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Tech’s attempts to diversify are failing. Here’s what to do instead

While tech leaders publicly committed to diversity in 2020, their top-down approach is stunting true progress.

Tech’s attempts to diversify are failing. Here’s what to do instead
[Source images: reinobjektiv/iStock; DragonTiger/iStock]

While tech companies have pledged to do better with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), many of these commitments have yet to translate to tangible change—and in some cases, we seem to be moving backwards.

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As 2020’s protests for racial justice heightened the spotlight on tech’s continued diversity problem, we saw tech leaders respond with public statements and commitments to increase diversity in their workforces. However, little progress has been made to meet the goals they’ve publicly committed to and diversity numbers are still dismal. Even more troubling, we continue to see reports of continuing discrimination and censorship in tech workplaces. In the last few months alone, several prominent Black women have been pushed out of tech companies in hugely public ways: The prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru was forced out of Google in December, and earlier in 2020 Aerica Shimizu Banks and Ifeoma Ozoma went public with allegations of discrimination at Pinterest.

These stories speak louder than any press release or platitude could.

It’s long past time to acknowledge that current approaches to diversity simply aren’t working. We can’t continue to hide behind “diversity is so important, but I want the best”—it is not “but”; it is “and.” We can have both, but top-down DEI initiatives alone will not get the job done or get us past the status quo of “big talk, incremental action.” Without fundamental change and a ground-up approach to increasing diversity in tech, marginalized communities will only face further setbacks and see progress backslide and the tech industry will miss out on the innovation that’s only possible with diverse teams.

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Here are three areas tech leaders must focus on to reshape diversity efforts and make tangible progress.

1. Create early career pipelines in underrepresented and underserved communities

Despite the misconception that diverse tech talent is simply too hard to find, the reality is that there are more than enough diverse candidates available and eager to fill these roles. The issue is that tech companies are failing to actively engage diverse communities when hiring for tech talent.

Historically, tech hiring managers tend to focus on candidates from an exclusive shortlist of colleges and universities. While there have been some attempts in the past from big tech companies to extend their pipelines and diversify through partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), these efforts appear to have been deprioritized rather than supported as drivers of systemic change. For example, one diversity recruiter at Google recently shared that before she joined, the company had not “hired a single HBCU student into a tech role.” In her tenure at Google, she was able to bring in more than 300 Black and Brown students from HBCUs—however, she says that her work was cut short because she was fired. That leaves a lingering question: Is diversity truly a priority for big tech when it comes to broadening the recruiting pool?

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But the conversation should not be limited to hiring from a more diverse range of colleges and universities. Tech companies must intervene earlier in students’ education rather than getting involved only during higher ed, in order to create a foundation for enduring, diverse talent pipelines. Specifically, tech organizations need to build opportunity pipelines that reach further back than they typically tend to—even starting to engage with students in high school to fuel internship and trainee programs—and they need to look a bit off the beaten path when creating those connections.

I know this is possible. I’ve seen it firsthand from running internships and training programs aimed at high school and college students outside of feeder schools or tech hubs. In 2017, when I was working for an AI startup and first discussed the idea of taking on high school students as machine learning interns, the idea was met with some reservation. There were worries around skills, how much time it would take to train them, and if these young students could make any impact. Yet, that summer, these high school students were so successful in not only in helping my company meet its R&D goals, but also in creating a wonderful environment of learning, teaching, and growth—so much so, that high school students became a regular fixture of the company every summer.

In the summer of 2020, I ran a fully virtual AI training program comprised of 52 students from four different countries—including 50% high school students, and over 50% women—representing many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The company had one of its most impactful trainee programs to date. The students helped advance R&D goals by building prototypes of new AI applications that were on the company’s multi-year roadmap, as well as prototyping solutions for entirely new use cases that emerged in response to the global pandemic.

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There are several organizations, like AI4All and Girls Who Code, who are doing amazing work in this regard. But we need the partnership of tech companies to take the next step in opening doors to these young people through internships and paid work.

