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DEI in Tech: Some Progress, but Far Short of the Mark

Mitch Wagner Writer
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Burton Kelso has owned and operated Integral, a Kansas City computer consultancy specializing in repairs for home-based and small businesses, for 29 years. Customers love him. He appears as a computer expert on live streams, podcasts, and local and international TV. Yet he still faces racial prejudice at work.

"They say if you fight for your rights, you’ll get them," the Black entrepreneur said. "I’m living proof that doesn’t happen."

Over the course of his career, starting at big-box retailers in the 1990s, Kelso has been overlooked for opportunitiesseeing work go to white men, simply because those men look more like what people think a technology professional should look like.

Kelso attributes the problem to unconscious bias. Nobody comes out and says it explicitly. Indeed, his company gets five-star reviews from customers. But he knows the prejudice is there.

"I see progress, but some assembly is still required," said Michael Dortch, a senior marketing strategist for Trustero, which helps companies manage compliance with SOC-2, a voluntary standard for protecting customer data.

"I still go to gatherings where I don’t see very many people that look like me attending the conference," said Dortch, who is Black—most of the Black people he sees at these conferences work for the hotel or conference center. Fellow conference attendees assume that Dortch works for the hotel or conference facility as well. They routinely ask him for directions or to hail cabs.

Dortch remembers one event several years ago at which he rode a long escalator down to the main meeting area. "I looked down and there’s literally hundreds of white guys in dark suits. Just hundreds of them. You occasionally saw a brown person. You occasionally saw a woman," Dortch said. "The demographics don’t seem to have shifted much today—especially in the upper echelons."

Statistics and studies bear Kelso and Dortch out. Throughout the technology industry, despite years of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, white men are still overrepresented in all positions.

By the Numbers

Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted an analysis of recent US census data (20172019) and found that Black and Hispanic workers were underrepresented in STEM jobs compared to all jobs in general. Whereas the data showed that Blacks make up 11% of the US workforce and Hispanics 17%, Blacks comprise only 9% and Hispanics only 8% of the STEM-specific workforce in the United States.

The same data shows overrepresentation by whites and Asians, with whites holding 67% and Asians 13% of STEM jobs versus, respectively, 63% and 6% of all jobs.

Other data suggests that the numbers are more skewed for senior roles. In a recent study by Built In, a tech-career community, "a staggering 73 percent of companies reported having zero Black or African-American executives."

In its same analysis, Pew also found that men hold far more tech jobs than do women; in particular, men hold 75% of "computer occupations" and 85% of engineering jobs. Moreover, in its 2021 Impact Report on Wage Inequality in the Workplace, Hired found that women in tech were offered 2.5% lower pay than men were for the same roles.

Bias Is More Subtle Now

Marianne Bellotti, an engineering manager at Rebellion Defense, which does data management for the defense industry, said bias has gotten more subtle over her 15-year career. Women are denied incentives and opportunities, passed over for promotion, and less likely to be invited to meetings.

In one recent instance, she had to bring a male colleague to meetings with government stakeholders to talk with CIOs and CTOs because she knew she’d be completely ignored. She’d make a point, a male colleague would repeat what she said, and he’d be told he was brilliant.

“There are definitely situations that pop up where I am the only woman in the room,” Bellotti said.

"Companies have come far enough along that they know they at least have to pay lip service to diversity," said tech-marketing professional Peggy Liao. "They haven’t come far enough that they are fully walking the walk and talking the talk."

Liao added, "I want to give credit to how far we’ve come in the last decade or two. But we’re not there yet."

Why Should Companies Care About Diversity?

Hiring diverse teams isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s good for business.

“There’s a lot of research that says diverse teams are better," said Bellotti. "They make better decisions. They’re happier. They’re more productive. They’re more profitable."

In 2020, a McKinsey study reported much of the same.

"Our 2019 analysis finds that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than peer companies in the fourth quartile," reads the report. "This is up from 21 percent in 2017 and 15 percent in 2014."

Similarly, companies ranking high for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed more homogeneous businesses. According to the study, "companies in the top quartile [of ethnic and cultural diversity] outperformed those in the fourth by 36 percent in terms of profitability."

A diverse workforce also helps build employee loyalty, reducing turnover and its associated costs. In the Built In study, 67% of employees said they'd be more inclined to stay in their current role if their employer improved DEI efforts. Job seekers said they value employers' efforts to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces; 58% said DEI initiatives are very important when considering a job opportunity.

