‘Tech Can Do Better’: An Industry-Wide Wake-Up Call
by Lawrence Humphrey, RM Harrison and Moses Harris for Tech Can Do Better
The public execution of George Floyd by police and massive health disparities amidst a global pandemic are two seemingly isolated catastrophes. Together, however, these two caustic events have shattered the mask of naivete that has long shielded American discourse and exposed an ugly visage underneath: racism. The cry for social justice has hit the mainstream and, for many, returning to the status quo is no longer a viable option.
Companies arriving at the same conclusion have been responding with well-meaning pledges of solidarity. While these proclamations are better late than never for many Black employees, they simultaneously feel too little and too late. Maybe this will be the beginning of true equity, but words without actions, after so many years of inaction, ring hollow.
So what can companies do to prove they’re serious?
Symptoms of a Systemic Problem
That was the question that we and a few colleagues raised some weeks back while video-chatting—a new custom in our COVID-restricted realities. We discovered that we had a shared concern about our company’s well-intended, albeit piecemeal, approach.
We saw the same lackluster responses from the majority of employers in our industry—responses that looked like a copy/paste template. They felt more political than personal at a time when the very basic human need of safety was (and still is) at stake. While we wanted to be proud about the solidarity we were finally seeing, we knew that the realities of life inside these companies told a different story.
After all, we’ve observed, in our collective experiences, the scarcity of employees who look like us in the hallways. We’ve seen the sidelining of talented Black people once they do gain access. We’ve dealt with the microaggressions and biases from many of our non-Black colleagues, who don’t perceive our demeanors as cultural equals, but rather as a threat, unprofessional, or “other-ized.”
So it came as no surprise when we pored over the data and saw an eerily similar reflection there: the headcount of Black employees in tech roles hovers around 3–8% overall—and less than 1% in leadership positions. And this number has actually gone down in recent years, according to the Equal Opportunity Commission. Referrals drive a large portion of hires due to their tendency to provide pre-vetted skilled employees; a report by Payscale shows that 70% of these successful referrals are White, likely due to a tendency of most people to recommend those close to them. On top of that, we saw pay gaps between Black and White employees actually increase. According to Hired.com’s 2019 State of Salaries report, the racial wage gap jumped from 4% in 2018 to 8% in 2019.
Getting to Work
With a clear view of the current landscape, we wondered if we could use those data points to come up with a better response—one that would be centered on tactical solutions, rather than just promises to “do better.” We started a draft of our ideas, but quickly realized our group only reflected a modicum of the industry’s employee base. In order to fully represent the spectrum of issues that we wanted companies to address, we needed to reach out to other Black folks and allies, both within our organization and across the industry.
So we hit up our respective social media connections to get their input and recommendations on our draft. The response was overwhelming.
Within a matter of days, we had a working document, titled “Tech Can [Do] Better,” which lays out a set of actionable solutions as a proposal for how organizations can effectively address the racial injustices plaguing our workplaces and society. The document offers facts and figures of current industry practices, along with concrete examples of how our suggestions can be implemented. While it could never include every Black and Brown voice in the tech industry, we consider this document to be the best starting place for expedited adoption on the path of sustainable change.
Alongside the document, we also set up Instagram and Twitter profiles to drive more visibility. Once we saw our followership multiply from 50 to over 600 (to now more than 1,600)—within the span of weeks—we knew we were onto something.
Our core group has evolved into a whole community of volunteer contributors—many of whom are highlighted on our Instagram account—across some of the largest tech companies in the country. They’re helping to refine the document and get the word out, and are committed to advocating for and implementing the change we’re all seeking. By existing outside of any one company, we’re able to amplify the demands and needs that often go unheard within corporate silos.
Beyond Diversity: Racial Equity in Tech
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. To begin to address the systemic roots of racial injustice, companies must go beyond decorative LinkedIn logo marks, “unconscious bias” training, and symbolic, under-resourced diversity and inclusion executive positions. Racial equity has to become a primary business objective of equal importance with revenue, performance, productivity, customer satisfaction and employee retention.
