Why Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Must Be a Strategic Priority

Posted November 4, 2020 | Sustainability | Leadership | Amplify


This piece by Viola Maxwell-Thompson outlines a clear case for diversity, equity, and inclusion as a strategic priority. The author begins with a declarative proposition as she describes the next decade’s horizon and the expected growth in computer and mathematical occupations. She acknowledges the committed efforts of corporations that have recommitted themselves toward gender and ethnic diversity, yet demonstrates the lagging percentage of women, the lesser percentage of women of color, and, further still, the stagnant representation of Black and Brown professionals in senior roles. 


Diverse companies outperform companies that aren’t diverse. There are numerous articles, citing years of research, to confirm this statement. Indeed, one study found that over a three-year period, diverse companies, compared to their less diverse peers, see 2.3 times the cash flow per employee.1 By investing in diversity and inclusion best practices, companies can increase profits, acquire and retain the best talent, and add value.2

Although gender and ethnic diversity clearly link to profitability, women and minorities continue to be underrepresented.3 For example, the percentage of women in the technology industry is still only 26%; the percentage of women of color in that industry hovers at 11%.4 If we take a deeper dive into the issue of representation, we discover that the percentage of Black and Brown professionals holding C-suite positions was in the single digits 24 years ago and still is today.5 What has created this stalemate? Why are we experiencing little to no movement in these numbers? What do we need to do differently to truly move the needle?

We often hear, “Change starts at the top.” Yes, it does, and when we see companies outperforming their competitors, there is a direct correlation between the diversity of the CEO’s leadership team, the board, and across all levels within a company — and that company’s success. When the CEO is committed to creating a diverse work environment, the company’s diversity mirrors that of the community and customers it serves. When the company makes diversity a strategic priority alongside its growth targets, revenue goals, and other innovative practices that the CEO wants to see implemented, that change is often sustainable.

For example, at Sodexo,6 a food services and facilities management company, 55% of all staff members are female; that number was only 17% in 2009. In addition, 58% of the company’s board of directors are women. Sodexo has found that its gender balance has led to a 4% rise in employee engagement, a 23% increase in gross profit, and a 5% jump in brand image. Given this and other proven examples, what prevents other companies from replicating these models, and why don’t we see a consistent increase in gender and ethnic representation?

A 2018 report from HackerRank paints a clear picture when we look specifically at gender: women 35 or older are 3.5 times more likely than men of the same age to still be in a junior technology position. Men are far less likely to stay in junior level roles for long: 20% of women over the age of 35 are still in junior positions, while fewer than 6% of men 35 or older are still in junior positions; fewer than 54% of women between 25 and 34 are senior developers; while more than 74% of men between 25 and 34 are senior developers.7 Among Fortune 500 companies in 2019, only 13% had a female cybersecurity leader working as CISO, CIO, or VP of security.8

While we are slowly moving the needle, the additional barrier we face is retention. The quit rate of women in the technology industry is almost twice as high as that of men.9 A recent study reports that 53% of women leave their tech-intensive jobs for other industries; in comparison, that number for men is 31%. That same report states that more than 40% of women leave STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs when they start families.10

Moreover, another survey by Capital One of 250 women who had been in IT careers for at least eight years and 200 women who had left their technology jobs found that 20% of those who had left their jobs cite a lack of opportunity as a reason for departing the industry. Twenty-three percent attribute their exits to lack of management support, while 22% claim they couldn’t achieve sufficient work-life balance or work-life integration experience.11

Regrettably, there is limited advancement and retention information available about people of color, and, specif­ically, Black professionals. However, based on research, focus groups, and surveys conducted by my organization, the Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), people of color feel isolated and alone even in a company with thousands of employees; they feel undervalued and unsupported and experience a slower ascension to C-suite and other senior-level positions than their peers.

Indeed, Black women in corporate America encounter the “Black ceiling” and are “double outsiders” as they struggle to find common ground with their white male counterparts and superiors.12 Findings from a survey conducted by research firm Catalyst state that:

The common theme among most barriers perceived by African-American women is a lack of connection with influential others: not having an influential mentor/sponsor, lack of informal networks, lack of company role models of the same racial/ethnic group, and lack of high-visibility projects.13

USA Today notes that toxic workplaces, defined as those that harbor harassment, stereotyping, and bullying, are losing female employees and people of color, undermining organizations’ diversity efforts at an estimated cost of US $16 billion a year.14 Improving these com­panies’ work culture and adopting a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy can reduce attrition. Almost 66% of employees who left jobs in the technology field reported that they would not have left if their companies had “fixed” the culture.15

Granted, trying to “fix” a company’s culture to make it more diverse, equitable, and inclusive can be a massive undertaking that requires time, resources, patience, and commitment. However, we must not shy away from something because it is “hard.” Making innovative changes in a company is hard, but it is still done. Imagine if Amazon had continued to focus only on selling books. Then there’s the story of BlackBerry, which commanded the cellphone market in the business community until it failed to recognize the growing importance of the user interface and technological experience of its customers. At one point, BlackBerry had 50% of the smartphone market in the US and 20% worldwide. However, the company ignored innovation and did not react to changes in the smartphone mar­ket.16 There are countless examples of one company’s success and another’s demise because a company didn’t want to change or take on difficult, unpopular actions, or was too slow to change.

