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Tech's diversity efforts are at a crossroads: Make progress or backslide

Tech companies are cutting diversity and inclusion teams and workers. But there's an opportunity to rebuild the industry in a more equitable way.

A person at work, chatting to another person via Zoom

This downturn could be particularly troubling for diversity, but the decisions that leaders make right now could make tech a more inclusive industry.

Photo: FS Productions via Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Lily Zheng watched as cancellations rolled in. A calendar once full of workshops, events and talks emptied. Companies that were negotiating contracts with Zheng, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, walked away. But, tellingly, not a single long-term client of Zheng's canceled their contract.

As companies reevaluate their business plans because of the pandemic, tech's D&I efforts are at a crossroads. "We've moved away from the space where companies can all claim that they care about diversity and diversity is important," Zheng said. "We're actually seeing differentiation between the companies that continue to invest in it and companies that have laid off D&I staff."

On one hand, companies are laying off D&I teams, and programs and spending are being cut — all on top of a recession that's already disproportionately affecting women and people of color. On the other hand, there's an undercurrent of optimism among D&I leaders that a great reset in how many tech companies work could lead to a more diverse and inclusive environment than before.

"I think the field is going to be forced to evolve away from one and done flashy performative D&I work — which in the past has largely involved events — and more towards the less flashy, but more important, high-impact deep work of really educating folks in positions of power and creating norms and expectations that are shared by everyone about the value of diversity," Zheng said.

Nice to have?

Facebook's Chief Diversity Officer Maxine Williams has seen both sides of it, having led diversity programs at a law firm during the last downturn. "What I know from that experience, and now seeing this one, is that the earlier you build in your D&I initiatives as core to the business, the absolute better you will be when times like this come," she told Protocol in a previously unpublished comment from an interview on the company's D&I practices. "If people think it's a nice to have, then in times where you can't afford nice to have you let it go."

But Facebook is in a privileged position: It's financially stable and actually hiring more people to work on D&I efforts. Other companies aren't so lucky.

"There are companies looking to deprioritize D&I, which will often happen in hard times," Williams said. "I have been in downturns and gone through [situations] where two-thirds of your affinity group members get let go."

This downturn could be particularly troubling for diversity. Already, job loss related to the pandemic has particularly affected women and people of color, earning the downturn monikers such as the "shecession." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women accounted for more than half of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April. Among black people and Hispanics, unemployment reached 16.7% and 18.9%, respectively, compared to 14.2% of white people. COVID-19 has reversed what had been historically low rates of joblessness among the groups of color less than one year prior.

Leaders like Bärí Williams, a tech executive and diversity advocate, are already concerned that some of those jobs won't come back, leaving minorities shut out of the tech industry. "If and when there's a bounce back, [companies] will have learned how to be profitable or successful without those folks, so there's no reason to bring them back," she said. And she expects companies aren't properly taking diversity into account when making layoff decisions: "I wouldn't be shocked if a good number of lawsuits come out of this."

Beyond the broader employee base, layoffs have specifically hit some D&I-focused teams already. At local services marketplace Thumbtack, several employees focused on D&I, including its diversity and inclusion lead and diversity recruiting lead, were among the 250 employees let go in March due to COVID-19's impact on business. Just four months prior, the company published a video emphasizing its commitment to diversity, featuring two of the now laid off D&I teammates.

"This reduction affected all teams, including some focused on D&I initiatives," a Thumbtack spokesperson said. "We remain committed to fostering an inclusive culture and creating a diverse workplace, and this reduction does not reflect any change to that focus."

Other tech companies, including Airbnb and Lyft, have also said goodbye to select employees with roles that included D&I-specific work due to coronavirus cuts. Rather than reduce the size of an allocated D&I team, these layoffs were made as part of broader cuts to programs curbed during the pandemic, such as events and recruiting. (Airbnb, for its part, specifically listed D&I as a consideration when CEO Brian Chesky announced the cuts.)

Standing still, moving backward

As companies downsize, tasks are shared out among employees who remain. "A lot of times when these reductions happen, there's a consolidation of responsibilities," Vinayak Ranade, founder and CEO of tech recruiting startup Drafted, told Protocol. His company has indexed coronavirus layoffs in a weekly Layoff List throughout the pandemic.

