Yes, tech culture still has a diversity problem — and here’s how to fix it

Sharon Bennett has been working in the technology field for more than 25 years and she has an important message for the business and IT community, namely that tech culture is in desperate need of a change toward greater diversity and inclusivity with regard to women and minorities. She has faced this issue head-on herself many times in the workplace, so I asked her to share some of her thoughts, experiences, and suggestions on how to make change happen in the culture of our tech world. Sharon is an IT staff instructor at LinkedIn Learning where she creates instructional content focusing on Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Azure (you can check out her LinkedIn courses. Previously, Sharon worked with Microsoft Partners, providing technical and business development advice to help them build their cloud offerings. Sharon is a certified Microsoft Cloud Solutions Architect, a Microsoft Certified Trainer, and holds several other Microsoft certifications. Additionally, Sharon also taught Azure and other Microsoft technologies to Microsoft Partners. Sharon brings 20-plus years of technical experience and her own entrepreneurial lessons to her position. You can contact Sharon via LinkedIn or follower her on Twitter at @SharonBennettLL. Let’s now listen up as we pay attention to what Sharon has to say.

Why tech still has a diversity problem

Sharon Bennett

Women and minorities in tech, or rather the lack of us, is a big problem. Or at least that is what we will tell you, although not everyone feels the same way. Some feel that, sure, there used to be a tech diversity problem, but it’s being fixed; others insist that there was never a problem to begin with. I’m here to say that this thinking is incorrect — the problem is real, and worse than you may think.

I could spew all the results from studies and surveys, but we all know that there is a severe lack of women and minorities in technical roles and leadership positions. If you are curious about the statistics, women make up about 18 percent of technical roles, whereas minorities (regardless of gender) are less than 10 percent. Leadership roles have an even smaller amount of women, at around 5 percent.

We have all either experienced discrimination in the workplace ourselves, or we have heard stories from people who have. There are many barriers, but the main contributors to the low numbers of women and minorities in tech are the “wage gap,” the “motherhood penalty,” “bro culture” (including harassment), and the so-called “pipeline problem.” These challenges are so common that they have become normalized — I will bet my copy of Mastering Windows Server 2003 that you have heard that this is “just the way it is.” I won’t deny that we are making progress, but the change is happening at a snail’s pace.

A good first start is enforcing equal pay for equal work. I should not make $20,000 less than my male counterpart because I’m a female, and women of color should not make even less than this.

But what about the updated codes of conduct, or harassment training, or companies that make a point to hire more women and minorities? Unfortunately, this is not enough — despite this change, it remains true that the numbers of women and minorities in tech are very low.

So, if these methods are not enough, how do we make change? Let’s look at two areas where simple and lasting fixes could make for a more diverse and inclusive environment: at conferences and at the office.

At conferences

tech conferences

Plain and simple, it’s ridiculous that a code of conduct has to be put in place for conferences and other gatherings. The fact that we need a code of conduct shows how deep the problem is — it’s not a way to fix it. Even though it is against the code for a conference attendee to put a hand on another’s lower back, or hug them, or do the “double kiss” at a conference, it is still an accepted part of the culture, especially if alcohol is being served. Companies and conference organizers need to stop treating conferences like glamorized frat parties, from the alcohol and bacon-centric meals to the fidget spinners in the SWAG bags. Conferences should not facilitate bro culture and harassment, let alone give attendees a “free pass” to harass anyone.

At the office

tech culture diversity

The simple fix here is to treat everyone with respect and as an equal — this is something we can all do more of.

Finally, when it comes to physical harassment: Keep your hands to yourself! It is really that simple. No one wants a colleague’s hand on their lower back or arm, or to be called pet names at work.

A good first start is enforcing equal pay for equal work. I should not make $20,000 less than my male counterpart because I’m a female, and women of color should not make even less than this. Pay should not be based on where I live or what someone thinks I “should” be making to support my family — that is unacceptable. Pay scales should be transparent and readily available to everyone.

A second action to take is making as big a place for women and minorities in leadership roles as in management ones. Without minorities in the boardroom, or with only a few, inclusivity and diversity will never flourish. It is not enough to simply promote us to leadership positions; we must be given as much support in these roles as others are. This is not a pipeline problem — we are in the pipeline, but the lack of support and commitment from a company encourages us to leave it. Of all the women in the tech industry, nearly 50 percent end up leaving, largely due to the exclusion and isolation we experience daily.

Finally, when it comes to physical harassment: Keep your hands to yourself! It is really that simple. No one wants a colleague’s hand on their lower back or arm, or to be called pet names at work. Business can, and should, go about without any touching involved. When this line is crossed, HR and the leadership team need to take this seriously and enforce severe consequences. The complainant should be treated with respect: Do not tell them it is their fault, and ensure they are not forced out after lodging a complaint. Perpetrators need more than sensitivity training, a promotion, or a department change; they need to suffer consequences for their actions.

By allowing harassment, or worse, promoting the offending employees, the company sends a clear message: “This behavior is tolerated and if you want to stay in the company, you have to accept it.” This also shows employees that they can harass their colleagues without having to worry about any consequences. The combined weight of these two messages further enforces the bro culture attitude that is far too prevalent in tech. All forms of harassment must be taken seriously, including inappropriate jokes, sexual text messages or emails, and belittling or shaming of an employee. These types of harassment may not be as obvious, but are just as damning and need to be addressed with more than a slap on the wrist.

Final thoughts on our tech culture and diversity

I’ve been in tech for 25 years now, and I have seen and experienced it all; I have even considered walking away on many occasions. I was always led to believe that these types of behaviors were a part of the job and that I would just have to deal with it if I wanted to stay in tech. But guess what? I should not have to put up with any of it, nor should anyone else. I am ready to not just rock the boat, but flip it over. Yes, I have seen small improvements here and there, but the current state of women and minorities in tech, or in any industry, is not okay. Just read the headlines over the last year or two. Tech needs diversity and inclusion, and the world needs diverse and inclusive tech. If we all make these changes in our own practices, we can start to tear these barriers down. But until then, tech culture is in desperate need of a change.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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