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November 19, 2020updated 31 Mar 2023 4:43pm

Beyond diversity training: how to improve black representation in tech

The Black Lives Matter movement prompted calls for meaningful action on racial equality. Employers need to rethink their approaches.

By Laurie Clarke

The numbers on black representation in the tech sector are dire. But the statistics alone offer little guidance on how to address the structural racism and inequalities that exclude black technology talent from opportunities in the industry.

The need for deeper reflection on race in the technology sector became urgently apparent this year. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that resurged this summer following the killing of George Floyd by police in the US demanded that employers make renewed and meaningful commitments to equality. 

black representation tech

The Black Lives Matter has demanded that employers make renewed and meaningful commitments to equality. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Some companies mishandled the moment. At least 60 staff members resigned from cryptocurrency firm Coinbase in October after CEO Brian Armstrong announced plans to implement an “apolitical” workplace – meaning one where issues of race would not be discussed or addressed. The announcement was the culmination of an ongoing struggle between staff and senior management, that began when Armstrong refused to say “Black Lives Matter” in a company-wide meeting. 

Others embraced the movement, but in many cases this sparked charges of hypocrisy. Organisations such as Pinterest and Facebook have been challenged over claims of racism by employees.

Instead of ignoring the BLM movement or making shallow commitments to appease public anger, employers – including those who recruit technology roles – should reflect on how well their own diversity initiatives are working and whose interests they serve. If the statistics tell us anything, it is that current approaches aren’t working.

Does diversity training work?

In the US, companies spend more than $8bn on diversity training every year. Much of this training focuses on raising awareness of diversity issues and eliminating unconscious bias. This has failed to deliver substantive results, however, and the BLM movement has catalysed demands for more meaningful approaches.

The change this year, in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, is that people are looking for action which changes the lived experience,” says Nelarine Cornelius, professor of organisation studies at Queen Mary University of London. “Training for the sake of it is of no longer any interest to black, Asian, minority ethnic staff or students.”

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This fresh impetus for action is colliding with how many employers currently approach diversity training – primarily as a tick-box exercise, Cornelius says. Typical motivators for a company’s investment in diversity training are legal concerns – to cover themselves if claims of discrimination are raised – and optics, over a true commitment to racial equality. 

This is compounded by the relative poverty of the diversity training field. Much of the industry is stuck in stasis, focusing on unconscious bias training or racial awareness training that hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years, Cornelius argues. Evidence shows that this kind of old-school training is mostly ineffective, and at worst damaging.

So what can employers do that makes a real difference? Research suggests that many of the most effective interventions on racial equality aren’t ‘diversity’ measures, but ones designed to benefit all staff.

For example, implementing simple yet transformative policies such as paying employees a living wage can advantage BAME staff members, who are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-earning bracket, more. Pay transparency is another tried and tested policy which has been shown to boost the earnings of women and people of colour, and bring their pay in line with white male peers doing the same job. 

Removing the necessity to disclose criminal convictions in the application process can also level the playing field, suggests senior lecturer at Harvard Business School Mark Kramer, because black people, and black men, in particular, are disproportionately targeted by police and more likely be convicted for minor charges than are white people. 

Unpacking unconscious bias

But what about the diversity cornerstone, unconscious bias training? A 2016 meta-analysis of nearly 500 studies on this type of intervention found that while it could temporarily and slightly reduce implicit biases, it didn’t significantly change people’s behaviour or attitudes in the long run.

In some cases, these types of interventions even reduced diversity, and employees reported feeling more animosity towards other groups afterwards. Sociologists Frank Dobbin at Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev at Tel Aviv University have found that by making diversity initiatives mandatory, employees were likely to become resistant.

“As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy,” the authors wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.”

Instead, they advise that employers stop approaching diversity in the manner of command and control. This flies in the face of the advice circling at present, with many in the diversity field recommending that employers make diversity training mandatory, as a condition of continued employment. If any employees behave in ways that can be viewed to break conduct rules, some are urging immediate sacking. But while the cause may be progressive, creating a punitive environment where employees are compelled to think or behave in a certain manner for fear of losing their job, is likely to be counterproductive.

“It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability – the desire to look fair-minded,” write Dobbin and Kalev. Some of the interventions they found to actually boost diversity in companies include “targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and [diversity] task forces”.     

Ultimately, working together as equals towards a common goal is the best facilitator for interracial relations at work. It is perhaps for this reason, that a new study in the American Journal of Political Science finds that union membership made white workers more likely to support policies designed to benefit black Americans.

Self-managed teams, where groups work in a horizontal rather than hierarchical structure, is another example of how this effect can work in practice. This chimes with new research by social scientist Rutger Bregman, who posits that hierarchical workforce structures are predicated on incorrect assumptions that staff won’t work well autonomously, and are inherently lazy or ‘bad’. He advocates freeing up the rigidity of organisational structures to maximise productivity and improve staff relations. 

Anti-racism training

These findings are at odds with the rapidly ascendant field of ‘anti-racist’ workplace training. Corporate diversity trainers such as Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling book White Fragility, are pioneering a new form of training predicated on the idea that the best way of tackling racism or bias at work is making white people aware of their implicit racism and complicity in a white supremacist system. (DiAngelo herself is white.) 

However, this strain of diversity training has attracted criticism for its ideological rigidity, its demand for white participants to experience shame and repentance, and its worldview. “Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in his book on anti-racism, which is often touted by diversity trainers as a must-read. 

“I think it’s a big ask – that everyone else should think and feel in a certain way. Even if it is the objective right way of thinking,” says Louisa Weinstein, founder and director of The Conflict Resolution Centre, which provides mediation, training and conflict resolution to companies. Weinstein advocates creating the space and means to have productive, nuanced conversations, rather than opting for training that feels didactic. “Often our arguments aren’t even formulated around many of these issues, so we keep it simple, we keep it binary, and we keep it focused on ‘how can I blame and shame you’?” she says. 

Most importantly, says Cornelius, diversity training must be accompanied by management policies that meaningfully promote inclusion. “Just doing the training in the absence of any change in management policy, or governance policy, or HR policy, is polishing the rails on the Titanic really,” she says. “What people are looking for now, among people of colour, is an agenda for change, of which training as a part – not training in the absence of an agenda for change.” 

It is tempting for companies to opt for the “listening and learning” approach, and putting the onus on individual staff members to introspect. But research indicates what truly drives racial equality is material changes – if companies want to pay more than lip service, they should make them. Cornelius says that while training is important, “management accountability, executive accountability and transparency of the situation that people of colour find themselves in in organisations is more important.”

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