Tech Employees Overestimate How Well Their Companies Promote Diversity

Mar 22, 2017

A recent survey of tech employees shows that, like many other things in 2017, feelings about diversity don’t necessarily line up with the facts.

Among 1,400 tech workers polled, 83% think diversity in tech is important, but only half believe improvements need to be made at their own company.

The survey was commissioned by software development company Atlassian in an attempt to guide their own initiatives.

“While we see CEOs and the heads of diversity talking about it, what really matters is what those frontline workers and everyday people think and feel about diversity because that’s where the real cultural change is going to happen,” said Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian.

Taking a closer look at the numbers shows progress needs to be made across the industry, and counter to what the survey respondents think, at more than half of all tech companies.

Black and Latinx tech workers combined make up just 5% of the tech workforce, according to the study, and women only 24%. Despite working in an industry with demographics that fall drastically short of matching those of the U.S. workforce, nearly 95% of those surveyed gave the industry, their companies, and their teams a passing grade.

This disconnect may stem from relatively low expectations for inclusion among tech firms.

“Our company employs more females, African Americans and Hispanics than most tech companies do,” one participant offered as an explanation for awarding their employer a passing grade on diversity.

High profile edge cases, like the sexual harassment allegations at Uber, have the unfortunate effect of making ongoing diversity and gender equality issues seem insignificant in comparison. Seeing your company touting diversity initiatives rather than battling a public relations nightmare can convince an employee to give their employer the benefit of the doubt. And so it wasn't entirely surprising, said the Atlassian report, that 60% percent of respondents gave their companies a passing grade without evidence of concrete action.

Other employees were more skeptical.

“Although the tech industry as a whole does a great deal to promote diversity and inclusion my publicly traded company says it does (for appearance/legal reasons) but clearly does not. Anyone who has worked there over a year can openly see the lack of diversity and the extreme lack of inclusion among employees. Appearance is everything -- they want to appear as though they are doing all they can with minimal effort in reality,” said one respondent.

Along with the specific ways the tech environment excludes certain underrepresented groups, the survey results show a general disagreement about the definition of a diverse workplace that extends beyond the tech sector.

“What this data is telling me is that we’ve successfully raised awareness, but not necessarily deepened understanding,” said Blanche.

To further the conversation about inclusion in the tech industry, she says companies need to be more specific in the language they use and think about intersectionality in their solutions.

Fortune has previously reported on what can happen when the diversity conversation focuses on avoiding conflict and critique or improving a company’s image, rather than actively fostering inclusion. In a recently resurfaced 2016 article from The Atlantic, award-winning director Ava DuVernay talked about how diversity goals that simply focus on increasing the number of employees who don't identify as straight, white, and male can ring hollow for members of underrepresented groups with their own unique identities.

The Atlassian study also asked whether companies have reconsidered their views on diversity and inclusion in the months after the presidential election. Under the new administration, many Americans are turning to corporations for inclusive leadership. While it's documented that the political climate is distracting people from work, it has also spurred individuals to act more intentionally regarding diversity, according to the survey.

Almost half of respondents said they cared more about diversity after the election and one in four reported that they changed their own workplace behavior as a result. Blanche considers this finding very important, especially because the majority of survey participants considered individuals and corporations the biggest drivers of progress for diversity in tech.

“Those of us who work in diversity and inclusion or just people in tech who want to see our companies and our industry reach our [full] potential, should take it as a mandate,” she said. “We should see this as an enormous opportunity to harness all of that energy and point it in the direction of collective action.”

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