In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police brutality on May 25th 2020, organizations have been waking up and recognizing the racism that has been baked into their processes & how their white employees have benefitted from these over their Black employees. The Black Lives Matter movement globally has been pushing for society to understand the systemic racism that Black people have faced for years, to understand how Black communities have been consistently disadvantaged and to do more around creating a more fair and equitable environment for everyone to thrive. Protests have erupted globally on almost every continent and in the United States, an estimated 15 million to 26 million people participated in the protests.
To create a more equitable society, as non-Black people, our role is to listen, learn, reevaluate and be proactive about change. Let’s think about this in terms of technology companies. Technology is intertwined with almost everything we do. How we buy our shopping, how we get onto trains, how we consume news, how we plan our days and everything in between. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that if racism isn’t challenged – and your organization isn’t actively anti-racist – then the unconscious or conscious racism of the employees creating your solutions will be coded and baked right in.
What is happening right now?
We know that there is a very serious lack of Black representation in leadership. As of late 2020, only 11 of the Big Four’s U.K. 3000 partners are Black. Among Fortune 500 companies, less than 1% of CEOs are Black. In 2020, there are only 4, down from a high of 6 in 2012. In 20 years, this has only included one Black woman – Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016. Pay disparity is also poignant – for every dollar a white man earns, Black women earn $0.62.
When we take a step back from a leadership lens and look at a broader societal lens, we can see clear inequalities in how Black people are treated. In 2020, young Black men were stopped and searched by police more than 20,000 times in London during the coronavirus lockdown – the equivalent of more than a quarter of all Black 15 to 24 year olds. More than 80% these searches resulted in no further action. In the U.S., the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 31 fatal shootings per million of the population as of July 2020, according to Statista.
How does this affect technology?
Racism does not wave goodbye, stand to the side of your office doorway, politely letting people pass through whilst waiting for its owner to come back out at 5pm at the end of the workday. Racism is embedded into our thinking, our working and our living and if it is not challenged, then it continues to exist and permeate into all that we do.
In the creation of technology, if we do not challenge ourselves, then we create systems which do not work for these communities. In 2019, a facial detection programme, used by the U.K. Government rejected a Black man’s passport photo because it confused his lips from an open mouth and did not recognise a Black woman’s photo, again stating her mouth was open and her eyes were closed. You also may remember the AI solution rolled out by Google that categorised Black people as “gorillas”, and its answer to this was to simply remove the word “gorillas” instead of reworking the AI. Just this week, we’ve seen how the grading system rolled out across England has directly affected pupils across different economic backgrounds. Pupils in lower socioeconomic backgrounds were most likely to have proposed grades overruled and downgraded, however downgrades in wealthier areas were less likely. Consider the ethnicity lens on this too, considering Black, Asian and minority ethnic pupils are represented higher in these poorer areas. This is yet another system that hasn’t considered the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.
There are examples of this happening where this has been unconscious. However, let’s remember that intention and impact are two very different things. Regardless of whether your intention was deliberately malicious, if the impact has been hurt and negativity towards a person or community, then this needs to be addressed. Focusing and centering the perpetrator over the victim is not an option here.
Dealing with racism in an organization
One thing that I’ve noticed is the rise of people sharing racist rhetoric and/or saying “All Lives Matter” in response to people saying “Black Lives Matter”. When I click through their bio and see a tech-related role (such as software engineer, product engineer, tester, designer, etc), I feel worried. I feel this way because these are the people that make the applications and solutions we all use, meaning their racism & bias goes right into whatever they create.
What is your organization doing to stop that happening?
Yes, we need more diverse teams. But we must actively challenge what we’re doing already. Hiring more diverse groups of people will not create an anti-racist workplace – there is work to do to ensure this is baked in.
Here are six ways to embed anti-racism into your tech company.
Acknowledging there is a problem
According to a recent survey, most white HR professionals do not believe racial discrimination exists at their workplace, but nearly half of Black HR professionals disagree. If you do not acknowledge there is a problem, how can you deal with it? We must be very honest with ourselves, understanding and listening to Black people’s experience and recognizing that non-Black experiences are different. Please also remember that we are talking about Black communities, not a singular Black community. Black people are not a monolith.
Use your brand for impact
Most organizations have the ability to reach many different groups in society. Use this power for good and make clear your stance on racism and what anti-racism work in your organization looks like. This means putting your money where your mouth is. Is there a likelihood that some people will revolt or decide they no longer want to buy your product? Yes. However, what is more important here? Losing out on some customers vs speaking out for groups that need your allyship?
Consider the impact global ice-cream company Ben and Jerry’s have had through their activism and continous signposting of petitions, articles and more.
Education & awareness
Do not make the assumption that all people in your organization have the same baseline understanding of what diversity, inclusion, equity and anti-racism is, even if they identify with being under-represented in some way. Training and evolving education must be provided (as mandatory) on these issues to create a common, baseline understanding of what we are dealing with. This must cover history, sharing likely uncomfortable reasons as to why we are now in this inequitable society and how these events have so greatly benefitted some whilst disadvantaging others. This cannot be a one-off piece. This being mandatory is key – otherwise, you miss the people that really need to be educated.
Psychologically safe grievance process
A grievance process must work for all involved, creating a safe, transparent and clean-cut way for people to raise issues and have them investigated accordingly. There should be face-to-face and anonymous ways for employees to do this. There must be appropriate training and selection on who hears grievances and decides outcomes – this cannot be determined simply by someone’s level.
Analysis should also be done to understand the demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, etc) of this pool to unearth any affinity bias. You should also analyse the overall percentages of cases with actionable vs non-actionable conclusions and then place an additional lens on this to understand the rate of actionable vs non-actionable conclusions when the issue is dealing with an ethnicity-related grievance. Be clear on the repercussions of being racist in work and how this will not be tolerated. There must be clear consequences of action.
Your People Partners/HR Business Partners/Mental Health First Aiders must be adequately trained to deal with the nuance of ethnicity-related grievances and issues, especially if they are white. If the majority of your HR Business Partners are white, it will be worth doing surveys and listening sessions with non-white employees to determine if they are actually comfortable raising any ethnicity-related issues, and if not, why not.
Clear and concise code of conduct
Your code of conduct makes it very clear what is not acceptable in your workplace, your grievance process to raise if something breaks this conduct and any other useful information around what you expect from employees. This should be transparent and concise, yet still detailed enough to not be incredibly vague. One of my personal favourites is Black Girl Fest’s, which they use for their annual festival.
Checks and balances
At every stage of the process, there should be appropriate checks to ask the following questions
- How have we actively ensured this will work for marginalized communities?
- Have we gathered enough requirements from different user-personas to understand if this covers all appropriate bases?
- Do we have any user research to back up our view that this is inclusive and anti-racist? If so, what are the findings?
- Have we tested this thoroughly with a diverse data set?
- Do we know without doubt that this change/application/etc will not cause harm to a specific group of people?
Each question should require factual-based information before progressing. We cannot answer these with flippant statements like “it’ll be ok” or “I’m sure someone has done that”. This must be part of our documentation and process. It should be incorporated into whatever framework you are using.
As leaders in this industry, we must do more and we must do it better. It cannot be on the shoulders of marginalized folks only to continually work to create a more equitable and fair environment. We are working to undo years and years of systemic oppression, but we must keep going and work together. We cannot say we care about inclusion and diversity, without shining a spotlight on our own personal actions and actively breaking down the processes which may benefit us, but disadvantage others.