With this increased understanding of the benefits of a diverse company and enlightenment around some barriers women and people of color are still experiencing within companies, let’s shift our focus toward creating an equitable workplace. Merriam-Webster defines “equity” as “justice according to natural law or right” and specifically as “freedom from bias or favoritism.”17 As reported by the US Census Bureau, US women on average earn only 81.6 cents to each dollar earned by men.18 Black women earn only 63 cents and Latinas earn 55 cents to each dollar that white, non-Hispanic men earn.19 Equity has not yet arrived.

When asked, more people say that they favor “equal pay for equal work,” meaning that employees doing the same job should be given equal pay.20 Assuming individuals have similar experiences, education, and performance, a company should be able to implement pay equity policies. If factors like experience and edu­cation are not equal, then pay parity policies, which reduce the pay gap based on gender, race, and ethnicity, should be implemented. Employees are only asking to be paid equitably compared to their peers.

Additionally, in 2019, for every 100 men promoted to their first management position, only 85 women received a promotion; the numbers are lower for minority women, with 71 Latinas promoted for every 100 men, and 58 Black women promoted for every 100 men.21 Is this reflective of an equitable work environment?

Let’s explore the final leg of this equation: inclusion. While attending a conference of minority technology leaders, the participants, of whom I was one, were introducing themselves and proudly sharing their country of origin. A white woman in attendance shared her thoughts with me while she waited for her turn to speak: “What am I doing here?” she asked. “I don’t have a similar background to the people in this room.” And so she struggled with what she was going to say. She later shared that, for the first time, she understood what it was like being in the minority — the “only one” in the room. That statement was profound and the realization informative. It was a brief view into what people of color experience every day in corporate America. While the attendees were welcoming to her and she appreciated the extension of kindness toward her, she wondered if she had previously exhibited those same expressions of inclusion to others in similar situations.

How inclusive is your company? When people of color attend a meeting where no one else in the room is of their ethnicity, are their contributions valued? Do they feel respected? Are they respected? Does everyone in the room practice inclusive behaviors? In her article, “Real Stories of Inclusion: What Does Inclusion Look Like Anyway?” thought leader Mary-Frances Winters asks:

Would there be 100 percent agreement on certain behaviors that could be defined as respect and value? I think not. I would argue that there are widespread differences in interpretation as to what inclusive behaviors look like. I think most of us instinctively know what it feels like to be included or excluded and it is often in the small day-to-day gestures that [we] feel included or excluded.22

And now, in a situation that is already complex, we face the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has highlighted the health disparities in underrepresented communities, which has also resulted in women — especially women of color — being laid off or furloughed, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. Additionally, the unlawful deaths of Black men and women have put a spotlight on social injustice on the streets and in the communities of Black America.

These events are reflective of years of systemic racism that has existed in this country and that is often experienced by Black children in their classrooms, young adults on college campuses, and professionals in their work environments. Increased clarity on these issues has created a fertile ground for us to plant new seeds and harvest new outcomes. The time is now for CEOs and their boards to make a statement affirming their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. To truly change the narrative and the outcomes for corporations, the same level of CEO commitment must be placed on equity and inclusivity as there is on diversity. These three elements must be bound together, and the same level of importance and priority placed on all three for a company’s strategy to have successful outcomes. Additionally, CEOs and other C-suite leaders must be visible and vocal about their commitments. Rosalind Brewer, Starbucks’ first female and Black COO, said, “Every now and then you have to nudge your partners. You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that. I try to set an example.”23

To start, all companies must be willing to be vulnerable and share their current state in order to establish a baseline and then design plans to achieve the desired state. These realignments and adjustments will not be at the expense of others; in fact, they will create even more opportunities for everyone.

Your employees are waiting, watching, and listening because of the heightened awareness and increase in conversations about disparities. They want to see what meaningful, measurable, and sustainable steps will be taken by those who are in positions to effect a change. It is going to be those companies that speak the loudest, act the most boldly, and think the most innovatively that will be acknowledged for their actions and that will benefit from the results of the implemented changes. The companies that lead in this time will be able to attract and ultimately retain their diverse workforce.

