Could Labor Unions Be The Answer To The Diversity In Tech Problem?

Aug 10, 2017

From Uber's scandal to the recent Google memo — which has spawned a counter memo from new vice president of diversity Danielle Brown, a letter from CEO Sundar Pichai, and an essay from Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Google-owned YouTube since the news broke this weekend — it’s been hard to avoid the topic of diversity in tech during 2017.

But when will the conversation around diversity and inclusion finally become obsolete?

At a keynote discussion for the second annual Tech Inclusion New York conference, panelists talked about what it will take to push past the culture shift to a place where inclusion is a reality rather than an initiative.

CNN national reporter for race and inequality Tanzina Vega moderated the conversation, which included CEO of Fog Creek Software Anil Dash, author and consultant Jennifer Brown, and CEO and founder of All In Together Lauren Leader-Chivee. The panel, which closed out the 2-day Viacom-sponsored event, touched on everything from redefining diversity, the differences between sponsorship and mentorship programs and organizing labor unions for tech workers.

Tech Labor Unions Be The Answer

“I don’t think you can take the risk out of it,” Leader-Chivee said of the repercussions women and people of color often face when speaking up about inequality in the workplace. “I think there is inherent risk in trying to change the status quo.”

But there's strength in numbers.

Brown points to the power of affinity groups and the importance of allies as sponsors in aiding underrepresented populations in tech.

The panelists also highlighted structures in history that have been successful in bringing about change. Namely: Labor unions.

“It’s labor organizing,” Dash said. “We need unions in the tech industry. Workers don’t have any power.”

He cited the organizing of Color of Change in the ousting of Bill O’Reilly as a recent example.

“Organize, band together," Dash said. "Use the collective power that you have and scare the hell out of the bad actors that are trying to stop you."

What is diversity, anyway?

The tech sector has had to frequently return to the white board as it rolls out and then retools how it encourages diversity among its ranks. And often, the debate about whether diversity is even the best term to use has come up.

“I'm tired of talking, but we can't stop talking about this until something changes," Vega said, putting the question of word choice to the panelists.

“People who are not of good intent around [diversity] are immediately going to stop listening to the argument,” Dash said of using the term.

He recommends getting more specific.

“In like-minded communities saying you’re in favor of diversity is like saying you’re in favor of puppies,” Dash said. “Where are you actually feeling some pain? Where are you making some sacrifice, making some change, getting uncomfortable?”

Leaders Have To Do The Work

“White America is not talking about race. White America avoids this conversation like the plague,” Leader-Chivee said. She noted that white parents often think acknowledging race undercuts the idea that all people are equal, but skirting these conversations actually leads children to develop negative conclusions about the topic.

She noted that white parents often think acknowledging race undercuts the idea that all people are equal, but skirting these conversations actually leads children to develop negative conclusions about the topic.

Firms like Ernst & Young have publicly said they're looking past government officials to business leaders to step up and use their social capital to drive change. That's what makes silence from white corporate executives deafening, says Brown.

There is some sign that the c-suite wants to get hands on: In June, The CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion initiativespearheaded by PwC's U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan — launched with 175 execs and has since grown its list to nearly 300.

“You must be able to talk about this in an authentic way, share your diversity story, know something about it,” she said. “Know that thousands of people are waiting to hear what you’ll say and when you don’t say anything, I think, it has untold engagement costs."

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