(This is one blog post from a two-part series. In this piece, we explore the themes around common challenges faced in initiatives aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion. Find part two here!)
OfferZen Foundation has explored a variety of themes around diversity and inclusion (D&I) over the last few months. Although the hard and often uncomfortable discussions around diversity are invaluable and necessary, we felt that there was more we could - and should - be doing with and for our tech community. As a result, Foundation brought together some founding members for our first D&I ‘community of practice’ workshop. In this article, we’ll capture some of the stories and themes that were shared at our first session specifically with regards to the challenges and barriers faced towards achieving diversity.
Why Foundation, and why a ‘community of practice’?
As OfferZen Foundation, OfferZen’s not-for-profit organisation, we’ve had a lot of discussions in the last few months around our core mission, which is: To help underserved South Africans thrive in their tech careers, by acting as a rally point for discussions and actions that help combat the pervasive D&I challenges in the tech industry.
These conversations have given us access to a network of individuals in the tech community who are already working towards D&I, and a lot of really valuable insights.
We found ourselves in a privileged position, one which we consider as an obligation and opportunity to turn conversations into collective action. We wanted to do more than ‘just talk’, and be a rally-point to get to the ‘doing’.
We positioned the above within the frameworks of the Theory of Change and Communities of Practice (CoPs). Even though they are not always labelled in this way, CoPs are already all around us. Whether it’s a running group or a support team of mentors, a CoP is simply a group of people with a shared goal that come together to map out where they want to go, and what they need to get there.
They are, importantly, practitioners. This means they don’t only ‘discuss’; they actually do things.
Workshopping collective action
With this in mind, we invited founding members to our OfferZen offices for our first workshop session as a CoP. OfferZen joined that CoP as a member as well, and not only as the session’s mediator. The other companies we invited included representatives from: Allan Gray, Afrolabs, Franc, GetSmarter (2U), Britehouse, OneDayOnly, Prodigy Finance, Altron, Jag Method, Khonology, and WhereIsMyTransport.
The goal was to get to know each other, and position ourselves around our problem statement, namely: “I want more racially and gender diverse people thriving in my high-calibre tech team.” While this was by no means the only thing that the members wanted to focus on, it was a useful way to curate our founding-group CoP, and have something concrete to begin with.
By sharing common challenges and successes with each other, around what’s worked and failed when implementing D&I, three focus areas surfaced as overarching themes:
- Organisational culture (i.e. How does our current organisational culture block/enable diversity?)
- Diversity in the hiring process (i.e. What is our plan to hire more diversely, and how do we articulate it well?)
- Training and education for the diverse pool of talent (i.e. What can we do to help train, develop skills within, and give role models to the diverse talent pool?)
These are where the members felt most challenged, or where they had the most to learn. The focus areas will inevitably guide which solutions the members decide to pursue.
For now, however, we’ll outline some of the broader themes that came out of our session from what was shared around common challenges faced. These all deal with the barriers that members had experienced in the past, when trying to initiate D&I efforts in their own organisations. They fall into the following broader problem areas:
Privilege and prejudice hide merit
This point speaks to the fact that certain privileges and prejudices within our industry make truly hiring meritocratically extremely difficult. Although members agreed that hiring for a high-performing team and hiring for diversity are one and the same thing, working through the layers of historical bias in not only ourselves, but our systems, is a barrier to D&I.
Scaling D&I initiatives are hard
D&I initiatives within a small team are one thing; scaling those efforts to an entire company, or an entire company group, is another. D&I is a new focus for many companies, which means that most initiatives are fairly new and struggle to get support and resources at scale. This, however, will be important if our CoP is to effect any broader change.
Diversity isn’t visible enough
Companies in general lack role models in diversity, and members acknowledged that this was particularly true in more senior roles. This makes it hard to keep diversity ‘sustainable’. It’s hard to grow a team that feels included, and that can physically see itself working in more senior roles, when diversity role models are missing. Without this, diversity retention becomes a lot harder.
Perceived ‘corporate risk’
D&I initiatives are still largely new, unfunded, and under-supported, which makes broader company buy-in about the importance thereof incredibly difficult. Members agreed that what often makes creating tangible change so hard is the simple reason that most of one’s effort still goes into convincing the organisation as a whole about the importance of D&I and general cultural awareness.
Referrals are statistically good hires, but problematic for D&I
For a lot of the members, hiring through referrals tends to have significantly higher success-rates for ‘well fitting’ candidates. However, referrals tend to limit the range of access to candidates, which more often than not means you hire mono-culturally, and thus reduce diversity. Although a hard problem to solve, this is another area within hiring that members acknowledged as in need of addressing.
Authenticity is hard
A lot of the members alluded to the fact that they struggle with making D&I efforts seem authentic. For example, it’s hard to navigate stigmas of ‘tokenism’ or ‘charity’ which the members emphasised was something they all actively have to advocate is never the case. The language and language biases around simply talking about D&I also makes authenticity extremely tricky. Nuances in meaning with ‘non-white’, for example, make diverse hiring even more problematic. But ensuring that D&I initiatives are communicated sincerely is crucial to getting buy-in at an industry level. As long as this barrier remains, members agreed it would be hard to move forward.
Power/social capital inequalities
Similar to the above, who talks about D&I is as important as what is said. The role that power and social capital play in diversity affects what companies need to do, and how: For example, a previously underrepresented individual is given a coding test, and misses the deadline by an hour; because they see their background as giving them little-to-no social capital, they think they’ve missed their chance entirely. They don’t call or email, a hiring system rejects them, and another opportunity for D&I is lost.
Varying practical access to tech tools
Where someone is physically unable to access their emails at home, or have a stable internet connection 24 hours a day, ‘conventional’ hiring processes might reject them while they’re actually a perfect company fit. The members agreed that, if we don’t catch ourselves when we assume that everyone has the same ‘access’ to tech tools, we won’t be able to extend our workplaces to the kinds of people we want to bring into them.
(Read part two here, on the common enablers for initiatives aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion.)