There are tools and techniques that companies can leverage to achieve these goals. For example, diversity and awareness training can help team members and their leadership understand how to work with diverse teams. Updating talent acquisition policies to include creating partnerships with organizations that are training and developing diverse talent and with universities with highly diverse student bodies will expand the diversity of the employee candidate pool. Finally, investing in the development of your diverse employees and creating a pathway to leadership will enable companies to promote from within. A few organizations specific to the technology industry that companies can partner with to gain access to proven programs, diverse talent, and best practices include:

  • Women’s Business Collaborative (WBC). WBC is “an unprecedented alliance of women’s business organizations, corporations, trade associations, researchers, and the media accelerating (1) the advancement of diverse female representation in C-suites and boardrooms, (2) the achievement of gender diversity and parity in the workplace, and (3) the growth of women-owned businesses and their access to sources of capital.”24

  • NPower. According to its website, NPower is “on a mission to move people from poverty to the middle class through tech skills training and quality job placement…. NPower creates pathways to economic prosperity by launching digital careers for military veterans and young adults from underserved communities.”25

  • Hispanic IT Executive Council (HITEC). HITEC hopes to “provide a forum for the career development and advancement of technology executives, provide exposure to accomplished leaders and the broader technology community, [and] create opportunities to connect member organizations across different business segments and share technology trends.”26

  • ITSMF. ITSMF’s vision is to facilitate the creation of barrier-free opportunities for Black technology influencers, innovators, and leaders. As a 24-year-old organization of senior-level technology executives, ITSMF has a strong and unique reputation for developing people of color, mind, body, and soul. Of the 667 graduates from the forum’s three academies, 50% are women of color. Seventy-five to 80% of graduates receive a promotion within 18 months, and there’s a direct correlation to their participation in the academies. Partnering with ITSMF creates a repeatable forum for a company to develop their diverse talent, increase the representation of Black and Brown women and men in senior-level tech positions, and solidify a company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes.27

In the words of President John F. Kennedy:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win....28

Our time is now! Lead the change!


1Donnelly, Grace. “Fortune 500: Diversity by the Numbers.”, 2020.

2Florentine, Sharon. “Diversity and Inclusion: 8 Best Practices for Changing Your Culture.” CIO, 14 February 2019.

3Stevens, Pippa. “Companies Are Making Bold Promises About Greater Diversity, But There’s a Long Way to Go.” CNBC, 11 June 2020.

4Daley, Sam. “Women in Tech Statistics for 2020 (and How We Can Do Better).” Built In, 21 March 2020.

5Women in the Workplace, 2020.” McKinsey & Company/Lean In, 2020.

69 Companies Around the World That Are Embracing Diversity in a BIG Way.” SocialTalent, 2020.

72018 Women in Tech Report.” HackerRank, 2018.

8Mishra, Ruchika. “Women CISOs to Watch.” Security Boulevard, 21 May 2020.

9Ashcraft, Catherine, Brad McLain, and Elizabeth Eger. “Women in Tech: The Facts.” National Center for Women & Technology (NCWIT), 2016.

10Stych, Anne. “More Than 40 Percent of Women Leave STEM Jobs After Starting Families.” The Business Journals, 26 February 2019.

11Women in Technology Survey: Executive Summary.” Capital One, 2019.

12McGirt, Ellen. “The Black Ceiling: Why African-American Women Aren’t Making It to the Top in Corporate America.” Fortune, 27 September 2017.

13Advancing African-American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know.” Catalyst, 2004.

14Guynn, Jessica. “Here’s Why Women, Blacks and Hispanics Are Leaving Tech.” USA Today, 27 April 2017.

15Guynn (see 14).

16Appolonia, Alexandra. “How BlackBerry Went from Controlling the Smartphone Market to a Phone of the Past.” Business Insider, 21 November 2019.

17Equity.” Merriam-Webster, 2020.

18Leisenring, Mary. “Women Still Have to Work Three Months Longer to Equal What Men Earned in a Year.” US Census Bureau, 31 March 2020.

19America’s Women and the Wage Gap.” National Partnership for Women & Families, September 2020.

20Miller, Stephen. “Why Pay Equity Keeps Getting More Complicated.” Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 19 March 2018.

21McKinsey & Company/Lean In (see 5).

22Winters, Mary-Frances. “Real Stories of Inclusion: What Does Inclusion Look Like Anyway?The Inclusion Solution, 21 April 2016.

23Connley, Courtney. “3 Things to Know About Rosalind Brewer, Starbucks’ First Female and African-American COO.” CNBC, 14 September 2017.

242020 WBC Digital Summit: Weaving a Movement for Women in Business.” Women Business Collaborative (WBC), 2020.

25Our Mission.” NPower, 2020.

26About HITEC.” Hispanic IT Executive Council (HITEC), 2020.

27Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), 2020.

28Kennedy, John F. “Moon Speech — Rice Stadium.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 12 September 1962.

About The Author
Viola Maxwell Thompson
Viola Maxwell-Thompson is certified by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), a board director, former Ernst & Young Technology Partner, former CEO and president, industry thought leader, and innovative strategist with over 35 years‘ experience in executive-level management in corporate America and nonprofit organizations. She has a proven track record of successfully directing and managing engagements for multibillion-… Read More