2. Focus on retention, not just recruitment

To create a diverse team, getting diverse talent through the door is just one piece of the puzzle. Retention is the other. You need to intentionally and actively create an environment of success. That starts with mentorship.

Research has shown that having a mentor helps improve an organization’s diversity and improve individuals’ pathways to success. However, mentoring will only be effective if it is designed to be more than just a transactional relationship. The intention of mentoring needs to be purposeful and goal-oriented, so that true value can be derived not only for the mentee, but also for the mentor and the organization at large.

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It’s important to lay out these goals at the onset of any mentor relationship: What role does the mentee hope to take on within their organization in the next year, and how can their mentor help them map out and meet the necessary steps to get there? On the flip side, what organizational goals does the mentor have in their role, that the mentee can help support? Without purpose and a clear connection to each individual’s (and organization’s) goals, mentors and their mentees will not feel bought into the relationship, and the dynamic will not have its desired impact.

The key is to match young people who want to take the next step with people who have just walked that step. This concept is called “proximate mentoring”: showing someone that their goals can be attained through personal examples provided by a mentor with similar lived experiences, and only a step or two further along in their career journey. This is especially powerful when you have diverse mentors, who can demonstrate that success is possible even if you come from an underrepresented background.

It’s not only a matter of mentorship, though. Accountability is also an important part of retention, specifically when it comes to holding people responsible when their actions or words contribute to a toxic work environment for minority team members. There have been troubling reports out of companies like Pinterest and Coinbase, where former employees have reported that managers and coworkers freely made racist remarks and mistreated them without repercussions, creating a toxic environment that pushes people away rather than bringing them in. These employees need to be held accountable every time that one of these instances comes up, without fail. If not, the result is a culture of exclusion and discomfort that will prevent team members from sharing ideas, feeling heard, and ultimately staying at the company. That culture of exclusion and toxicity then becomes part of your company’s reputation, making it more unlikely that diverse workers will even want to join your team in the first place.

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3. Build DEI strategies that transcend all levels and roles

We all have seen top-down DEI initiatives regularly fail; often because individual employees don’t understand how to incorporate big diversity goals into their day-to-day decision-making, or don’t see a clear connection between their organization’s DEI goals and their own role. Decades worth of data suggests that companies must engage decision-makers at all levels in solving the problem, ensuring that diverse talent is not siloed within an organization, but built into the fabric of a team at all levels. That’s key to broadening everyone’s view of what an engineer or technologist “looks like.”

Again, mentorship can be a vehicle for creating these connections between diverse young talent and individual decision-makers across an organization. Through mentoring and advising, up-and-coming leaders in an organization can not only further the education and careers of underrepresented minorities in tech, but also advance their own leadership skills and help meet the R&D goals within their company by tapping mentees for additional support.

Bringing these diverse voices directly into an employee’s day-to-day work makes the process of improving diversity more organic and shows everyone throughout the organization the direct benefit of having colleagues from different backgrounds as part of their teams. This will have a long-term positive impact on employees’ daily decision-making and on their company’s diversity and innovation goals. It’s a win-win strategy that benefits both individuals and the organization as a whole.

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Improving diversity in tech isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s crucial for business

If we want to build a future where technology is inclusive and built with everyone in mind, we need a workforce that is inclusive, diverse, and representative of the market that a tech company hopes to reach. Only diverse teams can problem-solve and provide ideas for new tech products and solutions that may not occur to someone who fits the normative mold.

This is especially true when it comes to the potential for tech to address challenges that occur in marginalized communities. A white man living in Silicon Valley, despite his best intentions, cannot fully understand the challenges that a Black woman faces, and as a result, the technology he builds might fail to work for communities outside of his own.

Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce is not just ethically the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing for businesses to do. Want to build innovative products, expand market share, and avoid leaving potential dollars on the table? Make room at the table. Embrace diversity.

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Taniya Mishra, PhD, is an AI scientist and the founder and CEO of SureStart.

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