Two and a half years ago, George Floyd was murdered at a Minneapolis intersection after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Three months prior, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed as she slept, shot by Kentucky police who ambushed her home. One month before that, high school football star Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by two white men as he jogged through his Georgia neighborhood. By the summer of 2020, long-festering racial tensions reached a boiling point forcing America to confront its legacy of violence and discrimination against African Americans.
Out of this somber national mood came a racial reckoning within the tech industry. Following the murder of George Floyd more than 200 tech companies, including tech giants Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, made unprecedented pledges to confront structural racism within their organizations. Many promised to add Black Lives Matter commitments to their mission statements. They vowed to hire more Black talent and embed diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) into all facets of their organizations.
Two and a half years later, those promises have primarily fallen flat. A 2022 study showed minimal increase in the percentage of Black employees since 2020. For Daniel Oppong, a corporate diversity expert and founder of DEIB consultancy, The Courage Collective, the message is clear. “It signals that companies are more interested in managing public perception than they are interested and invested in and driving real change,” he said.
Now, the nation’s mood has shifted beyond early pandemic-era anxieties. The protests and uprisings that swept US cities in 2020 have waned, and the so-called racial reckoning in the tech industry has taken a backseat to newer trends. Slow revenue growth, stock market falls, and rising interest rates have burst the tech bubble. And early pandemic over-hiring has resulted in mass job cuts in the sector.
As recession fears cause executive decision-makers to reassess their bottom lines, many have quietly divested from commitments to diversity and inclusion. Some have sunset employee resource groups and workforce reductions have displaced more than 145,000 technology workers. Recent research shows Black and Brown employees were disproportionately impacted in those layoffs.
ESSENCE spoke with Oppong, and Errol Pierre, a senior VP in the healthcare industry and author of The Way Up: Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color. They shared thoughts on the long-term impact of the tech’s broken promises and what message the industry’s divestment in DEIB sends to Black communities.
Tech’s broken promises validate Black skepticism.
For all the industry’s talk of representation, the tech sector has always been one of the least diverse. Black workers accounted for just 7% of the workforce in 2021. With recent cutbacks, that number has undoubtedly diminished.
The tech industry’s slowness to diversify its workforce in the best of times and its haste to cut promised diversity initiatives in the worst has likely eroded any trust communities of color may have had in the industry’s commitments to creating equitable and inclusive organizations. “Black employees have grown accustomed to maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism toward commitments made by their employers concerning DEIB,” Pierre said. “There have been billions of dollars spent on these programs, and the metrics have stayed pretty much the same over the last 25 years.”
Black and Latino representation on tech industry boards has also lagged behind the rest of corporate America. “You’re not seeing more CEOs of color. You’re not seeing more African Americans grow inside of organizations. If anything, when you look at the Board seats of the top Fortune 500 companies, it’s the same person of color on multiple boards,” Pierre said. “So, the skepticism is there naturally, as it should be. And it’s really employees protecting themselves from disappointment because they’ve seen too many promises from corporate America go unfulfilled.”
The tech industry’s unspoken message to Black communities.
Twitter’s DEI commitment to “becoming the world’s most inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible tech company” has taken a back seat under the leadership of Elon Musk. Blackbird, the resource group for Black employees at Twitter, was axed within a week of Musk’s takeover.
Pierre says when employee resource groups and other DEIB programs get cut, it’s because they’re not considered a core function of the company. “If you can deprioritize it, it means it’s expendable,” he says.
Under the threat of global recession, some might say tech companies have legitimate cause to cut funding for diversity initiatives, but the data says differently. According to a McKinsey report, nurturing organizational diversity leads to higher profit margins. The most diverse companies outperform their less diverse peers by 36% in profitability.
Pierre says the business case for diversity warrants a shift in allocation on corporate balance sheets. “DEIB is considered overhead costs of a corporate budget. And when you’re in the overhead bucket of a budget, you run the risk of budget cuts and deprioritization because you’re not on the business imperative side of the budget. Many companies fail to have their diversity programs moved out of overhead and into business imperative,” Pierre says.
That designation is a costly one for employees of color in tech who have been disproportionately impacted by recent layoffs. “We worked with one company who had a reduction in force, and every member of their DEIB committee was part of that reduction,” Oppong told ESSENCE. “So, what does that signal to the two employees left working on it? It signals that it’s not as much of a priority.”
Pierre says examples like this could and should be avoided. “DEIB leads to employee retention, which means there are actually savings on keeping employees in the company longer versus spending money on recruitment to fill those roles. So that savings now becomes a business imperative as opposed to overhead,” he said.
Despite loud commitments of solidarity and support for Black communities after the murder of George Floyd, the tech industry, by and large, seems content to quietly overlook the business case for retaining employees of color and prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Oppong says it’s an indication of the performative nature of such commitments.
“I think we’re in a culture right now where the external optics are more celebrated than actually driving substantive change. The change that I believe is more sustainable is inside-out change,” Oppong said.