How diversity, inclusion, and belonging looks in the tech industry

Sara Kassabian ·
Jun 17, 2020 · 11 min read

This is the second in our three-part series on diversity, inclusion and belonging. Part one focuses on GitLab's goals and efforts to date.

It’s no secret that the tech industry has stumbled, struggled, and in some cases outright failed when it comes to building inclusive workplaces where women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and other underrepresented groups are adequately represented. And how can they, when the majority of people working in and leading tech companies are white men?

In 2014 several tech companies including Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, released their first diversity reports, which showed what many people already knew: The majority of tech workers are white and male.

"Most times when you are forming a company people tend to gather those that are a lot like them whether it be race, occupation, gender, etc. As a result you take a look at your company start-up just to realize what you have formed is not as diverse as you would like," explains Candace Byrdsong Williams, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB) partner at GitLab. "That’s what tends to happen in a lot of companies. You’re in prep and formation mode and you are thinking how can I make the best product, not how can I gather the best people."

Forced to work backwards, the CEOs of the aforementioned tech giants vowed to make diversity a top priority. For five years, millions of dollars were spent on diversity initiatives, but research suggests that dollars have done little to help move the dial forward.

In 2019 separate assessments by Wired Magazine and TechCrunch showed that despite all the lip service paid to diversity, there have been little gains for underrepresented groups at major tech companies. Combined, Black and Latinx employees represented just 3% to 5% of employees at the 23 highest-grossing tech companies, according to a 2016 analysis by the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

It is not just big tech companies that have struggled to build a more diverse workforce and a more inclusive workplace – the tech industry as a whole (including GitLab) has the opportunity to grow and do better.

We’ve been recognized as the top company for diversity, but our leadership team has no Black or Latinx people at director-or-above levels. Learn how we aim to accelerate hiring and promotions for Black team members by 2021.

In far too many companies, both in the tech industry and outside of it, diversity and inclusion endeavors are built on good intentions, but rarely are those intentions held to the rigorous standards of other important business targets.

Diversity has business value

The main question here is why, when homogeneity in the workforce has been shown to be a losing strategy? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence and empirical research from Harvard Business Review that shows heterogeneous teams bring gains while homogeneous teams create costs.

In a conversation between Marcus Carter, senior sales recruiter at GitLab, and Ryan O’Nell, VP of commercial sales at GitLab, Ryan said that his commitment to diversity comes from past experience that shows diverse teams are simply better at problem-solving than homogeneous teams. Hard evidence supports this assertion: Heterogeneous teams focus on facts, they process those facts more carefully and create more innovative solutions, writes David Rock and Heidi Grant of the Neuroleadership Institute in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

It seems simple: Diverse teams drive better business results, so hire more diverse team members – but to focus solely on recruitment is short-sighted.

A common misstep many companies make is looking at recruiting people of color the same way that colleges do, says Sharif Bennett, mid-market account executive at GitLab, and the co-lead of the Minorities in Tech (MIT) Team Member Resource Group (TMRG). The typical workplace doesn’t have the luxury of a ton of new people coming in each year, which means reducing attrition of underrepresented minorities is vital. The best way to do that? Create opportunities for advancement and build inclusive work cultures.

"Just as important as recruitment is retention," says Sharif at the DIB roundtable during GitLab Virtual Contribute 2020. "Are we creating a safe space? An environment they are connected to, where they are feeling like their work is valued? You’re going to see recruits leave if persons of color aren’t feeling valued."

Research indicates that the most effective diversity and inclusion strategy is one that focuses as much, if not more, on creating an inclusive work environment with opportunities for belonging and advancement.

In an interview with HBR, Dr. Melissa Thomas-Hunt, head of global diversity and belonging at Airbnb, advises companies to regularly assess their performance when it comes to DIB, and set diversity and inclusion-specific metrics while also creating real opportunities for mentorship and pathways to advancement for underrepresented minorities, in particular Black employees. Otherwise, many Black employees and other underrepresented minorities will leave for new opportunities.

"Black employees need to enter generative work environments — ones that allow all people to grow, develop, and flourish, and ones that signal they are valued. Without these, there will be a revolving door of Black talent who arrive excited, energized, and ready to contribute and leave feeling unseen and demoralized," says Dr. Hunt to HBR.

Unfairness pushes too many underrepresented minorities out of tech

Six years after the first round of diversity commitments, big tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Twitter are pledging to do more to promote diversity and inclusion, and are donating millions to social justice initiatives and organizations supporting the Black community after public outcry following the killing of George Floyd, according to an article from CNBC. However, despite these donations and commitments, the article said progress has been slow with increasing representation of Black professionals in leadership and technical roles in many major tech companies, which continue to be lead predominately by white men.

