Technology has a diversity problem.
Sure, big tech companies make headlines for lack of minority representation in their workforces, but internal IT departments are struggling, too.
Women represent 31% of IT employees, according to Gartner data. Black workers make up 7.9% of computing and math-related jobs, while Hispanic employees represent 6.8%, according to a 2018 report from the Brookings Institution.
While advocacy for diversity is bubbling up across technology departments, implementing tangible change is proving more difficult. Fostering inclusivity, implementing programs for employees, changing the culture and adequately funding the efforts are starting points for diversity and equity in the IT workforce.
Systemic barriers to jobs in technology are to blame for some of the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in technology. But still, the onus falls on IT leadership and the companies they work for to create a culture and environment where all employees feel welcomed and accommodated.
Beyond the arguments on the importance of representation, centering diversity, inclusion and equity in the workplace fosters innovation and increases opportunities.
"When you are in a space where there is psychological safety and you're allowed to be yourself 100%, there is an increase in productivity, there is an increase in new ideas that come up, because people are not afraid of speaking up and in collaboration people feel more comfortable with one another," Elaine Montilla, CIO for IT at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and founder of 5xminority, said.
Inclusivity is a culture, not a program
There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to fostering inclusivity in the workplace. Instead, effective strategies tailor it to the business mission and workforce.
"Diversity isn't something you 'do,'" Laura Thiele, chief people officer at Optimizely, said in an email to CIO Dive. "It is more around the culture of the organization."
Maintaining diversity, equity and inclusion efforts "has to relate to what the culture is, what the needs of the business are, and how people can achieve these business objectives through ensuring people are engaged to meet these objectives," Thiele said.
What every company can do, however, is integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into the day-to-day processes and culture — instead of tacking on programs or initiatives that risk fading.
It needs to be "programmatically embedded" into the organization, Kristi Lamar, managing director and U.S. leader for women in technology at Deloitte, said. "The aspiration should be that this is the way that we are."
Initiatives garner excitement early on with energy behind it, but it's common for people to lose interest once it's no longer the shiny new thing, according to Lamar. Instead, equity and inclusion should be embedded into the day-to-day operations of the company.
It should become "muscle memory," Lamar said.
Supporting the employee's unique circumstances, creating a culture where they can bring their authentic selves to work and checking in frequently to make sure their needs are met as an employee are all continuous efforts throughout the individual's tenure, according to Montilla.
Inclusivity on the IT team can create a better end product, too. "We have IT making decisions, where IT doesn't really fully understand what's happening on the other side after the product goes live," Montilla said.
The diversity of the IT department and environment where all feel included create a feedback loop where IT can do their jobs better. Companies could implement this by incorporating employees from outside business units into IT processes.
Leadership can show that it's a priority, but "everybody in IT as a department … also needs to live and breathe it," Lamar said. "The CIO might carry the flag, everyone else needs to be on board and have the mission and the passion behind it as well."
Inclusive leaders boost problem-solving, work engagement, intent to stay and the overall work environment, Charlotte Streat, VP Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Liberty Mutual Insurance, said via email.
At Liberty Mutual, unconscious bias awareness, programs centered on allyship, resources on discussing race and ethnicity at work, and other efforts are all part of the company's diversity, equity and inclusion culture, according to Streat.
If a company does want to take the project or initiative approach to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, make sure it has "clear set expectations and they are financially supported," Montilla said. And don't just tack on a diversity, equity and inclusion-related title and responsibilities to a full-time employee without making sure they report to the top, there's no conflict of interest, and they are compensated for that work.
How CIOs can lead the charge toward inclusivity
It's no small task for CIOs to reshape existing culture and change the status quo, but even a gesture as simple as speaking up can signal to employees that inclusivity is a department-wide priority.
Leaders can start by evaluating the day-to-day actions hindering diversity, equity and inclusion and make iterative improvements, according to Thiele. At Optimizely, a welcome email to new hires used his/her pronouns when a senior leader recognized that it wasn't inclusive.
"This may seem like a small topic to adjust. But for the person who receives an email that doesn't have correct pronoun usage, it isn't small," Thiele said. So, the company changed the language to be more inclusive.
Tech leaders inclined toward data, can integrate it into accomplishing tangible change and show metrics around inclusivity.
Show the department a breakdown of diversity in the workforce and demonstrate a self awareness of how inclusion efforts are being incorporated into the culture, Lamar said.
Montilla requests data from the HR department on staff salaries in the IT department to root out any discrepancies. It holds the leadership accountable to ask why one employee may be making less than the other to ensure those reasons are valid and not based on unconscious bias.
Knowing how — and when — to communicate about employee performance can also help engage and include members of the workforce.
If an employee did something praise worthy, the praise is given in front of the group to show that this worker is valuable and deserves to be here, Montilla said. On the flip side, if a mistake is made it is addressed in private.
Some mistakes may need to be addressed in the moment — like if unconscious bias shows in a meeting when a marginalized group is given space in a meeting to speak — but "the first conversation, I will have it in private and say, 'I noticed that this happened, are you aware of it?'" Montilla said. This brings unconscious bias to the forefront.
Sometimes, Montilla will even keep track of who's saying what in a meeting to make sure everyone has a fair chance to speak. At the end, Montilla checks the list to personally call out employees that may not have had the chance to contribute and give them the opportunity to comment.
Giving every employee a shot to participate also applies to project assignments. Managers will often go back to the same team members because they have a track record of doing a good job, leaving some individuals out of the loop, according to Montilla.
"You leave other team members out and they don't get the opportunity to learn, because you have someone who's already faster and you want to make sure that the project gets done successfully," Montilla said. Give those employees the chance to learn and grow."
As leaders, these mistakes are fixable. Admit when bias gets in the way or a mistake was made, be vulnerable with the employees about it and then course correct, Montilla said.