It isn’t the job of diverse role models to lead DEI strategies for free - change comes at a cost

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 2, 2023
Summary:
Tech workers from under-represented groups set out the DEI policies they’d like to see become the norm.

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One of the oft-cited solutions to the lack of diversity in tech is role models. Having more people from underrepresented groups working and visible in the tech sector, especially in more senior positions, is vital to encouraging others to follow in their footsteps. 

At a recent online event hosted by Colorintech and BLIX, a panel of tech workers from underrepresented communities shared their learnings on how to create more diverse role models, why it’s important to push for change once you’re in the door, and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies that should be introduced.

Approaching DEI in tech from the ground up, rather than waiting until people join the workforce, would have a big impact on increasing diverse role models, according to Theo Maloney, Product Marketer at LinkedIn. DEI efforts targeted at schools and at the work experience level would help ensure people from underrepresented groups are qualified and the best candidate for tech careers, Maloney explained:

It can be an easy thing to say all the time - Oh, but they might not be qualified. So that's the policy I'd like to see. Let's make sure we're all qualified, let's make sure that STEM is top of mind, let's make sure that computer science is.

When he was at school, Maloney wrongly thought computer science was just about making games. 

I didn't know that I could be in computer science working from Dubai and making loads of money. I'd like to see some sort of policy that says no more Blue Inc or Clarks, all those sorts of places for work experience. Let's get work experience that exposes us to the real world.

Core 

DEI teams cementing their status as a core business unit is something that Marjorie Palanee would like to see. The current Creator Growth Lead at Pinterest, and soon to be Founder in Residence at Zinc, found it frustrating when the post-COVID layoffs arrived and the first people that were hit were D&I teams. She added:

There was nothing that really protected those teams. What does that mean - that now it doesn't matter anymore? I’d love to see policy on making sure that they truly invest in D&I, and what that looks like. Also, if there's an economic crisis, it’s still at the core of what they do.

Any policy-making around DEI must involve diverse voices - not making it the responsibility of just one person, which happens in many organizations, according to Catherine Park, Community & Events Lead at Colorintech. She explained:

Policy-making needs more of a focus on focus groups, to poll ideas and to poll what we want to do, before making that change worldwide that might affect a lot of people

The DEI policy Park would like to see introduced is around training, with organizations having a mindset of properly investing in employees from under-represented groups. Park noted:

The amount of times - and start-ups are guilty of this as well as corporations - that people get given budgets for learning and development, but don’t know how to use them or don't feel confident to use them. For people who want to accelerate in their career and want to get to higher up positions, there should be more emphasis on, this is what you need to achieve, these are the skills you want to learn, let's support you on these learning and development courses.

This also requires managers to be trained on how they can help their staff acquire the necessary skills to accelerate their development; and making sure they budget time into employee workloads so people feel empowered to complete their training. 

The best way to facilitate change for underrepresented groups and get these kinds of policies in place is by breaking the walls down and getting into positions of power. While at his current level, Maloney isn’t at the point where he can hire a team, he added:

When I do get there, I can make sure I'm making the change. And it's up to me to make sure I get there so I can make the change and be the change I want to see. Because there's only so much you can tell your leadership teams to do.

Data

In the meantime, data is vital to push through change, especially within large organizations. Whenever Maloney has had the opportunity to talk about DEI-related changes at LinkedIn or his previous employer eBay, he questioned whether it can be measured. Nothing's going to change in a tech organization without data and measurement, he notes, so any change you’re trying to drive needs to be done in a measurable way. Maloney added:

Sometimes you hear, you can't measure X or you can't measure Y, but you can, they'll figure out a way. It might be, we need to hire 20 diverse people this year, but there's not 20 diverse people with the right qualifications. That means we need to go and educate the people that we want to see. 

There's always a way forward, and if we use data and measure it, we give leadership teams a more difficult problem and they have to come and say to you, listen, we just don't care enough. Which some won't and some don't. But as long as we do things rooted in data, we allow ourselves to be a catalyst for change because we give them less reason to say no. Or if they do say no, it has to be a very straight up, honest, no.

When it comes to pushing for meaningful change around DEI strategy and numbers, people from underrepresented groups already working in tech are important as role models. However, that doesn’t mean it should be their responsibility to lead or facilitate DEI policy. Maloney noted: 

Whenever I talk about this, I like to make it clear that it's not necessarily our job. When we join a company, we are not getting paid to be a diversity consultant, we're getting paid to do our job. Lots of us are going to have the inclination anyway to want to help, but it's important to tell leadership they should pay someone to take them through a proper process to do this properly. There are companies that exist, run by underrepresented, diverse people to do this job. If you really want change, like most things in this world, it has a cost.”

Park concluded with some useful advice for all organizations serious about their DEI strategies: when we get things wrong, listen and understand and do better. But also understand that individuals are more than just their race, gender, sexuality and/or disability. She added:

Just because you have diverse talent, it doesn't mean you have to showcase them every October for Black History Month. What diversity is, is having a panel generally on AI and having a good diverse panel. It is understanding that people are multifaceted in that subject and they're more than just their diversity characteristics.

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