We need tangible, measurable policy changes aimed at tackling the racial disparities that are proven in the data—and that we, as Black and Brown employees, experience daily. Specifically, we’re asking for changes in three key areas:
Equitable hiring, promotions and compensation. We must work to address the abysmal numbers above regarding racial diversity and pay in the tech workforce. The recommendations in our proposal address how companies can close these gaps, as well as how they can more effectively promote our professional growth.
Investing in social equity. Companies invest in what matters to them. Our suggestions offer practical ways they can put their money where their mouths are, both to infuse their support into projects that uplift the Black community and divest from those that worsen social injustices.
Advocating for equitable legislation. We know that tech, as a dominant force in American society, has agenda-setting power. We propose socially responsible ways for companies to leverage their political connections to push for legislative reform.
These improvements will have a significant impact not only on current employees, but on future employees and the community at large. We take a deeper dive into each in our proposal.
Naturally, we don’t expect all this to happen overnight. But if companies are serious about “standing with us,” they’ll need to not only adopt these practices, but also be accountable for them. In other words, we want to see the measures they’re putting in place to implement these changes. This should take the form of public workforce data, and transparent donation and investment reports, released on a regular basis, to encourage progress and expose stagnation.
Will these efforts solve all the problems that exist today? Certainly not. But they will go a long way toward gaining our trust in their proclamations of solidarity.
Seeing Change in Real Time
How do we know what we’re asking is possible? Because we’re witnessing companies that are already ahead of the curve.
For example, while conducting research for our proposal, we learned that Google has been releasing a comprehensive diversity report of their equitable hiring practices, including workforce and leadership data by race and gender, and intersectional representation. We also read about Alexis Ohanian’s decision to step down from the Reddit board, requesting his seat be filled by a Black person. Reddit did indeed honor his request, and brought on Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel.
As far as social equity investing practices go, we’ve read about IBM, Microsoft and Amazon’s (temporary) divestment from facial recognition technology. We also discovered that BlackRock, a fintech investment management firm, has committed to increasing its partnerships with minority business enterprises and is developing products focused on racial equity and social justice.
While every organization may not yet fully recognize the social and economic imperative of racially equitable practices, stakeholders are (finally) holding them to a higher standard. We want TC[D]B to be the playbook for their efforts to enact permanent, systemic change.
Speaking of permanence, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the limitations of this initiative.
Despite the strength of our growing community, there are still doors in our respective workplaces that aren’t fully accessible to us. That’s why one of our immediate goals is to win buy-in for our proposal from executives and senior leaders within our organizations. It’s their influence that will get this document into the hands of decision-makers. And, in many cases, they’ll be the ones leading the charge toward creating a more just and equitable system.
Advancing this initiative also relies, in large part, on continued allyship from our White counterparts at every level: junior, managerial and executive leadership. Each of us has a different context, different skill set and different levers to pull within our respective organizations. To that end, our allies have an essential role to play, which requires the willingness to push through feelings of discomfort to call out unfair treatment of other employees in the name of fighting for a bigger cause.
Driven By Optimism
It gives us hope to know there are many companies and leaders—and even more allies—in this space, who are already doing this work. It’s also promising to hear the pledges for more people to do better. Still, the “pledges” we’ve seen are lacking at best. But as we understand from other landmark periods in civil rights, change on a national scale doesn’t happen at the point of proclamation, but in the weeks, months and years that follow.
We also know the power of technology. The drive toward innovation has led to giant leaps in human development. From the invention of the computer, onward to the age of the internet, digital technology has advanced our understanding of human interaction and the natural world. It’s consistently used to both share information and understand our global communities. If we can harness this power to connect continents, we damn sure can use it to deconstruct the systems that bolster and sustain inequities in the workplace.
As employees in this space, we’ve applied many of the same qualities that we’ve learned and admired—ingenuity, initiative and fearless drive when solving hard problems—to tackle an existential societal crisis.
Now that we’ve provided the framework, we implore our companies to take meaningful action today. To delay is literally life or death.