Why the Keys to IT Diversity May Be Hiding in Plain Sight

Company leaders, middle managers can unlock the door to more diverse hires

By Mark Feffer Oct 25, 2016
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​When Facebook and Google began publishing their workforce demographics in 2014, their reports showed that the clear majority of technical professionals were white and male.

Today, not much has changed.

Overall, just 9 percent of IT professionals are black or Hispanic, according to the companies that have signed the Tech Inclusion Pledge, an effort to improve the industry's diversity. Meanwhile, the National Center for Women & Information Technology states that only 25 percent of the technology workforce is female.

Many executives say the imbalance is exacerbated by a lack of diversity within the IT talent pool. The industry, with an unemployment rate of just 3 percent in September, according to the IT job board Dice, confronts a labor force that's too small to begin with. Some companies have said that too few minorities and women currently have the training needed for software development or network engineering jobs, so these numbers are unlikely to change anytime soon. Their solution: Recruit more students into computer science and engineering programs so the tech workforce becomes more balanced in the future.

But many diversity specialists don't agree with this assessment. "Research shows that most tech companies are not exhausting the available talent that already exists," said Tyi McCray, a partner at Paradigm, a San Francisco company that works with technology firms to reach diversity goals. In particular, black and Hispanic students "are graduating with computer science degrees at far higher rates than tech companies are hiring them," McCray said.

"While we can always work to increase the pipeline … we haven't experienced the pipeline problem per se," said Danielle Brown, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, calling Intel's pipeline "quite strong" in terms of diversity. (The company's midyear diversity report shows that 43.4 percent of its 2016 hires have been either women or underrepresented minorities.)

Still, Brown noted, "Making a change this significant does not happen overnight. It's complex and requires resources and steadfast, long-term commitment from the entire company."

Different Thinking, Different Results

While building a more inclusive culture is a part of that commitment, so is thinking differently about recruiting and retention. For example, Peggy Hazard, a New York City-based associate client partner at Korn Ferry, suggested that many of the recruiting tactics tech companies traditionally use may not align with their diversity goals. "Think about technology's image of the Silicon Valley 'brogrammer': young, white and male," she said. "The image of that culture is less appealing to, say, women."

Part of the solution, Hazard believes, is reframing the way jobs are presented. Talking less about technology and more about a role's impact on helping people will be more likely to get the attention of women, for example. Beyond that, she said, companies should "focus more on whether people are heard. You have to proactively include them. You have to focus on their retention. Candidates talk to each other and they'll find out fast if they'll feel included and valued."

Of course, senior leadership's commitment is key to increasing an organization's diversity. What's less often discussed is the importance of the midlevel ranks, both managers and individual contributors. "The midlevel is where it tips," said Hazard. 

For one thing, middle managers are the people who have to put diversity policies into practice. As an example, "Tech companies are fairly aggressive in how [their people] work together," Hazard observed. "Extroverts with sharp elbows thrive. Introverts or people who are quiet for cultural reasons get hurt. So the team leader has to make sure that everyone is heard."

In addition, managers have to "disrupt" the unconscious bias most people bring to their jobs. Software and just being aware can do that.

What's HR's Role?

If improving diversity is a companywide effort, led by executives and largely implemented by middle managers, what's HR's role?

Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer of the German software giant SAP, summed it up this way: "We need to ensure that business leaders make the right decisions." Two keys to that, she said, are being able to speak the business's language and helping employees and managers alike face down unconscious bias.

Wittenberg advises HR departments to put a new generation of technical tools in place that can scan job postings for gender bias, for example. Intel's Brown recommends "clearly communicating goals and assessing key data on an ongoing basis." Data analysis, she said, will identify trends and weaknesses that need to be addressed and will also allow management to recognize what's working and "replicate best practices."

"HR is an enabler and consultant to the line," Hazard said. "So a really good CHRO [chief human resources officer] will help the CEO figure out the strategy, then HR will work with the line to make sure things get done." However, she emphasized that policies don't get traction if management doesn't follow through. "Leadership has to hold them accountable. HR has to help them succeed." 

Mark Feffer is a Philadelphia-area writer who focuses on HR, workforce issues and technology.


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