This is a joint effort from leaders at AI4ALL, AnitaB.org, Break Through Tech, CodePath.org, CSforALL, digitalundivided, Last Mile Education Fund, National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), and Reboot Representation.
Let’s acknowledge what we already know: the world doesn’t look like it did a few months ago. Tech companies and teams, computer science departments, and tech-adjacent institutions are creating and implementing untested processes in real time. The combined effects of COVID-19 and national protests against systemic racial inequality have underscored the importance of creating support in our workplaces. As a coalition of advocacy organizations with a holistic understanding of racial and gender equity in tech, we’ve come together to pool our thoughts on how tech leaders can actionably prioritize inclusion now and into the future.
Underrepresentation in the tech sector exists and is well documented. These underrepresented groups tend to be the same ones who are more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. These two realities need to be top of mind as tech industry leaders formulate processes with far-reaching implications. How we as an industry respond to and support under-resourced and underestimated groups is more important now than ever. In the midst of upheaval in 2020, decision makers have an opportunity to build equity and inclusion into the root of all processes moving forward, rather than letting it be an add-on.
Below, we’ve pooled our thoughts on what we’re seeing, and, since words fall flat without actions, we’ve offered some concrete strategies that leaders can adopt.
We’re all in this together, but it’s not the same for everyone. As Brad McClain and Catherine Ashcraft from NCWIT wrote in a recent blog post, “it is increasingly true that ‘we’ are experiencing this pandemic in many different and often hidden ways.” Women, and especially women of color, typically face more at-home burdens (like childcare or elder care) than men. Further, labor market discrimination means that women and underrepresented people of color are less likely to hold managerial roles, which tend to be more insulated from layoffs and job loss.
What you can do:
- Acknowledge that burdens will fall on different communities in different ways. Intersectional awareness is the first step; action is the next.
- Consider instituting flexible working hours (or attendance requirements or deadlines). Flexible policies are important strategies to retain valued employees in the best of times and are especially important now. Take it one step further by making sure that no informal stigmas prevent people from using these policies.
- Invest more resources in paid leave policies, which significantly support women (and particularly women of color).
- Rethink the necessity of meetings, which can limit flexibility for those with heavy burdens at home. Could a scheduled meeting be an email
- Reimagine what a successful employee or student looks like. A person with no family and no dependents should be neither the only nor the preferred model for success. Neither should a person with a partner who is a dedicated family caretaker.
- Take a circumspect approach to any layoff decisions. Consider re-deploying talent to elsewhere in the company if cuts need to be made to roles that tend to be female-dominated.
If you can’t be face-to-face, be virtual with intentionality. In universities and offices alike, seeking out in-person advice from higher-ups and professors can give many a leg up. Moving to a digital format doesn’t remove barriers for these types of interactions, it adds them. “It’s important to recognize that the move to online environments can accelerate risk and vulnerability — especially for populations marginalized by race, gender expression, sexual orientation, or anyone who may not have been able to bring as much of their full selves to work in the past,” says Catherine Ashcraft, Director of Research at NCWIT. “Many are suddenly finding themselves in this reality where their homes and private lives are more on display.” Professors and managers have the opportunity to approach digital meetings with intentionality by leveling the playing field for all students and employees.
What you can do:
- Proactively schedule advisory meetings with students and employees instead of waiting for them to come to you.
- Proactively seek out guides for transitioning to online learning or remote working, like AI4ALL’s guide for educators transitioning to an online learning environment. Support teachers and direct reports with these tools; they need targeted professional development, facilitation tools, and support from others to reach the higher bar for effectiveness that’s set in virtual classrooms.
- Don’t assume that your tried-and-true techniques will work in a virtual environment. Consider adopting new and different tools to engage learners or meeting attendees.
- Don’t assume that everyone has equal access to the necessary resources for an equitable virtual experience (e.g. reliable broadband connectivity, safe or distraction-free workspaces, and hardware). If your organization is able to provide those resources, work one-on-one to do so.
- Review this checklist of tips and resources for remote internships from Reboot Representation to make these virtual opportunities impactful, productive, and meaningful.
Ratchet up your emotional intelligence. More than ever, leaders need to tap into empathic thinking and communication to truly check in on people to inform workloads and expectations. In the school setting, academic development must be weighed alongside emotional and psychological development — teaching effectively means teaching the whole student. As AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Darden Wilkerson has discussed in the organization’s Elevating Conversations webinar series, regardless of the setting “Leading with humanity and vulnerability can be uncomfortable, but it is the key to offering deep, empathetic support for those we lead and serve.”