An emphasis on DEI can contribute to successful hiring initiatives, too. In a recent report, technical-interview firm Karat found that "top performing engineering leaders"—managers and above who were "very satisfied with the job performance of their company’s software engineering hires AND very confident their company will meet their US software engineer hiring target for 2022"—were twice as likely as other engineering leaders to strongly agree that DEI is a hiring priority. They were also more than three times as likely as their peers to strongly agree that they have the resources needed to make increasing diversity on their teams a reality.

"Yet despite this differentiation, only 48% of leaders consider DEI a strategic priority," reads the report, "creating a massive opportunity for the leaders who get it right."

Diverse recruitment pools are bigger, helping companies find candidates in jobs where it’s tough to find staffcybersecurity, for example. As of a year ago, there were a reported 500,000 open cybersecurity positions in the United States alone.

Still, underrepresentation persists. A recent Aspen Institute analysis of survey data from 2016 and 2018 collected by (ISC)2 found the following:

  • 9% of the cybersecurity workforce self-identifies as Black, compared to 13% of the US population
  • 4% of the cybersecurity workforce self-identifies as Hispanic, compared to 19% of the US population
  • Women comprise 51% of the US population, but only 24% of the cybersecurity workforce

Other IT fields, too, face recruitment challenges.

"This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away anytime soon." Dortch said. "And that means you need to seed as many fields out there as possible to grow the talent you’re going to need in the future. The traditional fields are just not sufficient to meet the need anymore."

"It’s hard to recruit young grads to work in some sectors of the tech sector—for example, the mainframe," said Derek Britton, director of communications and brand strategy for Micro Focus.

Companies should consider recruiting from different colleges and nontraditional environments, such as historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs). They can also make those fields more appealing by having members of underrepresented groups recruit their peers.

"Instead of having late-career, stuffy old white guys coming up with graduate recruitment programs, why not actually use the graduates to devise the graduate recruitment programs?" said Britton. "Those people are on the staff already. They’re just not necessarily in the right positions in the company to act as influencers."

Britton added, "It’s so obvious; it’s almost embarrassing to explain the story, but you would be astonished at how much these very obvious ideas are overlooked organizationally."

And diversity helps grow business. Business-to-business requests for proposals (RFPs) require suppliers to present evidence of diversity initiatives, said Britton.

Diversity Helps Businesses Solve Problems

"Diversity gives you strength," Kelso said. "When you have the ability to pull from a large variety of resources—personalities, skill sets, and economic and social backgrounds—it just makes your company stronger, because you’re able to solve problems from a variety of different sources."

Misty Decker, director of worldwide AMC product marketing for Micro Focus, cited an example she is personally familiar with. A big retailer was having a problem with intermittent system outages, which continued for months. Finally, a woman looked at the problem and saw the pattern quickly: Outages coincided with days when coupons were available. The woman who solved the problem was responsible for shopping for her family.

However, noted Decker, not any woman would have been able to solve the problem. Decker said she herself would not have seen the pattern, because she doesn't do the shopping for her family.

Diversity can also help make artificial intelligence (AI) more effective and fair, Bellotti said. People in the privileged majority think the world is fair and reasonable. As such, computer scientists from privileged groups will build corresponding bias into AI.

"They have great conversations with people in their community. They can go up to the manager of a store with a problem or complaint and get good, genuine engagement with them," said Bellotti. "They have a different experience with how the world works than other people, in marginalized groups, do."

Bellotti added, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people that sound the alarm about ethical AI are women and people of color. When you have these experiences, when your interaction with the world is that it’s not fair and not meritocratic, you look for problems in different places than other people do.”

Training AI models on all-white faces reduces the accuracy of facial recognition, leading to its being banned by many police departments. And AI in recruitment systems can reinforce racial bias in hiring. AI systems are trained to look for candidates who resemble previously successful employees; if your existing employee base is racially biased, then the AI will reinforce that.

In many cases, the solution is to put human beings in charge of the machine, Bellotti said. That solution can run counter to human nature.

"Human beings are hyper-aware of things like blame and shame," said Bellotti, "and if you put them in a position where they can just completely outsource their decision-making process to a machine and then blame the machine later if it turns out to be wrong, they will do that."

"Diversity of inputs creates diversity of outputs," Dortch said. "As long as all your technology inputs are coming from interchangeable middle-aged white guys, the outputs are never going to fairly reflect the diversity of the society those outputs purport to serve."


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