New Diversity & Inclusion alliance takes shape, but where is 'Big Tech'?

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 31, 2021
Intel, Dell, Nasdaq, NTT Data and Snap have all got together to create a new Alliance for Global Inclusion in the sector. But where is ‘Big Tech?

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While the tech industry’s new Alliance for Global Inclusion  has been broadly welcomed by Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) experts, concerns have been raised over the absence of what Goldman Sachs has termed the ‘FAAMG’ elite.

The founder members of the Alliance consist of Intel, whose idea it was in the first place, Dell, Nasdaq, NTT Data and Snap Inc. The aim of the organization is to come up with a series of D&I goals, metrics and guidelines in a bid to measure, track and accelerate the adoption of inclusive business practices across the tech industry.

Chief Diversity Officers from each company will set strategy and evaluate whether members have met the prescribed metrics, while working groups made up of their employees will work on four key D&I pillars: Leadership representation; inclusive language; inclusive product development and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) readiness in underserved communities.

An Index will also be produced twice a year for benchmarking purposes based on a baseline set before the Alliance was launched. Some 13 global companies in the tech and adjacent energy and industrial sectors initially contributed to the survey, but the majority, it seems, failed to sign up to the organization itself. Even more noticeable is the absence of ‘big tech’ participants in the shape of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google.

Toby Mildon, D&I Architect and Founder of consultancy and advisory business Mildon, says:

I was disappointed none of the major players were involved, and it raises questions over whether the organisation has enough clout. It’s also a shame the companies that took part in the Index aren’t putting their name behind it. Brands usually sign up to an Index to make a public commitment, so for example, with the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, they list all the companies that did the work.

Part of the reason for organizations getting involved is that they’re ranked and benchmarked against other companies, which means it’s about transparency. And it always concerns me when there’s a lack of transparency in D&I - in my experience, it’s usually about organisational politics, so companies don’t want to paint a negative picture of themselves.

But Dawn Jones, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Vice President of Social Impact at Intel, points out that what with the “pandemic and social unrest”, it has been a busy time for D&I professionals:

Many companies have robust programs that they’re already facilitating and they’re often not well staffed, so they have to make trade-offs. This means they have their own personal reasons why they couldn’t commit, but we’re hopeful they’ll reconsider once they have enough support. Lots of companies are interested, and I’d say the ‘big tech’ companies are interested too – they’re just in a different space from a commitment point of view. But it’s not because they don’t believe in the body of work. Their reasons for not joining was based on things they already had going on, but our doors are open and we’ll continue to welcome partners.

Taking D&I to the next level

As to why Intel started down this route in the first place, meanwhile, this was due to an initiative it had introduced to “push the work we were doing in D&I to the next level”:

When we were doing the analysis, we recognised the tech industry had spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five to seven years and, while there were individual successes, they were all based on different approaches and standards. So we thought, ‘What would it be like if we connected with others to accelerate the situation both for individual companies and the wider industry? What would it be like if we standardized what we’re doing so that when we report metrics, everyone’s speaking the same language? And how could we share information and best practice with each other to ensure we provide opportunities for people to grow and thrive, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or military status?'.

The four key areas of focus outlined above were chosen as “right now they’re the ones we believed would make the largest impact if we all collaborated”, says Terri Hatcher, NTT Data’s Chief D&I Officer.

In terms of leadership representation, the aim is to provide documented guidance, supported by data, on the ideal make-up of company boards and senior leadership teams in order to reflect employers’ customer, employee and wider community base. As Hatcher points out:

This will be a big part of how we move any initiatives forward as it will let constituents know leaders are committed.

Recommended percentages relating to minority representation at the top will also be included in the Alliance’s Index. The aim of this Index, which will be distributed in an open source format to make data easier to share, is to help interested parties learn about members’ current D&I practice and identify opportunities to improve outcomes.

Put another way, the Index will present the most and least successful D&I practices of those taking part in the survey, variations in those practices based on region, the breakdown of their workforces based on gender, race, ethnicity and intersectionality, and any insights resulting from comparisons with past Indexes. Jones says:

It’s about starting to introduce some standardization about what board representation looks like in the industry. But it’s also about how we come together and agree on how to educate boards on the importance of this.

Working through the pillars

The second pillar consists of using inclusive language when developing products and writing documentation. The goal here is to create guidelines and set standards for all member companies to follow, which will in turn be submitted to standards bodies to help them reach beyond the realm of the tech sector. Educational institutions will also be encouraged to use the guidance in activities, such as teaching coding to students.

The third category, meanwhile, consists of reducing bias and discrimination when developing artificial intelligence (AI)-based products. Hatcher explains:

The idea is to collaborate with each other and develop the narrative on bias because there could be some pretty negative results if we don’t address it now. All customers looking at AI solutions need to think about where their data’s coming from and how it was selected because if there’s bias in there, it will come out. So we want to focus on mitigating that bias and embedding D&I considerations into the activities of anyone providing those solutions.

The aim behind the final pillar, STEM readiness in underserved communities, is to not only increase technology access for young people, but also to partner with third party organizations to create a series of “wraparound services”, which include everything from food to healthcare. As Jones points out:

It’s not just about bringing a tech solution. There are so many issues that schools and students are battling with, so we need to understand their needs and co-create solutions for the community. But it’s also a unique opportunity to collectively take a look at some of the legislation that’s going on in Washington DC around access and equipment because some urban areas haven’t had the access and tools to learn since the pandemic. But this situation isn’t just going on in the US – it’s a global one.

Filling possible holes

Nonetheless, Mildon does seem some potential holes in the plan. For example, for Indexes to be credible, he believes they must, like Stonewall’s, “have some substance behind them” and be evidence-based. He explains:

Producing evidence is quite labour-intensive so it can put people off, but the flipside of that is that it leads to accountability. If you’re not prepared to put the work in and be held to account, it’s just market research. Organizations should also be assessed externally too. Although it’s much easier to have people do it themselves, it’s like taking yourself out for a driving test – you’re bound to pass yourself, which is why external verification is important.

Another vital but apparently unexplored issue, believes Trevor Hough, an executive coach and organisational development consultant who has just co-authored the book ‘What lies beneath: How organizations really work’, relates to culture. He says:

There’s a prevalent view that we can shift and change culture by measuring it, but that’s like weighing a pig to make it fat – it’s not enough. What’s important is how we change perceptions, whether we’re talking about young children in primary schools or senior business leaders. If leaders are responsible for, and drive, cultural shifts, we need to get them in the room to talk about this, but all too often culture is delegated to the HR team. Guidelines tell leaders what they need to do and the quotas they need to fill, but it doesn’t include them in the conversation - and that’s when resistance builds up.

As a result, although he believes the Alliance could have a useful part to play in keeping track of what is happening D&I-wise in the tech sector, he is unsure whether it is positioned to generate transformative change:

Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People like to think of organizational culture like an orchid in a bell jar, but it’s more like the sea – the more you try to grab it, the more it slips through your fingers. So changing the sea is difficult and it takes a long time, which means that, while the Alliance is a great idea, it needs to be very clear about the part it wants to play in the process.

My take

As with any new outfit, it will take time for the Alliance to build momentum, but getting ‘Big Tech’ on board would appear to be an important starting point.


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