What you can do:
- Go beyond “How’s it going?” when you’re checking in. Ask specific questions, like “How are your kids?” or “How can I support you?” or institute a check-in question.
- Be human in meetings by making space for kids, pets, or personal projects. Alternatively, openly address the calendar adjustments you’re making to take on home duties and personal care. Setting the example can go a long way.
- Personally check-in with direct reports and open a conversation about particular needs during this time. Many people, especially those who have overcome obstacles to get where they are, are inclined to take on a task even if they are struggling to stay afloat.
- Teachers and administrators must be prepared to support the whole student by offering empathy, mental health support, and help dealing with non-academic needs (i.e. financial challenges).
Don’t divest from higher education pathways. Summer internships are strongly tied to a student’s ability to land a job when they graduate. : “Summer internships are a critical resume builder that level the playing field for low-income and underrepresented students, but COVID-19 has upended a number of these opportunities,” says Judith Spitz, Founder and Executive Director of Break Through Tech. “We need to support a generation of students that are about to enter the workforce, especially women and underrepresented groups that are disproportionately left out of the recruiting pipeline.” Internship cancellations could have lasting effects for entire classes of underrepresented students.
What you can do:
- Create robust paid learning opportunities or remote internships. A number of tech advocacy organizations came together earlier this year to sign an open letter addressing internship commitment. “Many students from low-income households are often the breadwinners of their families,” says Michael Ellison, founder and CEO of CodePath.org, which reports a 25% internship cancellation rate from their students. “As an industry, we cannot afford to let a generation of underrepresented engineers slip through the cracks.”
- Consider reimagining your internship program to focus specifically on bringing in students from underrepresented populations. Many ‘typical’ tech hires have studied at pedigree institutions, have strong personal and professional networks to leverage, and could receive a post-graduation offer whether they completed a summer internship or not. ‘Atypical’ hires are those who are very unlikely to land a tech job without a summer internship. Reorienting your internship program with an intentional strategy to bring them in ensures a pipeline with robust representation.
- Invest in alternative models of support that are specific to your network and your focus area. “In response to reports of cancelled tech internships, we are moving to employ 5–10% of our alumni community through summer teaching assistantships,” says Tess Posner, CEO of AI4ALL. “We’ve also created an income replacement initiative for our summer program students, offering students grants of $1,000+ to offset some of the burdens associated with investing in their education. Though we are launching initiatives like these during COVID-19, equity needs to be considered first and foremost, now and beyond the pandemic.”
- Large, diverse, public universities are underfunded gateways to a more representative workforce and society. As a recent New Yorker article notes, “[t]he coronavirus has seeded a much-needed conversation about building a more equal society. It’s time for a similar conversation about the academy.” For companies that care about a diverse pipeline, now is the time to make investments in and establish partnerships with these institutions.
Invest more institutional resources into diversity & inclusion. “Many companies have philanthropic resources at their disposal, and now is the time to double down on investments in equity,” says Dwana Franklin-Davis, CEO of Reboot Representation. At the executive level, tech leaders can make decisions that financially empower the communities that are suffering most at the hands of this pandemic. A recent post by digitalundivided indicates that Black & Latinx communities are experiencing widespread economic fatalities. Black and Latinx Americans are also more susceptible to layoffs, and for those who own small businesses to supplement their household income, federal loan programs have systematically ignored their needs during this pandemic.
What you can do:
- Don’t cut resources in your Diversity & Inclusion departments. Instead, consider bolstering initiatives that increase underrepresented minorities in your workforce.
- Increase the number of minority-owned small businesses and contractors you partner with as vendors. Just one contract could be the difference between the life and death of a small business.
- Consider investing more financial resources into coaching and mental health initiatives for women and people of color employees, who are suffering substantial mental health and emotional stressors during this time.
The events of 2020 have globally impacted our day-to-day lives, and, as a result, our actions have been necessarily reactive. Reactive steps are short-term fixes; the long-term fight for equity requires a more deliberate and proactive approach. Even more critical is the need to work collectively towards an industry that has inclusion at its core.
Many of the strategies outlined above are just as applicable in “normal” times as they are now. As processes get reexamined and rewritten, the tech industry has an opportunity to prioritize equity and inclusion from the roots up. Let’s move beyond lip service and towards action.