The dimming of the DE&I light in recent tech layoffs
DE&I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is how you get a better, more productive, more profitable workplace – not to mention a better world, the like of which the 21st century could be actively proud of.
Business had been listening to and benefitting from this message between 2015-2020: LinkedIn data shows that in that five-year period, the number of roles labeled “Head of Diversity” more than doubled.
But the tech industry, fat on its rapid intake during lockdown to help the world carry on, has been rocked by layoff after layoff, not just in its higher echelons but across the board from late 2022 into 2023.
And DE&I representation has been decimated in the cull, as companies scrambled to find survival strategies that sometimes cut their operations down to bare-bone operational necessities.
We spoke to Dave Wilkin, CEO and co-founder of 10KC, a talent experience program for inclusive mentoring, employee connectivity, and skills development, to ask what impact the layoffs are likely to have on the progress of inclusivity in the workplace.
OK, let’s start with the basics. Why is DE&I important?
As an LGBTQIA+ entrepreneur, I grew up in a really small town with absolutely no mentors, no career connections, and if it wasn’t for a scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone to college. So I learned the hard way that if you don’t have mentors or networks, you don’t have the access to opportunity for the career paths you want, or even access to the skills you need to put you on those career paths.
That’s by no means just my story. Mentoring has not historically been democratized, so what you get is a funneling effect. In terms of a comfort zone – in terms of hiring, and mentoring, and advancement, and training, and opportunity – birds of a feather will flock together, simply because that’s comfortable and requires the least effort.
So, by “birds of a feather,” we mean… men, essentially? White, cishet men with neither physical disability nor (non-masked) neurodivergence?
And of course, that becomes a self-fulfilling spiral. If those who are responsible for the advancement of potential candidates are from a funneled group of similar people with similar experiences, the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion has no real incentive to get anywhere.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the people in charge are bad people, it’s an unconscious bias reinforced by a pasteurized experience. Men are 12 times less likely to meet with a female colleague than a male colleague. And that’s according to the data that’s been released. If people don’t naturally create these collisions themselves, then opportunity will not create itself, right?
What’s weird is that if you can solve for how people connect and learn from each other, whether it’s in mentoring or sponsorship, you solve for 85% of where opportunity is. But you need to solve for it if you want it to happen.
Business-criticality is key.
Are diversity leads and diverse opportunities being viewed as easy targets in a time of economic uncertainty?
Actually, I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s less about seeing them as easy things to cut, and more about DE&I teams having not integrated themselves into the business-critical fabric of companies.
Right now, companies are cutting anything that’s not business-critical. Any team that hasn’t integrated themselves into the business-critical fabric of their company is at risk. The challenge for businesses is how do you look at DE&I as business-critical, as something which is implemented into every process, into every part of the way you do business – because we know diverse organizations are more profitable.
We’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years. But DE&I is still not necessarily integrated into all the processes and the ways of working, which ultimately puts theose teams at risk when companies are looking to streamline.
How do DE&I teams make themselves part of that business-critical function? And given that, as you say, businesses are cutting everything that isn’t seen as business-critical, how do they do it right now?
We’d be blue in the face from shouting the results if one more report came in and concluded that DE&I should be part of the business-critical sections of businesses. How DE&I strategies create more profitable businesses. So how do we make DE&I part of every process? Every business has ways of working, and ways of expanding. But how are teams innovating? Diverse teams create the best ideas.
The next chapter for DE&I teams will be to think about how we go from analog and manual and low-scale to having every single employee play their part in inclusion.
What that doesn’t mean is more training programs. It’s more a case of how we get every single person in the company mentoring. How we get every leader in the company actually sponsoring and coaching underrepresented talent so that their teams look like the audiences that they sell to? How do we train and onboard every employee to have diverse networks within their first six months, rather than waiting for it to just happen over the course of many years.
Until we look at those core business processes, whether it’s onboarding, innovation, or journey to market as critical DE&I practises, and actually implement the systems and technology that enable those things, then these programs will still sit in their silo, and not necessarily be integrated into the fabric of the business.
The prescription for DE&I.
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? We know there are good business reasons why integration should happen. But it’s still a thing that takes significant implementation. And that’s the question – how do businesses actually do that?
Presumably, it’s a different process on a company-to-company basis. But it’s a question that has to be tackled.
There are three actions.
- Onboarding is a forever problem. You’re always onboarding, whether you’re new to company, or new to role, and the faster you can diversify the network of a new to role person or a new to company person, the higher they’ll perform. That’s a huge DE&I problem – getting that speed up.
- The second issue is around how to deliver a situation where every single leader and manager in the company has networks and mentors of underrepresented talent. If they don’t have those, then they’re not going to integrate them into their projects or their ways of working. Every single manager and leader needs to have mentees, sponsees, and diverse networks of underrepresented talent. And that is a huge challenge that, if we meet it, will be important for DE&I teams, because the managers and leaders that have those networks will have more diverse teams, which create better ideas and better productivity.
- The third part of integrating this into the fabric of a business’ culture is really around innovation. Teams should be actively diversifying their own networks of people they mentor, so that they’re not in echo chambers of people that are just like them. And I think hybrid working has actually made the problem even worse, where birds of a feather flock together. These hybrid working models are going to put innovation agendas at risk, unless organizations create systematic ways for hybrid working to create diversity of thought, the way we all hope they do.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll take a look at ways in which technology – as well as firm intent to diversify the workplace – can help build DE&I into the business-critical fabric of companies, and help redress some of the losses of the 2023 layoffs.