Diversity then often becomes a part of someone's job, instead of the focus of someone's job. "It's not that they're saying: 'OK, no one is responsible for diversity in the organization anymore because we're letting go of these two people that were responsible for our diversity recruiting efforts,'" Ranade said. "It just means a bit of responsibility gets taken on by someone else."

The question becomes whether this will be a moment where tech's D&I goals backslide as a result. The mistake that Joelle Emerson, CEO of diversity strategy firm Paradigm, sees organizations making at the moment is that they think they can pause their D&I programs and pick them up later when there's budget or time. "The challenge is you can't actually pause this," she said. "You're either making progress, or you're backsliding."

Already, Google has allegedly cut some of its diversity programs and scaled back on its investments in the space, according to a NBC News report. Google told Protocol that "any suggestion that we have scaled back or cut our diversity efforts is entirely false. Diversity, equity and inclusion remains a company-wide commitment, and our programs are continuing to scale up."

Laszlo Bock, the former Google SVP of People and CEO of HR startup Humu, tweeted after seeing the Google news that he, too, had seen that "many, many large companies are cutting their inclusion investments," although he had no direct insight into Google. "Unfortunately, it's when organizations are stressed that those programs are most needed. Companies that invest now will be rewarded and remembered," Bock tweeted.

Emerson said she has seen a 50-50 split between companies that are no longer making D&I a priority versus companies that are doubling down or shifting their D&I work to drive progress at their company.

Doing something with nothing

While the cuts and layoffs may seem troubling, Emerson cautioned about reading too much into the signals. "I don't think that always means that the care isn't there," she said. "Even in organizations that we know that are small, that are spending no money right now with us, we're actually still seeing some of those organizations invest in pretty serious ways around integrating inclusion into the conversations they're having about how they want to do performance management this year, how do they want to think about the downsizing that they're doing and making sure that its impact is equitable."

Many companies are focusing on inclusion right now, as employees increasingly have to reveal more about their personal challenges due to working remotely — whether that's being a working parent, living in a crowded house or taking care of elderly relatives. Employee support groups are particularly critical during this time as black and Latino households contract coronavirus at higher rates, and Asian employees may face xenophobia.

Remote work is also forcing tech leaders to put some intention behind things that just used to happen in the office — often in a way that could help alleviate biases, Emerson said. For example, she's talked to leaders who are doing more structured check-ins with employees, so it's not as much who is in the office or sitting closest to their desk that they talk to. Other CEOs are keeping lists of employees up on their screen so they consider all the employees when handing out assignments, versus previously doling out responsibilities to those who were nearby and available in the office.

A remote reboot

When Mark Zuckerberg announced the company's work from home policies on May 21, he specifically mentioned how remote work could enable the company to hire more underrepresented groups — though he also admitted it would be critical to make sure that those groups feel included, given remote work can be more challenging than working in an office.

Will McNeil, CEO of diversity recruiting platform and consultancy Black Tech Jobs, who has seen a high number of black techies being displaced during the crisis and has had to furlough some his own company's staff, thinks the broader industry should also seize this moment to reset its approach to diversity.

"There will never be a better time than post-COVID that I'm aware of in our history … to take advantage of the skills that are in the marketplace," he told Protocol.

One piece of advice McNeil offered for companies that hope to be hiring again soon: Focus on hiring diverse talent at the middle- and upper-management level. Concentrating diversity in entry-level positions is a common but flawed strategy, he said, leading to what he calls a "tech exit."

The hope of D&I leaders is that this moment could create a more inclusive tech industry — towards people of color, to parents and caregivers, to people who live in other regions of the country. Remote work could enable some of that, as companies become more open to hiring from diverse geographies and working parents find a more flexible job environment. At the same time, if the decisions being made today in Zoom calls are poor, they could end up locking the same groups out of the industry.

"There's so much potential there, and it's going to come down to the decisions business leaders are making today whether they are able to capitalize on that potential to build a more equitable future, or whether instead we just turn inward and actually limit access and create more homogeneity," said Emerson. "It's this interesting inflection point where there's a world where the decisions that leaders make right now could make tech a more inclusive and more equitable industry."

Disclosure: Biz Carson's husband works at Facebook.

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