One of the challenges when it comes to discussing inclusion and diversity in the workplace has to do with understanding the nature of said workplace. A factory has different internal dynamics than an office, and a working environment in central London will have a different cultural make-up than one in rural Poland.
It is precisely because these differences have to be acknowledged, that today I’d like to write about tech, and what makes tech unique – for the good and for the bad – when discussing inclusion and diversity.
Firstly, a refresher on definitions. The term diversity refers to all the ways in which we are different as individuals; not just gender and/or ethnicity, but also more variable aspects of our cultural background like language or religion. Inclusion, on the other hand, is about making sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute, and to that end, about creating environments where everyone feels welcome, valued, and free to share their thoughts.
So – how, if at all, does the world of tech, and especially programming, differ from any other field with regards to these specific terms?
Tech is, of course, a field still dominated by a workforce that is mostly white and male. The latest survey by Stack Overflow shows that among those who code professionally, 68% are white and 88% are men. These figures are particularly challenging to change, because the interest and motivation to study computer science often happens at an early age. Economic disadvantage and gender discrimination and bias can greatly reduce the likelihood that women and underrepresented people pursue engineering as a field of study. Addressing inequality in tech therefore requires addressing inequality before tech as well.
Unfortunately, tech itself contributes to inequality in society, most perceptibly when it comes to class. Because jobs in tech are highly paid, and tech workers highly mobile, the emergence of a software hub in any given geographic area typically drives up its cost of living (particularly rent prices). This results in gentrification, a phenomenon whereby locals of a neighborhood, if not an entire town, are driven out of their homes by the increasing cost of housing. This is something I have been able to witness first-hand here in Berlin, and we as tech workers – and perhaps more importantly, as tech entrepreneurs – must be aware of the process and do our best to minimise its impact.
On the other hand, the fact that tech companies typically organise themselves around established international hubs, adopting English as a lingua franca, is also beneficial in certain ways. It means that workers from all sorts of cultural backgrounds will gravitate towards them, resulting in teams with sometimes marked internal diversity. If the sense of inclusion and belonging in the team is high, this can produce a positive cycle, whereby the more diverse a team is, the more welcoming they will be to newcomers from other backgrounds.
As importantly, the high salaries and generally high demand for skilled workers mean that employees in tech face a much lower level of job uncertainty than the average. Thus, if you are a web developer concerned about whether your next workplace will be inclusive, you have the option of being choosy – and you should definitely take advantage of that! Use your job interview to enquire about a company’s approach and policies relative to the aspects of inclusion and diversity that interest you or how the leadership team champions and supports D&I in the company.
On the subject of policies and initiatives, generalising about the tech industry becomes difficult. I have seen examples of some of the most progressive D&I initiatives out there, such as Netflix’s work with both their employees and their content as well as Twitter and Spotify opening to fully remote work, and of course the donations from tech to organizations that support Black communities. But there also companies (which I will not publicise here) that make only empty promises or seek to drive out any employee who challenges their old-fashioned behaviors. If you are new to the industry, you should be aware that its range embraces both of these extremes.
Because the field of tech is relatively new, it has also not been properly unionized (and indeed, some tech giants have a notoriously tortured relationship with unions). This means that employees may struggle to find representation, but – to conclude this article on a positive note – Employee Resource Groups, known as ERGs, offer a safe space for connection and collaboration to help give a voice to those communities (for example: Women’s Network, Pride Network, Disability Network, Black Employee Network).
ERGs sometimes go by other names – Affinity Networks, Diversity Networks, or others – but at their core, they are grassroots-organised associations of employees offering a voice and space to either a specific group or to groups in general. Nowadays they represent one of the best resources for tech workers concerned about inclusion.
You can ask your company if they have an ERG program, and if they don’t, consider setting an ERG up yourself! There are ways of getting this done. Many of my friends who are involved in these groups have found the experience very rewarding. With proper support from the company, ERGs can drive meaningful change that benefits the entire organization.
This concludes our brief and by no means exhaustive overview of the issues of inclusion and diversity in tech. Be proud of who you are, be conscious of any privilege you may have, and remember you have the opportunity to lead the change you want to see. And if your company doesn’t treat you with respect, when you have an opportunity to do so find an organization that does.