Black History Month: Tech’s Teachable Moment of Equity and Dialogue

Ulysses Smith, a consultant and a member of CompTIA’s Advancing Diversity in Technology Community’s Executive Council, shares how Black History Month is an opportunity for tech firms to boost their diversity.
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Ulysses Smith, a consultant and a member of CompTIA’s Advancing Diversity in Technology Community’s Executive Council, shares how Black History Month is an opportunity for tech firms to boost their diversity.

First recognized by the federal government in February 1976, Black History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions of African Americans in the United States and beyond. But in a time when the nation is experiencing heightened racial tensions and what sometimes feels like a regression of the gains made during the civil rights movement, many organizations find themselves reflecting on their own diversity and inclusion initiatives and the efficacy of the status quo. For many organizations in the tech industry, this month is an awkward reminder that their workforce still lacks the diversity they need to be most successful. Beyond the typical marketing campaigns and logo changes to celebrate the month, this is a moment for the industry to shift its diversity and inclusion focus to address equity and intergroup dialogue.

One of the looming issues that continues to plague the tech industry is that of access. The industry has earned a reputation of being a haven for the elite and often inaccessible to those outside of the immediate networks of tech. Even many of the attempted diversity initiatives focus on contributing funds to non-profits, which doesn’t mean a company is actually invested in changing internal structures or examining external factors that limit access for underrepresented people.

But Black History Month is also a reminder that diversity and inclusion initiatives are not simply one-time efforts that magically wipe away long-time challenges. The contributions and accomplishments that African Americans made and continue to make have been in the face of systemic, structural and institutional barriers. It follows that diversity and inclusion initiatives in tech must take on a systemic view and increase their focus on equity.

A focus on equity in the tech industry is a departure from most existing efforts that largely center on setting numeric goals supported only by an unconscious bias training or two. Equity, in simplistic terms, is ensuring that people have what they need to be successful. It accounts for history, individuality and the context of various social identities. It seeks to correct historic injustice and to remove barriers to participation that still exist for many groups. It abandons the myth of meritocracy in favor of access. In short, it seeks to address the factors that equality alone does not. Using equity as the foundation of diversity initiatives gives tech the opportunity to start examining root causes of the industry’s long-standing issues. Shifting our focus to equity allows us to ask a different set of questions in order to build the diverse workforce of the future and develop more inclusive policies, programs and products.

While it is no secret that the tech industry still struggles with hiring African Americans employees – particularly in technical roles – companies still find themselves stuck at just getting started on diversity initiatives. One of the best places to start is to introduce opportunities for intergroup dialogue in the workplace. It is incredibly simple to launch recruitment efforts targeted toward underrepresented people, but these efforts are pointless if there is no critical work done on existing company cultures that exacerbate systemic barriers.

The purpose of dialogue is to allow employees to participate in sometimes uncomfortable conversations about identity and how it impacts our communication with one another, our company culture and ultimately the product. Intergroup dialogue tools can be introduced at all levels of the organization beginning in employee onboarding to senior leadership meetings. Having that understanding of how other people navigate the world around them is critical in shaping effective diversity and inclusion initiatives and cultivating a sense of belonging within an organization.

By no means is there a quick fix to the tech industry’s issues surrounding diversity. But using this month as a moment of introspection, the industry has an opportunity to change course and focus on systemic fixes to its most deeply rooted issues.

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