4 Things Tech Can do in 2018 to *Actually* Tackle D&I: Prioritize Equity


by Danielle DeRuiter-Williams, CEO, The Justice Collective

Last spring I co-led a workshop at the Center for Socially Responsible Business Annual Conference at Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College entitled Best Practices from the Field of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Afterwards the president of a publishing company walked up to me and asked, matter-of-factly, “I’m wondering if you can write me a book on how we solve structural racism?” I chuckled because the vision of a world without structural racism and social inequity, particularly in the time of Trump, seems but an apparition. I was flattered and offered that I could certainly try.

The reason his attendance at our workshop led him to ask the BIG question is because the “best practices” we presented were rooted in a framework that centers equity across and between institutions, companies, organizations, within organizational culture and within the hearts and minds of the individuals that make up these organizations of various sizes and functions. Our approach to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is necessarily cross-sectoral and intersectional. In order to fix diversity and inclusion in Tech, we must solve structural racism, or certainly try.

D&I strategies in Tech are created in a vacuum wherein solutions are generated in a highly contextualized environment that is either looking inward for ideas or perhaps across to peer-companies that have also made very few strides in improving outcomes. Solutions are rarely harvested from other sectors or other kinds of organizations that actually do D&I well because they do exist. They just aren’t in Tech.

Tech continues to miss the mark because it places too much primacy on solutions centered in the Tech context. Tech continues to miss the mark because it almost only hires D&I staff from within Tech. Tech continues to miss the mark because it’s trying to solve the wrong problem to begin with. 

Tech can’t solve its diversity “problem” because Tech is not facing a diversity problem — it’s grappling with the impact of structural inequity. Lack of diversity is a symptom of not asking the BIG question and because, by and large, Tech lacks a cross-sectoral, intersectional analysis it is unable to treat the cause and as a result is experiencing mixed ROI on treating the symptoms. Adopting an equity framework focuses on addressing root causes, respecting the process and developing a strategy that is both focused on comprehensive. Equity is not piecemeal. 

I spend a lot of time in conversations about how we crack the “diversity nut” or solve the “diversity problem” in Tech (and in other sectors), which generally hinges on improving representation of women and people of color inside companies through recruitment, hiring and promotion. There’s been a feigned evolution to discuss the importance creating a “culture of belonging” (which is really just a retention strategy, no?) but no one is asking the BIG question. I believe this is because Tech has a narrow understanding of what it takes to generate more equitable outcomes in diversity and inclusion that is bound the ways in which it recreates meritocracy in the very process by which they are attempting to solve on key D&I challenge... meritocracy.

Think about your current D&I director or program manager — when you were searching to fill this position how much of a priority was it for you to find someone with the following experience or expertise:

  • · Worked in Tech previously
  • · Worked in a large, global tech company
  • · Worked in D&I in Tech specifically
  • · HR and/or recruitment experience in Tech specifically
  • · Came from an elite institution

Of those global tech companies from which the most impressive candidates come — how many of those companies have solved their own diversity “problem”?

To be clear, this isn’t a critique on the individuals leading these efforts, they are doing the absolute best they can with the tools they are given, and expertise they possess within in an environment that is highly challenging and still, impact has been marginal at best for most companies.

So, if Tech has an equity problem, not a diversity problem and if solutions generated within Tech have produced very small gains and if the same kind of experience, background continues to result in the same outcomes — what is Tech to do?

Tech should broaden its D&I mission to focus on equity and should look to other sectors to develop and tailor solutions focused on addressing issues of inequity.

Furthermore, Tech should seek leadership that brings to bear a multitude of perspectives and an analysis that is cross-sectoral and intersectional, they have to stop hiring the same folks to solve the wrong problems.

So what does this look like in action:

1. Transform your Diversity & Inclusion effort into an Equity effort right now (Author’s note: we really should be talking about moving from equity to liberation but that’s another blog for another day). Equitable companies are diverse and inclusive companies and this is simply not a matter of semantics, an equity framework forces us to ask the BIG question, not put Band-Aids on symptoms. Instead of creating ERGs and Affinity groups to carry D&I momentum forward - uncompensated, participation in these groups should be rewarded monetarily and otherwise. This goes beyond letting tech workers use their ERG participation as "service hours" and begins to honor the burden of carrying these kinds of efforts in tangible ways.

ERGs and Affinity Groups without equity embedded into their implementation are nice gestures but don't drive sustainable impact. You know where else this has been tried? UCLA in the 60s and 70s where, as a response to Civil Rights uprisings by students created the Ethnic Studies programs (Afro-American Studies and Chicano-Chicana Studies) - these programs received second-class status in the university hierarchy and were not as well resourced as true Departments. The impact? Students had to share the crumbs they were given and their education suffered. The creation of these programs was to assuage the concerns of these students, not to create a robust institution generating outcomes. Still, attendees persisted - but they had to fight harder than they should have. 

ERGs/Affinity Groups are infrastructure that need electricity to flow. Time to turn the generator on. I attended a panel of ERG coordinators at an SF Tech company and one interesting observation was that every single one of them stated "I know I wasn't hired to do this, this isn't part of my job" - okay, and, creating a work environment that is inclusive is absolutely a part of everyone's job and should be treated as such. Build the necessity of these efforts into the DNA of how work gets done. But that's hard, and expensive and omg there's so much work to be done. An equity framework pushes past those perceived barriers and invites us to consider the true abundance available for transformation if we're willing to take the risk.

2. Build strategic partnerships across sectors to identify root causes that generate inequitable outcomes and thus diminish opportunities for diverse and inclusive companies. This goes beyond putting a tech hub in a low income neighborhood to also considers what policies are currently creating barriers for these communities to experience equitable outcomes (*cough* Prop 13 in California *cough*). Resource organizations like TechEquity who are organizing the voices of tech workers to drive social impact. Pay for your own lobbyist to work in partnership with organizations focused on regional and statewide policy change. No more bandages on bullet wounds.

3. Staff D&I efforts with folks who’ve spent time in other sectors leading mission-driven work. The core competencies of a role that advances D&I in any kind of organization are high emotional intelligence, ability to turn multi-modal analysis into strategy, conflict resolution, strong communications and relationship & trust-building. You know who often possesses these skills? Community organizers and advocates in nonprofits. By expanding or reprioritizing what is essential to produce improved equity outcomes Tech expands its pool of candidates to include those with a firm grasp of equity, which is how we improve diversity and inclusion outcomes.

4. Set aside notions of cultural exceptionalism, everybody is problematic. Tech believes the cultural challenges it is facing are unique to the sector, but culture is driven by interactions and individuals that have all been socialized in a racially and socially inequitable country/world (MAGA, amiright?) - these individuals are hired and exist in any sector. Bill in accounting at Google has the potential to possess just as much unconscious bias as Jan in accounting in the Sierra Club (no shade to Bill and Jan, but if you grew up in the US, you too, have been steeped in a narrative that results in significant bias against people of color, low-income folks and women). Tech must recognize that exclusionary culture is actually the result of historical and present structural and institutional inequities and cultural messages that have influenced every single person in this country — and drive solutions forward from there.

The strategies above are by no means simple, but they are necessary. If Tech continues to do what it’s always done it will see the results that it’s always seen. For the sector to be the heart of innovation and imagination it is unfortunate that the same approaches are applied over and over again. 2018 offers an opportunity to do better. Who’s willing the lead the way? Or are we at risk of D&I and Equity becoming nothing more than a trend?