Blog:Beyond the Usual, Passive DEI Efforts in Tech

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Manny Becerra as a child

December 2020

2020. Just saying that number—associated with this specific period of time in human existence—brings a flurry of various memories of impactful events at the personal, local, national and global levels. One of these flurries that I'd like to briefly touch on today is tech, specifically, the prevalence of inequities, discrimination, and blatant racism in the tech industry, which have existed long before 2020 and are, unfortunately, still being perpetuated.

Note: while I'm focusing on the tech industry in this post, the mentioned issues exist in cross-sectors, like academia and non-profits.

We have DEI (or D&I) initiatives, what's the problem?

There's a lot of talk about companies embracing DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion)—or D&I, even DIB—in response to addressing inequities in society that carry over to most any workplace, so why is there still a big problem such as the recent injustices experienced by Dr. Timnit Gebru from and by Google and their head of Google AI (Research and Health), Jeff Dean?

The notion that Google/Alphabet has the potential to be a democratizing force is certainly laudable, but the contradictions inherent in its projects must be contextualized in the historical conditions that both create and are created by it. — Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

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Answers to DEI issues can often be reached by taking an intersectional approach and digging into the nuances of issues, such as: why, how, and who creates DEI initiatives at a company. For instance:

  • Who's responsible for DEI?
  • What's the actual diversity composition of your DEI program?
  • What does inclusion mean and elevate? For example, are dominant groups potentially leading DEI initiatives centering their norms in which marginalized communities are included in, or are they actually open to others' cultures and beliefs, and elevating those in the workplace?
  • Is leadership, including C-suite folks, held accountable to DEI outcomes, and are they being brutally honest about what accountability even looks like?

Therein alone is a lot to unpack and worth an honest conversation.

We have so much work to do. The gatekeeping starts early, and it lasts throughout our careers. What happened to @timnitGebru this month is clear evidence of this. — Novall Swift

Consequently, getting started with addressing root problems of inequities at the workplace may seem overwhelming, however:

  1. It's worth the effort, especially if your company is sincere about addressing inequities, and
  2. Getting started shouldn't seem like an impossible task as people (in power) usually make it out to be. I'm not surprised though, after all—and from personal experience and observation—we live in a society based on a capitalist model that thrives on problems: often creating problems where usually there aren't any to begin with, or, even sustaining existing problems for the sole purposes of profiting off of people's suffering, typically marginalized peoples' pain and hardship.

With that in mind, what's likely the more difficult thing for folks to do—particularly people from the homogenous, white power structure—is being honest with themselves about any given unjust situation(s), and how their position, privilege, ego and comfort (or sensitivity) willingly keep things from changing for the better at work and in their communities, which, consequently, impedes tangible, corrective action (justice) from taking place.

I was on adrenaline until now and hadn't really processed everything. What I'm thinking today is that if this is happening to me, with an incredibly supportive team+manager (who is also a director) & a lot of visibility, what are they doing to other Black women? — Timnit Gebru

Related:

Beyond empathy: lead with compassion

So, your company had the honest conversation about DEI outcomes, accountability and all that jazz: we're good, right? Not necessarily. What you write down and acknowledge isn't the whole answer, although it's a good start; it's your actions (over time) that matter.

Like most anyone, and from my experience, we—marginalized folks—are people: we want to contribute, we want to grow and learn, and we want to be a part of teams that see and treat us as full, equal human beings; we're fully capable of the work at all-levels in tech, including leadership positions, just like everyone else (specifically those those that gatekeep opportunities to minorities). So, if your team and company simply focus on hiring, but doesn't include people of color and other marginalized folks in promotional opportunities (at all-levels), you're missing the point; and, worse, you're a part of the problem. Same thing if you're not diversifying your recruitment funnel.

Another way of taking this in: don't gatekeep opportunities and don't just empathize with your coworkers—center, elevate and support people with compassion.

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Empathy validates another’s emotion by our understanding and feeling. It’s why you see people self-flagellating at protests and hurting themselves to “feel” the pain. It’s performative and self-centring. And awkward AF. You’ve made a protest about Black lives about white guilt. — Tatiana Mac

But, we're progressives

It's also worth stating that it doesn't matter if someone is a so-called, self-identifying progressive, and it doesn't matter how much salad dressing (or DEI initiative talk) you and your company throw at the inequities in the workplace, again, nothing will change (for the better) if folks aren't willing to change their behavior, practices, and treatment toward others (of marginalized communities).

DEI initiatives will only go so far, usually short of true justice, if your program is based on inaction or actions that are solely based on empathy and lack compassion.

For starters, institutions need to expand their outreach beyond well-worn pipelines that perpetuate exclusionary hiring, to institutions and professional organizations of color that many of them habitually overlook. — Pamela Newkirk

For instance, let's say your company empathizes with the inequities in hiring practices in the tech industry so your team hires someone from a marginalized community, unfortunately, your team only sought candidates that graduated from an Ivy League institution; further, your workplace culture neglects to create a psychological safety net for such individuals to share their opinions, experiences, and to be heard on any given day. This is problematic, especially when a traumatic injustice occurs on-the-job with someone else and this new hire. If you and your company allow this... you're missing the point.

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People don't exist for meeting surface-level DEI Q1 goals—we simply don't. Personally, I don't just want a job out of empathy where I may experience (continued) trauma, like what I already, likely experienced in the wider-community outside of work.

So, in 2021—better yet, today and everyday—take action to remove barriers-of-entry by meeting people where they're at, don't overlook retention efforts, speak up against injustices when and if they occur toward your colleagues, and listen and trust others' experiences.

We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Dr. Timnit Gebru, who was terminated from her position as Staff Research Scientist and Co-Lead of Ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) team at Google, following unprecedented research censorship. — Standing with Dr. Timnit Gebru — #ISupportTimnit #BelieveBlackWomen

People of inspiration

Beyond my own lived experiences, I continue to (un)learn myself on ways to be a better coworker and overall person, and some of the people in the tech scene that inspire me that I recommend folks to consider following as well—and is definitely not limited to—are:

Related:

Good reads:


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Manny Becerra as a child

I operate from a place of compassion, possibility and imagination. My work and efforts share a common goal: create a better, sustainable and equitable world by building inclusive communities, products & experiences.