Where Do We Go From Here? Reflections From the Equity, Talent, and Tech Community

By Kamau Bobb Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech

Over the last year, the CECP Systemic Investment in Equity, Talent, and Tech (ETT) Accelerate Community has grappled with issues at the heart of diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. The lack of significant collective progress coupled with the current national tenor suggests this is an appropriate moment of reckoning. The nature of the problem is so embedded in the social challenges of the country that the only way to achieve meaningful impact is to move collectively and with careful reflection.

Collective impact is the consensus. A critical element in achieving collective impact is to have a common agenda. A common agenda rests on a shared basic argument. 

At the core of the matter is the nature of the argument. For the last two decades, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been framed as the centerpiece of two basic arguments:

  • DEI is necessary as a business imperative. The standard argument suggests that diverse teams are more innovative and hence more productive. Having a diverse workforce creates more interesting and more robust products and processes and is better for business. That is the business case argument.
  • DEI is necessary as a moral imperative. The standard argument suggests that having a workforce that is reflective of the broader population is simply the right thing to do. It is a normative argument. Tech jobs, regardless of sector, are disproportionately influential; therefore, everyone should have at least equal opportunity to participate. That is the moral argument.

In reality, the difficulty both arguments face is the continued success and growth of tech-dependent companies across multiple business sectors. The tech sector, for example, has been tremendously successful over the last two decades. This is the case despite their lack of diversity. In the U.S. context, diversity means having significant proportions of people of color, particularly Black and Latinx people, and women, especially women of color. 

The aspirational goal of many tech companies is to have parity with the “market available talent pool”. But that pool is reflective of the larger societal constraints that impede the access of communities of color to the kind of education that qualifies them for “availability”. Even achieving the goals will yield significant underrepresentation. 

The extraordinary monetary and cultural success of big tech despite the lack of diversity in its workforce undermines the strength of both core arguments of DEI. These companies can be successful with workforces of predominantly White and Asian men. That is the hard truth of the matter. They may be more successful with more diverse teams, or they may be more morally correct with more diverse teams, but they are successful with the workforce they currently have.

In a moment of rising social discord and inequity, that hard truth leaves the broader tech community at a crossroads – at a moment of confrontation with reality. The societal impediments to a more representative workforce are gaining strength. Racial animus and segregation are on the rise and class stratification is among the worst in modern American history. Access to the upper strata of American life is more guarded by the gates of privilege than it has been in generations. 

Under these conditions, the question remains, what ought companies do to achieve a workforce that is representative of fairness and justice?

Because we are referring to the distribution of people, this is a zero-sum game. Competitor companies are searching for the same people. When one individual company makes significant gains in diversifying their workforce, their peer companies cannot make equal progress. The solution has to be a collective effort to expand the pool of people. That does not release the sector of the responsibility of dealing with inherent biases within their hiring, promotion and retention practices, but it does raise a clear framework for action – collective impact.

What is reality?

The change agents matter. The primary actors in the corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and DEI spaces are women. That itself is an indication of the system we are trying to change. If we pause to reflect on this pattern, women are being tasked to right wrongs for which they are not broadly responsible. Women are not responsible for their underrepresentation in tech fields, in critical business roles, or C-suite positions, for example. Ability and ambition are not issues. They are subject to longstanding patriarchal patterns that impede their progress, success, and representation at various levels of the tech sector. But yet, they are asked to fix the problem.

Since the most recent efforts to diversify the tech workforce came under public scrutiny in the last decade, women arguably have been the primary beneficiaries. While women remain underrepresented, the increased proportion of women in tech roles has exceeded the gains of Black and Latinx people in the sector. In the United States, however, race remains the salient variable. 

The increases among women have manifested disproportionately among White women. The disproportionate success in the increasing representation of White women has introduced the concept of intersectionality into the lexicon of tech workforce diversity. Intersectionality is the basic idea that individuals have multiple identities. In the context of DEI in the tech workforce, measuring the progress of women alone hides their individual and racial and ethnic identities. The reason that is important is that women of color, Black and Latina women specifically, have not experienced that same gains that White and Asian women have. Among women, race remains the more potent variable. The fact that Black and Latina women are Black and Latina has more impact on whether they participate in the tech landscape than does the fact that they are women. 

Given this pattern, there is a complicated social dynamic among the primary actors in charge of addressing this problem. The various groups of women do not arrive at this work with shared experiences. There are surely common experiences of living life as women; however, there are significant experiential differences in being women of different races. The patterns of representation affirm this fact. The lived experience of a Latina woman in contemporary American life, for example, is substantively different than that of a White woman. The historically tense and interdependent relationship between Black and White women remains an unhealed American wound. Black and Latina women share the experience of underrepresentation and the complications of racial and ethnic discrimination but are separated by real cultural differences.

These differences between the women leading the corporate effort to target underrepresented groups matter. Often, the targets are people of color, primarily Black and Latinx people. The lens of race and ethnicity, which is inescapable in this work, colors the view of the leadership when looking at the people who are the objects of the work. It also colors their view of each other. It introduces questions of sensitivity and sincerity. It introduces fraught concepts of fragile White saviors, angry Black women and quietly suffering Latina women. 

This dimension of the systemic work to achieve equity in talent and tech remains largely unspoken. It is too risky to discuss publicly and too tense to discuss privately. An important outcome of the ETT community was the exposure of this touchy reality. Acknowledging this basic social challenge is important for the success of the work.

Collective Impact Requires Shared Goals

It is important because collective impact requires a common agenda. The basic tenets of the collective impact framework are:

  • Common agenda
  • Shared measurement systems
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication
  • Backbone support organization

The steps to achieving collective impact are not easy, but they are clear. The result of the ETT community’s reflections is that the common agenda remains problematic. The tension between the business argument and the moral argument is ongoing. That matters because the business argument leads to immediate expectations on return on investments. The moral argument leads to long-term expectations of investments designed to address structural changes.

That tension is inherent in corporations for whom profitability is arguably the single most important objective. Establishing a common purpose is the challenge ahead. The path corporations have followed thus far have only been marginally successful in increasing the representation of Black and Latinx people in tech spaces. To move ahead successfully, sets of leaders of the effort will have to agree on shared arguments to develop common agendas. If the approach is to be systemic and complement companies’ immediate self-interested needs, the moral argument must weigh in more significantly. 

For that to happen, the current intersectional differences among the women leadership in this effort need exposure, attention, and reconciliation. It is the only path to developing a sound common agenda – the cornerstone of a collective impact framework. In the long term, men must be more directly involved to reflect the kind of diversity in the leadership of the effort that the effort is seeking to achieve for the sector.

Agreement on the basic argument requires intentional work. The ETT community demonstrated that work is possible. The subsequent elements of a collective impact agenda will follow from there.

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