Posted on 22/01/2021 by Diane Scally
Diversity remains a key issue for the technology industry. According to a recent BCS report, 18% of IT professionals have BAME backgrounds. BAME people are also less likely to hold senior positions — only 9% are directors and 32% are supervisors (for comparison 43% of white employees have a supervisory role). The lack of diversity becomes even clearer when considering specific ethnic groups. For example, black women make up just 0.7% of the technology industry — a representation rate that is 2.5 times lower than in other industries. Clearly, the technology industry is still struggling to achieve true diversity, so what can companies do about it?
It’s easy to say the right thing, harder to put this into action. Setting targets, continually measuring diversity and reviewing progress helps organisations to commit to change. For example, some big companies like Facebook and Pinterest have tried to use the ‘Rooney rule’ where at least one woman and one person of colour are interviewed for director positions within the company. However, progress has been limited and concerns about it being a ‘diversity tickbox’ exercise have been raised. More recently, it’s been emphasised that targets need to be set at all levels of seniority, and that there needs to be external accountability for failure to meet targets.
Make a stance
On the other hand, sometimes companies fail to say enough. Statements of diversity support are important to attract new staff and ensure existing employees are reassured by an inclusive company culture — both those with BAME backgrounds and beyond. For example, Unilever recently pledged their support for a campaign working to end discrimination against hairstyles associated with racial, ethnic and cultural identities. Given that this kind of discrimination often happens in the workplace, a major employer taking a stance sends out a powerful message.
Many people from under-represented groups have concerns that a career in tech is ‘not for them’. This can be reinforced by a lack of people who look like them in senior positions. In addition, some BAME communities prioritise traditional jobs such as medicine, law and finance over technology careers. Companies can participate in outreach in schools and other settings to expand on what a technology career looks like and address concerns someone might have about entering the world of technology. Outreach can help to shed a light on available opportunities while also sending a clear message about the company’s commitment to a diverse workforce.
There’s been a recent discussion about diversity training — particularly the low reliability of the implicit association test and its lack of impact on reducing real-world biases — to the extent that the civil service has stopped all unconscious bias training. However, while certain tools have been criticised, research shows that ongoing diversity training is successful when it combines a range of techniques and is complemented by other diversity initiatives. It’s clear that diversity training needs to be ongoing and not seen as a substitute for wider policy change.
Seek external advice
After the Black Lives Matter movement put the spotlight on diversity in 2020, many companies turned to their staff for advice. There have been several instances of people from BAME backgrounds being asked to speak about and advise on diversity practices amidst a climate of emotional trauma and, in some cases, fear of later reprisals from the organisation they were asked to defend. It’s important not to place the burden of improving diversity on individuals — especially if they are unsure how to refuse and are not being compensated for their extra work. Diversity — like any other organisational strategy — should be managed by qualified professionals and engaged with by interested employees.
The technology industry’s track record when it comes to diversity is far from perfect. However, changes are being made. It’s clear that actionable, long-term strategies are needed to truly support organisational diversity in tech.
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