February marks the time of year when tech companies and other organizations prioritize efforts to engage Black people to speak as part of their diversity and inclusion efforts. Some of the topics are thought provoking — like strategies to disrupt our country’s legacy of systemic racism. In other cases, the topic doesn’t matter — just as long as something’s on the Black History Month calendar and speakers show up.
Centering Blackness in February is nice. But what if tech companies used Black History Month to conduct annual performance reviews that examine their role in both disrupting and perpetuating racial injustice? Now, if your organization has a performative diversity agenda, this idea probably won’t land well. But companies that don’t want their fingerprints on racial injustice have a real opportunity to change their legacy.
Race-based laws and policies aimed to exploit, oppress, and marginalize BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) communities have weaved racial injustice into the fabric of our country. Companies can either reinforce this system with policies and practices that lead to racial disparities, or they can take active steps to dismantle it — both in the workplace and in society at large (if you’re struggling to understand how race-based laws and policies contribute to racial disparities today, the Ta-Nehisi Coates article listed at the end can help).
Acknowledging Racial Disparities in the Workplace
Ignoring racial disparities in the workplace doesn’t mean they aren’t real. If you’re unsure if disparities are an issue at your company, take a look at your workforce data.
In your company, are Black talent:
___Underrepresented in the workforce?
___Underrepresented in leadership positions?
___Underrepresented on promotions lists?
___Overrepresented in lower level positions?
___Underpaid when compared to coworkers with similar responsibilities?
___Expected to work on diversity initiatives while others get to focus on their job functions?
A “yes” to any one of these questions is cause for suspicion. Two or more are grounds for concern. Three…well, it’s probably time to roll up your sleeves and get to work if your company isn’t actively trying to establish a legacy of disadvantaging Black folks.
Addressing Racial Disparities in Tech Companies
In 2018, Dr. Allison Scott and the research team at the Kapor Center released The Leaky Tech Pipeline to explain how BIPOC talent are often disadvantaged in or excluded from the tech workforce. This is a great resource to use as a starting point to examine how your own practices impact the Black tech workforce and Black communities more broadly.
When considering recruiting practices, does your organization:
___ Sponsor pipeline internship programs with a low representation of Black talent?
___ Recruit from universities with a low enrollment of Black students?
___Prioritize candidates from universities with a low enrollment rate of Black students over skills needed to perform a job?
___Utilize tools that build race-based bias into the resume review process?___Rely on social networks in which Black talent are underrepresented for candidate referrals?
When considering workplace practices, does your organization:
___Charge the PR team with publicizing your inclusion strategy without expecting C-suite leaders to act on it?
___Fail to hold managers accountable if they lead with racial bias (whether conscious or unconscious)?
___Permit racial stereotypes to guide how staff assess Black coworkers?___Neglect to conduct salary audits to ensure pay equity for Black talent?___Overlook opportunities for Black talent to access mentors and sponsors?___Extend fewer stretch assignments to Black talent?
___Reward Black talent at a lower rate (promotions, salary, bonuses)?___Separate Black talent at a higher rate (layoffs, furloughs, firing)?___Engage Black talent as contract workers at a higher rate than white workers?
Tech Companies Perpetuating Racial Disparities in Society
Allowing practices that lead to racial disparities within your company doesn’t just negatively impact Black talent. It can also contribute to the cycle of systemic racism in the broader community. Consider the footprint that your company is leaving on society and how it impacts Black communities.
Do products or services offered through your company:
___Reinforce negative stereotypes about Black people?
___Contribute to voter suppression of Black communities?
___Withhold advertisements for housing, employment, and other opportunities from Black users?
___Offer loans to Black borrowers at a higher interest rate than others with a similar financial history?
___Lead to a higher rate of wrongful arrests for Black people?
___Hold space for white supremacists to convene and plot?
___Serve as a vehicle for race-based hate speech against Black people?
___Rely on a business model that displaces Black workers and concentrates them in low wage jobs?
Making Black History Month Meaningful
Many companies limit Black History Month initiatives to recognizing contributions that Black people make to society. But in reality, these efforts don’t mean much if companies actively disadvantage Black employees or the broader Black community. The questions I’ve posed can’t replace an in depth audit of your company’s policies and practices. They can, however, serve as a starting point as you consider how your organization may be contributing to racial injustice.
You have a great opportunity to make Black History Month meaningful by using this time every year to review your company’s performance in dismantling or contributing to a system that has disadvantaged Black communities. What will be your Black History Month legacy?
I’ve included these resources for readers interested in the scholarship and history that inspired this piece. It is not intended to replace Black History Month reading lists.
The Leaky Tech Pipeline Website and Report explains how BIPOC talent are often disadvantaged in or excluded from the tech workforce.
The Black Tech Workforce research brief and infographic highlights data on Black representation, identifies key barriers facing Black talent across the tech ecosystem, and provides a set of recommendations to drive systemic change.
The Case for Reparations (available in print and audio version) by Ta-Nehisi Coates offers an overview of how race-based laws and policies have disadvantaged Black people. Note: I include this article because it helps readers understand systemic racism. I am not linking racial disparities in the workplace and society to reparations.