Say it louder for the people at the top: tackling racism in the tech industry

Zone’s Midhusa Mohan looks at how the tech industry can bring about meaningful, systemic change that goes beyond sending out a supportive tweet…

“We are committed to fighting injustice” ~ [Brand]

A few years ago, this statement would have been retweeted, liked and forgotten about.

Now, however, people meme it. And they comment. The most common comment?

How?

How is your brand committed to fighting injustice? How will your brand be committed to fighting injustice once it’s no longer a #trend?

People have already seen large businesses’ responses to one pandemic as millions were donated worldwide to coronavirus efforts. Now they want to see their responses to the persistent pandemic: racism.

Race is already tied to the coronavirus conversation as ethnic minorities are two to three times more likely than the general population to die from the virus. This, alongside the protests catalysed by the killing of George Floyd last month, are harrowing reminders that there haven’t been significant systemic changes.

The top tech companies were quick to donate to causes supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But while donations are welcome and appreciated, customers are expecting them to be supported by other actions.

So, what can OUR industry do?

  1. Have active conversations

More companies need to acknowledge the impact of traumatic public events on the mental health of their workforce. Studies on non-self-relevant events and their effects on employees have shown that such events cause conflict between employees’ social and corporate identities. Employers who react to these events with compassion and active commitments are more likely to assure their minority employees that they are part of an inclusive and supportive environment. The lack of an authentic response, on the other hand, will further perpetuate these employees’ feelings of being marginalised.

When I asked some friends in tech and other industries how their companies responded to Floyd’s death, the most frequent response was: ‘An email got sent out.’

‘And?’

I’m fortunate enough to work for a company where the response isn’t just sending out an email and moving on. At Zone there are many Slack channels, from #beauty to #WomenOfZone, to turn to when in need of a safe place to start difficult discussions. Being part of Cognizant has also allowed me to join internal networks such as the African American Latinx Group (AALG), which in the last week demonstrated a good way to have an active conversation: by starting it. The AALG council sent out an open message about how it’s OK to not be OK during these times and asked what things we wanted to see the business doing to help the wider situation.

There’s still a long way to go in the industry in using these discussions to bring about meaningful change and companies shouldn’t rely on their people management and diversity groups alone to handle them. From junior to manager to board-level, a company-wide conversation needs to be opened up.

2) Cultivate and promote black talent

Better quality job opportunities have to reach black people. A recent report from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Carnegie UK Trust and Operation Black Vote found that “millennials from BAME backgrounds were 58% more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts” and “are particularly likely to enter into precarious forms of work”. Being Sri Lankan and growing up in Hillingdon, where 49.5% of residents are from black and ethnic minority groups, I can testify to this. I’ve seen, and am still seeing, many close family members and BAME friends in the area take up any temporary work they can find, particularly in factories.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon Zone on Indeed but most people from Hillingdon, and other neighbouring areas, simply don’t know about these opportunities. It’s not that they can’t do the jobs; it’s often that they don’t know that they’re needed for those jobs. Tech firms can help with this by proactively searching for talent from black and ethnic minority groups by advertising jobs on platforms specifically aimed at these groups.

Once these groups are aware of these opportunities, they need to believe they have a shot at getting them. One of the ways to help build this belief is by having more black employees at the top levels.

An open letter signed by Zone, in association with Campaign Magazine and Creative Equals, pushes for exactly this. One of the 10 commitments and calls for action in the letter is to “represent at every level and most importantly, on your leadership team: welcome, promote, champion, and celebrate black employees”. Don’t just support black excellence in a tweet: develop and promote it within your organisation.

3) Tech leaders to use the industry’s reach and resources to influence policy

One of the main challenges with eliminating racism is that no one person is responsible for it. This means it has to be a collective effort and, given the tech industry’s resources and reach, our leaders need to take some of the responsibility.

Despite TikTokkers saying “open your purse”, donating money isn’t the same as taking responsibility. Open your resources too. Last year, the four biggest tech companies spent $52.2 million on lobbying, namely against privacy, competition and contract laws. Some of these firms even have specific roles to focus on influencing policy. Now imagine this level of spending and skill being used to change laws which discriminate against black and ethnic minority groups. Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Microsoft have all used resources in the past to lobby against anti-immigration policies so this isn’t a new request. As an industry that pervades most people’s everyday lives, our tech leaders need to recognise that there’s more to be done in this area and use their resources to influence real systemic change.

4) Development and redevelopment of ‘progressive products’

Existing tech is by no means perfect. Take artificial intelligence (AI), for instance. Problems with AI, and particularly with facial recognition software to be used by law enforcers, have been called out countless times. The algorithms this tech relies on has been shown to unfairly discriminate based on gender and race as diverse data sets aren’t being used. Reports point to how under-representation of different races in these data sets will “feed forward into the use of the technology by human operators”. It provides yet more room for marginalised groups to be further discriminated against by tech which is meant to be objective.

The Coded Gaze

The main issues being called out aren’t to do with the actual tech itself but the data that goes into it. Human biases go into the tech and it’s these biases which need to be checked and rechecked. If you’re a developer, ask yourself if the data set you’re using is racially diverse. Is it more likely to identify lighter faces as opposed to darker ones? If you’re a UX researcher, ask more questions about the non-user experience. Don’t just look at your client’s end-user but also who the tech is going to be used on.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an issue that’ll fix itself overnight but as an industry with resources and reach, we need to help. Whether it’s opening up a discussion or actively supporting black talent, say it where and when it matters. The corporate chorus needs to keep singing when this is no longer a #trend so the people at the top can hear it loud and clear.

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