A Research-Based Approach To Diversity And Inclusion

Because good intentions alone will not cause systemic change.

Unfortunately, when it comes to increasing diverse participation in tech, good intentions are never enough. Frequently, in our work with tech companies, we encounter many folks who are frustrated and wonder why things, to date, have changed so little. We have found that one of the first steps to easing this frustration and improving effectiveness of change efforts is to help folks distinguish between research-based approaches versus well-meaning but misguided approaches that are not based on research. I thought it might be useful to share a few quick points to help change-leaders separate the research-based wheat from the misguided chaff when it comes to creating inclusive cultures.

In short, research-based approaches are not about fixing people, are not only about the “pipeline,” and are not “women’s issues” or issues for underrepresented groups to resolve in isolation.

  • They are about changing the environment.
    Teaching women to be more “confident,” to “improve their negotiation skills,” or to have better “executive presence” will never change the status quo. This kind of professional development can help a few individual women (as well as men) advance, but it will never bring about systemic change. Historically, however, the default for workplace efforts has been to employ this individualistic, “fix the person” type of approach. Unfortunately, such approaches ignore the fact that women often implement strategies that make them seem “less confident,” “too diplomatic,” or not “direct enough” as a way to survive a system that otherwise perceives them as too aggressive. If companies do not change the system that makes these behaviors necessary, real change will not occur.
  • They are also about changing organizational culture.
    First, while pipeline efforts are important, it will do little good to increase the “pipeline” if companies cannot retain employees once they get there. Second, the metaphor reinforces faulty assumptions that people primarily enter the technical workforce through traditional pathways—when we know many people enter through alternative pathways (e.g., changing careers, transitioning into new roles, or progressing from informal educational programs). Furthermore, the pipeline often functions more like an obstacle course, where underrepresented groups encounter biases and barriers that cause them to leave the field. Third, the pipeline metaphor encourages us to think in terms of a “one-way” flow, but in reality, the “pipeline” flows both ways. Perceptions about conditions in the technical workforce trickle down to students, causing them to question whether these are careers that they want to pursue.
  • They require actively involved “male allies” or “majority-group allies” in change efforts.
    Men are often the leaders, power holders, and gatekeepers in the computing workplace; they are in a prime position to drive effective change. Additionally, these issues are human issues and business issues; therefore, we need all hands on deck. Framing approaches as “for women” or “for underrepresented minorities” fails to recognize the ways that these change efforts will benefit all employees, as well as the business itself. Effective practices are framed as for everyone and are mainstreamed into the experiences of all employees.
  • They are strategic, amply resourced, and treated like any other critical business issue.
    Too often, diversity efforts are under-resourced and under-valued. Instead top leadership support and accountability need to be established, with a commitment to allocate sufficient resources to the implementation of research-based practices, goal-setting, and measuring progress. It’s also important to establish a shared language and understanding among key stakeholders as to the critical business imperatives that depend on diversity and inclusion, and how subtle biases and institutional barriers are impeding innovation and productivity. But just raising awareness about bias is not enough. This understanding needs to be operationalized into everyday practice and leadership norms in systemic ways, including 1) helping managers lead productive team meetings where everyone can contribute; 2) examining subtle biases in task assignment, performance evaluation processes, and criteria for identifying “high potential” talent; and 3) examining flexible work policies and informal stigmas or penalties that make these policies difficult to use even when technically allowed. Assessing recruiting sources, job ad language, and physical office space and décor are also important.

It’s true that this can be a tall order, but there are no short cuts to a path of sustained change.

NCWIT can help change-leaders start off on the right foot (or better their path) with more than 160 FREE resources. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, recycle practices that do not work or that exacerbate problems, or move forward on faulty assumptions. NCWIT resources offer practical tips and recommendations for systemic and strategic inclusion efforts, as well as gaining buy-in about the importance and benefits of diversity – a critical first step in any change effort.

Just remember: don’t expect change overnight. Realize that you are in it for the long haul and that it will be well worth the effort.

In this series, CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion™ signatory CEOs share their dedication to acting for workplace diversity and inclusion to make impactful changes that benefit both business and society. Follow along with #CEOAction and learn more at

testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.