The PUSH To Defy Silicon Valley’s Diversity Baggage

As Reverend Jesse Jackson closed this year’s PUSHTech2020’s workshop on Diversity, Inclusion and Race Equality last Wednesday, April 19, he noted that today’s push for diversity in tech is a “A movement beyond the baggage of yesterday.” However, as the National Partnership for Women and Families recently pointed out in their report, “America’s Women and the Wage Gap,” with women in the U.S. being paid at only 80 cents for every dollar paid to a man, and Black and Latina women being paid at 63 and 54 cents respectively, this sort of “baggage” is definitely not going to leave this movement any time soon.

Held at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s (HPE) campus, I was surprised to see so few attendees at an event covering such an important and timely discussion. If diversity, inclusion and race equality are so important to Silicon Valley, as most tech companies claim to be the case, every chair and every space of that room would have been filled and Meg Whitman, President and Chief Executive Officer of HPE, along with other Silicon Valley CEO’s, would have been in the room and on the panels, addressing these difficult issues head-on. While the panels did host prominent figures such as Candice Morgan, the Head of Diversity at Pinterest, and Yolanda Mangolini, the Director of Diversity at Google, I did feel, once again, that we were preaching, both literally and figuratively, to a choir that has already been sold on the fact that diversity, inclusion and race equality are key in advancing diversity not only in tech, but in every workplace across the country. So, while the two and a half hour event, filled with panel discussions and a brief time for questions and answers, was inspiring, I can’t help but think that this movement cannot and will not move forward without the presence of the CEO’s and the business leaders who hold not only the power, but the budget needed to force, not influence, this movement forward.

As Brian Tippens, Chief Diversity Officer at Hewlett-Packard (HP), kicked off the event, he asked Reverend Jesse Jackson multiple questions, including one around the potential need to do something different in this work due to today’s political climate. To this, Reverend Jesse Jackson answered, “Today, we must make America great again.” Followed by applause and laughter, there is definitely something to ponder in the Reverend’s words, as we do indeed need to make America great again, and not in the sense in which our current President has declared and is now attempting to implement. As Reverend Jesse Jackson stated, “Any company that does not have a person of color or a woman on their board needs to be confronted.” While I agree with this statement, I also wonder whether this additional board diversity, which addresses pieces of both traditional and non-traditional dimensions of diversity, will indeed solve, or just subdue others without truly addressing today’s lack of overall diversity AND inclusion in the workplace.

To date, there is no research to support the Reverend’s statement. Research does, however, support the notion that increased board and/or executive-level diversity increases innovation, market share and revenue, and overall financial performance. While all of these factors are indeed extremely important and critical in running a successful business, they do not support the theory that a diverse board leads to a diverse workforce. This statement is not meant in any way to minimize the importance of board diversity. However, it is meant to make one think and hopefully realize that board diversity alone is not the answer to today’s constant struggles to increase workforce diversity.

In one panel discussion, led by Code 2040’s Co-Founder and CEO, Laura Weidman Powers, she asked various diversity leaders to answer the question as to what has and has not worked in terms of their company’s diversity efforts. From goal setting to accountability, the answers for what worked stayed the same, with others on the panel in agreement. eBay’s Chief Diversity Officer, Damien Hooper-Campbell, added that while headcount, budget and a seat at the proverbial executive table were critical to success, “bs conversations” in which “we are having conversations where people are not comfortable being uncomfortable” do not work. The importance of having these “uncomfortable” conversations is something I have referenced myself as a key success factor in this work. However, having and holding them in a safe, productive and honest and open forum in the workplace is a different, and very difficult, matter. As some of the audience cheered and others shifted in their seats, I could not help but smile, for finally someone was truly making others uncomfortable around the reality and the need for these difficult conversations.

From not basing success on unconscious bias training to having more than one person in recruiting own and deliver in this area of work, one could tell that the panel was not only passionate and dedicated to this work, but struggling in one way or another. Bernard Coleman III, Uber’s new Chief Diversity Officer, stated that employee passion was and is a big driver in Uber’s new efforts, which he just began three short months ago. So, while all the panelists were indeed knowledgeable, forthright and candid, I cannot help but go back to my original observation in that all of this preaching was to the wrong church. If it were the right one, it would have been filled with more people in positions of power, including Meg Whitman, who only briefly introduced Reverend Jesse Jackson via video from a remote room, and a more racially diverse audience. I want to emphasize this last observation, as I did not see a rainbow of colors at the event and it takes every person, no matter her or his color, to advance this cause. And, until this, together with the other aforementioned efforts, take place, America will not push tech, or any other industry for that matter, forward as it will not have the resources to finally lose the rhetorical and real “baggage” that has plagued this country for decades.

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