After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 (and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor before that) and the summer of protests the followed in the midst of a global pandemic, tech companies realized the mental and emotional fatigue of their Black employees and suddenly scrambled to make loud and boisterous statements in support of Black Lives Matter. They made a big show of donating loads of money to social justice efforts and quickly ramped up (and publicized) their efforts to increase diversity in their ranks, while making pledges to support Black businesses with grants, greater internal hiring and promotions, using Black businesses as suppliers, and donating to Black nonprofits. With all that has happened since then—the election, COVID-19 surges, the January 6 attacks, Biden’s inauguration, Donald Trump’s second impeachment, the vaccine rollout, etc.—it’s hard to know whether their “woke” commitment to diversity will truly inspire action or fade once public attention wanes. It’s been a year, and the proof is in the pudding—and we haven’t seen much pudding.
The problem is twofold. First, during the pandemic, a lot of these tech companies that made pledges also laid off people of color (POC) on their staff. In fact, many of the companies that made pledges, ended up having fewer POC in their ranks by the time they were publicly committing themselves to diversity. And many of those staffing cuts came from so-called support positions in key functions like diversity and marketing. It’s doubtful that those diverse employees, who are typically the last hired and first fired, will get their jobs back. In fact, according to a report by merit-based recruiting platform Blendoor, the companies that made statements of support and pledges last year had 20% fewer Black employees on average than those that didn’t.
The second issue is more complex. According to the Blendoor report, there were 159 companies, which have a total cash value of $4.56 billion, that made 535 diversity pledges last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent summer of protests. Those pledges included hiring, philanthropy, supplier diversity, and Black-founder funding. However, we have seen no reporting of how the money was spent, or what businesses and founders or organizations it went to. There has been no accounting at all. Furthermore, and what may arguably be the larger problem with these pledges, many of these companies’ promises were going to be “self-audited” for responsibility and effectiveness. That isn’t a fair practice to ensure that the money is going to the right place . . . if it even gets there at all.
What we really need to see from these companies are outside auditors. The idea of self-auditing and reporting is as ridiculous as telling your child they are in trouble, and then allowing them to pick their method of punishment. True accountability needs external monitoring to guarantee that true metrics are reported, and not fudged or that only the metrics that put a company in a good light are reported.
Additionally, have any of these companies pledged support for legislation? Older non-tech companies in Georgia have used their influence to pressure their state for more equitable voting practices, and to lobby to stop their state from enacting voter suppression laws. Tech companies have been absent from that conversation entirely. Pledges and promises are fine, but actually using “tech for good” would mean putting dollars behind legislation that will align with their pledges. To that end, allocating some of the funds donated to lobby for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 would go a long way to demonstrate action, and not just talk. While the bill has not passed in time for the anniversary of his murder, as President Biden desired, tech companies’ lobbying for its passage may help to guarantee it won’t languish in the Senate. This is also a visible way to show not just employees, but everyone, that you put your money where your mouth is, and don’t just espouse support for social justice, but actively work towards it. It is also a demonstration to your world-weary Black employees that you care about their well-being, which will, in turn, make them more productive.
You can’t say that you support and appreciate Black employees while hardly having any, not promoting the ones that you have, and then making statements for good PR. Black people, and their causes, aren’t mascots to be used for promotion and potential business, we are people who have had to work while homeschooling, and who have suffered higher rates of COVID-19, all while enduring a summer of protests amid injustice. So, think about those things the next time your coworker doesn’t want to discuss Netflix, but instead wants to discuss where the company’s money for pledges was disbursed in their name. There is more to displaying support for Black lives than statements and empty promises.
Bärí A. Williams is COO at BandWagonFanClub, Inc. and a DEI consultant in tech. She previously served as head of business operations, North America for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook and created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.