
AstraZeneca seems to be going in the right direction. The company is a founding partner of the World Economic Forum’s “Partnership for Racial Justice in Business” initiative.8 This coalition of 48 organizations campaigns and provides a platform for inclusive policy change. This is the type of progressive policy thinking required to oversee adoption of change in organizational approaches to the recruitment of the senior leadership team.
An easy but often overlooked response to the tech industry’s need to become more inclusive is the impact of collecting the correct data. For example, does the company provide childcare? How affordable is it? How often is it used? If it’s underused, why? Are people able to work from home? What are the barriers to working from home? Collecting this data would be really beneficial for companies because it would help them identify what all their employees need to be productive and successful. The challenge for tech companies is not figuring out what they need to do. The real challenge is getting them to recognize that the business needs to do it. That’s the critical issue.
DEI problems are created by offensive and archaic attitudes that persist in the workplace. Cultural and patriarchal attitudes in many countries still hold that home and childcare duties be carried out mainly by women. To begin to eradicate gender bias within tech companies, the workplace culture must change, and in order to achieve that, societal culture needs to change.
Looking at Sweden is helpful, as it is widely recognized that Sweden delivers excellent gender equality policies. Several of Sweden’s government ministers are women. And paid parental leave is available to both mothers and fathers. This is the type of political impetus required to change the culture of workplace attitudes to diversity in tech companies.
Thought leadership and changing attitudes in tech company working practices must manifest themselves in multiple ways. Corporate institutional structural barriers can be removed to make the work environment more inclusive. For example, adopting a policy of upgrading assistive technology for employees who require it can help them be more productive. Providing hearing-impaired workers with cloud-based artificial intelligence–automated headphones, which memorize personalized hearing settings to access work-related audio content, can make a significant difference as well.
Relatively inexpensive, small, and doable organizational changes can help remove artificial structural barriers that may prevent people with disabilities from being recruited or given the opportunity to flourish at tech companies. These companies should be investing in strategies and tools to help them become more equitable. Onboarding and recruitment policies should be digitally accessible to potential recruits.
Tech organizations should make more of an effort to have training and consultancy delivered or led by people with disabilities. Workers with disabilities should have access to a communication system that meets their needs, where they can contact either their line manager, a designated officer, or duty officer to help address a sudden concern. These and other equality adjustment tools can support DEI efforts by creating a more supportive workplace for all.
The Language Barrier
Language can be another obstacle to DEI. Attorney Donald MacKinnon writes, “Language issues must be handled tactfully and proportionately in order to avoid potentially costly claims.”9 Legal issues aside, language barriers can cause tension in a workplace.
The universal language of business is English, but at many tech organizations, the main language of employees and customers may be different. In this instance, having access to translation services can help overcome this disparity.
Helping employees learn another language at work is one approach to breaking down diversity and ethnicity barriers and increasing inclusivity. Employers could even incentivize employees to learn another language, including sign language, and to use the new language during the working day. This may help colleagues who are not confident in speaking English to feel less isolated at work.
Using inclusive language is another strategy that can help create an equitable workplace and advance DEI. Inclusive language refers to “[avoiding] the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people.”10 For example, referring to “mankind” as “humankind” makes the word gender neutral.
The Perils of Inaction
Fully incorporating DEI will require political impetus from national governments to ensure tech companies and the wider community change working practices. Companies that fail to embrace and promote inclusive policies face a number of business risks. These may include a growing inability to recruit and retain staff, alongside a perception of organizational failure that may lead to a fall in valuation, with investors wanting to sell their company shares. Moreover, employers should receive macroeconomic incentives in terms of additional tax relief to offset expenses related to accessible office equipment.
In 2021, more than 2,000 CEOs signed the “CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion” pledge; tech companies are a significant proportion of that number.11 This pledge includes increasing or introducing training focused on eliminating unconscious bias for the company’s workforce and designing a corporate strategic action plan for DEI improvement, which must be approved by company boards. This is clearly welcomed, but in part misfires due to a lack of political will.
What really needs to happen is there must be radical change in business culture: the workforce where the organization is based must closely match the demographic profile of the area where the business trades. Making it a legal requirement to do so would be radical, and in all honesty, currently that is the missing bit. Tech companies should lead the way here, especially when so many business studies have found profits increase when DEI efforts are viewed as successful. Studies show beauty is in the eye of the beholder; recruiters tend to recruit people who look and sound like themselves; customers buy more from people who look and sound like themselves. The benefits of this radical suggestion are double dosed: tech companies, and the business community at large, would begin to really move the needle on DEI and also experience increased profits alongside increased employee harmony.
1Maynard, Pamela. “Are We Really Closing the Gender Gap in Tech?” Forbes, 3 March 2021.
2“Global Gender Gap Report 2020.” World Economic Forum, 2019.
3Froehlicher, Marie, et al. “Gender Equality in the Workplace: Going Beyond Women on the Board.” The Sustainability Yearbook, S&P Global, 5 February 2021.
4Stahl, Ashley. “What’s to Come in 2021 for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace.” Forbes, 14 April 2021.
5Fussell, Sidney. “Black Tech Employees Rebel Against ‘Diversity Theater.’ ” Wired, 8 March 2021.
6Froehlicher et al. (see 3).
7Maynard (see 1).
8“Inclusion and Diversity.” AstraZeneca, 2021.
9MacKinnon, Donald. “Can an Employer Insist That Its Employees Only Speak English at Work?” Law at Work, 21 May 2020.
10Ormesher, Ellen. “The Power of Words: How Inclusive Language Can Make for a More Equitable Workplace.” The Drum, 4 June 2021.
11“CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Pledge.” PwC, accessed September 2021.