(Photo-illustration by People Images)

The tech sector is widely touted as an environment driving innovation and progressive values, yet a lack of diversity has long been problematic in the industry. The root of the issue lies in the way organizations approach the fundamental value of diversity, according to Salima Bhimani, PhD, chief strategist and director of equity, inclusion and systemic change at the Other Bets at Google.

“We think about diversity in terms of adding numbers, filling roles–but we’re not thinking of it in terms of what we’re trying to drive forward or how to bring in talent that’s fundamentally going to change who we are, what we are, and what we do in the world,” Bhimini said in a fireside chat at From Day One’s June virtual conference on more inclusive approaches to diversity.

Companies get caught up in the idea of visual representation, but the chief complaint is that these organizations are not systemically and structurally set up to expand diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in valuable ways. To solve the diversity challenge, Bhimani said it requires a true mindset shift around the critical value of diversity, she told moderator Kelly Yamanouchi, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Accelerating Progress Towards a Mindset Change 

Because DEI is part of a larger social conversation, particularly as attrition grows among women of color and other marginalized groups, many organizations are quickly seeking to find ways to attract and retain a diverse workforce. But in order to effect meaningful change, it requires slowing down and asking the right questions, instead of simply poaching talent from competitors and recycling the same problem.

The fireside chat, from left: Moderator Kelly Yamanouchi of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Salima Bhimani, PhD, of Google (Image by From Day One)

Often, processes involved in hiring are solidified in organizations and get entrenched over time, making it difficult to create a cultural change and leading diversity efforts to be added as an afterthought. For an example of how organizations should incorporate these values, Bhimani looks to startups, which have an advantage in their ability to build DEI practices into their values from the beginning and enabling their statements to become part of their DNA.

The shift in the way the workforce operates, especially since the onset of the pandemic, has given companies an opportunity to take a step back and observe what things can be done differently in order to be more representative of traditionally marginalized groups. For instance, the advent of remote work has created a new level of accountability: organizations and leaders need to create culture within the hybrid workplace, but with the additional task of incorporating the lack of inclusivity that existed prior to remote work.

“The fact that people can and want to work from home should not indicate that a company is inclusive,” said Bhimani.  “When you look at the research, a lot of those people are working from home because they don’t want to go into a micro-aggressive environment.” She said that it is critical to shed misconceptions, such as that innovation is possible only in the office, since those environments didn’t produce those things for all people.

The Case for Diversity 

To drive some level of change internally, hiring managers are often tasked with providing executives with data in order to get buy-in for organizational changes. But Bhimani said that this is an idea that teams need to step away from, as it can lock in a concept where HR feels the need to convince senior leadership that the problem is real.

“A lot of leaders in tech are data-savvy, but then you show the data, and it doesn’t convince leaders,” she said. “We need to ask, What is the entry point in connecting with my leader about what needs to change here?”

The issue should be reframed in a manner that transforms leaders into long-term commitment in this space and figuring out how to achieve it. “The reality is that leaders have 50 other things on their mind that we don’t know about that’s influencing their thought process and decisions. Leaders need to be more curious in order to create a natural dynamic of openness.”

The Future of DEI Work

The upside to the growing focus on DEI efforts is that many organizations are creating opportunities for historically underrepresented groups to be hired in leadership or senior-level roles. While this helps resolve the numbers game of diverse talent, it still does not address the separate question about what expertise organizations need to solve a specific problem–and how can they address the problem with a diverse team.

Bhimani said that ultimately, the best way to drive meaningful change around diversity in tech is for companies to ask two questions: What are they really trying to solve, and what is their hypothesis around why they don’t have it? “Figure out what outcomes we want, and then work backwards. We have a lot of work to do in asking the right questions,” she said.

Tania Rahman is a native New Yorker who works at the intersection of digital marketing and tech. She is both a creative writer and freelancer, enjoys hot chocolate on cold days, reading, live music, and learning new challenges.