How Tech Leaders Can Support Diversity During A Pandemic

As businesses grapple with how to protect their workers from Covid-19 spread while also simultaneously dismantling systemic racism and inequality within their organizations, it has become increasingly incumbent on technology leaders to assist in better diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). More than ever, organizations are looking to IT departments for help with evolution, so it seems a fitting place to drive meaningful change.

An IT department has a lot of sway within a business culture; indeed, it represents a microcosm of society. The choices IT members make can dictate the ways in which employees perform their roles and communicate with each other. For example, the IT department has been responsible for assisting employees forced to work from home. The technology each department adopts to increase productivity has both the capability to bring people together or silo them further. 

Any crisis like a pandemic can expose deep cracks of inequality that have already existed in society but become more apparent with increased pressure. If these cracks are not addressed adequately, they can surely widen further; history is full of poor decisions, inadequate responses and deliberate attempts to shape the future in oppressive ways. We must study and learn from the past.

IT leaders are fighting two very different challenges today. One is the challenge of remote workforce enablement, which has accelerated technology evolution for businesses at an unprecedented rate; the other is systemic racism and a problem with workplace diversity that, if not addressed, could only worsen. While different in some ways, these challenges go hand in hand in empowering the livelihood of a business.

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Business survival really does depend upon DEI. CIO noted that, according to a report from McKinsey & Company, “diverse companies perform better, hire better talent, have more engaged employees and retain workers better than companies that do not focus on diversity and inclusion.” The companies that didn’t have diversity in their ranks underperformed across the board. In a time when the economy is increasingly volatile, as Covid-19 continues to spread, not just profitability is on the line. The very ongoing existence of a business is in danger.

Then why are women and minorities still underrepresented in IT roles? How can IT leaders address this disparity—enacting actual change? The simple act of hiring and promoting based upon DEI is a start. This means giving all candidates a fair shot at the interviewing stage, such as requesting HR to remove all names from resumes before seeing them. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a study in 2003 that found “white-sounding names” had a 50% higher likelihood of being called back for an interview. Companies must take tangible steps to address this bias. In addition, all individuals, regardless of sex or ethnicity, should receive equal pay for the same role at the time of hiring as well as during pay raises and promotions.

Technology companies can encourage minority youth to also enter tech careers by creating nonprofit programs for outreach and influencing their states’ education systems to adopt the curriculum necessary to build a career in technology.

As reliance upon technology grows, I believe it will only become harder to correct biases at the foundation. White males overwhelmingly being the main developers behind products that shape everyday life can create bias — even if not deliberately. In 2019, the AI Now Institute found that a lack of diversity at the forefront of AI development has created disastrous bias. If white males vastly continue to be stand-ins for the entire population during technology development, I believe there will inevitably be detriment to the whole.

We are being thrust into this new era of technology, which gives tech leaders the responsibility to implement things like DEI into their company culture wherever possible. This involves going deeper to improve diversity in IT beyond simply hiring diverse groups into new roles. When new technology adoptions are needed, these adoptions shouldn’t occur without consultation with underrepresented voices within the company to be sure that any new change doesn’t have an unintended adverse effect. Especially having things remote now, it’s essential to continuously educate and maintain core values around DEI so that companies go forward rather than backward. 

DEI values should rest at the foundation of all company decisions as well as when revisiting IT governance policies. Sometimes, this means saying no to some tech solutions altogether. For example, many companies have since vowed to dismantle or pause their use of facial recognition technologies that were developed without the input of minorities and thus have unfairly targeted minority groups.

The recent news around facial recognition is an example of how wrong a technology innovation can go, and it details the urgency of rebuilding the technology sphere for inclusivity and equality. Reaction to Covid-19 has driven many organizations to embrace the cloud for increased flexibility, resiliency and scalability — and this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does require a careful look at the future. Going too far down a path of tech without having considered all implications makes it harder to retrace your steps. Critical minds from diverse perspectives could empower a holistic picture, but this depends upon proper representation at the heart. Simply looking at an issue from your own perspective with a sensitive mindset likely will not be enough.

As I think of cutting-edge technologies that could soon shape our lives, artificial intelligence and voice recognition come to mind. These are still both in the earlier development stages but seem to be leaving out minority input. Since IT is receiving increased emphasis during the Covid-19 crisis, IT leaders must use this opportunity to seek out and promote underrepresented persons not just for inclusion in the development of new technologies, but also for inclusion in major company decisions at the executive level. Creating a diversity team in your organization is another way of enacting lasting change. Such a group can recommend how best to hire, promote and shift company culture in a way that reflects our values so that diverse voices become the foundation of all business.

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