The CNBC article analyzed employee demographic data by big tech companies and found only marginal increases in the number of Black employees at many major companies. In companies that have bigger increases in the number of Black employees, those employees are often being hired for non-technical roles in distribution centers and for support roles, which are lower-paying than technical roles. Although hiring of Black professionals and people of color may increase, there are typically higher rates of turnover among people of color than other non-minority groups, says Margaret Neale, a Stanford professor quoted by CNBC.

Attrition of underrepresented minorities is certainly not unique to these big tech companies. The findings of the Tech Leavers Study shows that attrition of underrepresented minorities is a significant problem in the tech industry at-large.

The Tech Leavers Study investigated who is voluntarily leaving the tech industry and why. The findings show that underrepresented minorities are more likely than non-minority groups to voluntarily leave their jobs in the tech industry. The number one reason? Unfairness.

Unfairness or mistreatment was the number one driver of turnover among those surveyed – a problem that costs the tech industry an estimated $16 billion annually, according to the Tech Leavers Study. Of all the underrepresented groups surveyed by the Kapor Center, men of color were the most likely to leave their job in tech due to unfairness (40%). The experiences of unfairness differed across groups, but one-quarter of underrepresented men and women of color said they experienced stereotyping in the workplace.

The antidote to unfairness? Fairness, and an effective diversity and inclusion strategy. In the Tech Leavers Study, 62% of respondents say they would have stayed at their company if the company had taken steps to create a positive and respectful work environment, and 57% of respondents would have stayed if the company had taken steps to create a fair and inclusive work culture.

Building an effective DIB strategy

The Tech Leavers Study identified five common D&I initiatives that help reduce incidents of mistreatment in the workplace. When all five initiatives are in place, there is a large reduction in experiences of unfairness, according to the study. All five strategies are implemented at GitLab, where DIB is one of our core values. It is through the efforts of Candace, the leads of our five TMRGs, and the company at large that we’ve made some considerable progress.

  1. Hire a D&I director
  2. Set explicit diversity goals
  3. Pay bonuses for employee referrals for employees from underrepresented backgrounds
  4. Conduct unconscious bias training
  5. Establish Team Member Resource Groups (TMRGs)

In 2019, GitLab employees ranked our company with the top scores on a Comparably survey for diversity, company culture and best company for women. Our team feels we’re on the right path, but we know that there are still glaring omissions in the GitLab leadership team. This hardly means our journey to building a truly diverse and inclusive company is complete.

How DIB looks at other companies

Candace joined GitLab in spring 2019 from Red Hat, where she worked in helping to lead diversity. While Red Hat and GitLab are both technology companies with a commitment to diversity that serve developer communities, the businesses are at different growth stages which impacts their respective diversity and inclusion strategies.

Red Hat is a 15,000-person, hybrid remote, globally distributed company. While working at Red Hat, Candace worked in an office setting. GitLab is a 1,500-person, growth-stage, all-remote, globally distributed company – everyone works from home or a coworking space.

The key to growing a diversity and inclusion strategy really depends upon the readiness of the business, says Candace. While GitLab established the five core DIB initiatives outlined in the previous section, our DIB strategy is still in the early stages. One of the main goals is to establish more TMRG participation from GitLab team members, says Candace. Today, we have about 13% of the company participating in our five TMRGs.

"People and companies are on different journeys, and you have to meet people where they are and bring them along on this journey," says Candace. "How diversity, inclusion, and belonging, show up today may be different from tomorrow. It’s constantly evolving and constantly changing."

Demetris Cheatham is the current diversity and inclusion lead at Red Hat, and she has two people that work alongside her on the team. She says there are seven TMRGs at Red Hat and the plan is to launch two new TMRGs in 2020.

"I don’t think I have two days that are exactly alike," says Demetris. "I’d like to think I could have a roadmap each Monday, but everything comes from the bottom-up. It really is responding to whatever employees are giving week-to-week and day-to-day."

Similar to what we see at GitLab, at Red Hat everyone can contribute to diversity and inclusion initiatives, but Red Hat is a more established company that is almost ten times our size and is currently at a more mature growth stage than GitLab. Red Hat has a more established diversity and inclusion program and more visibility for initiatives which helps encourage more grassroots participation in TMRGs and other diversity and inclusion opportunities.

Everybody wins when diversity, inclusion, and belonging becomes a top priority

DIB strategies look different at different companies, based upon the culture, values, and growth stage. But regardless of these different factors, all companies everywhere benefit from taking an intentional approach to integrating DIB strategies into every level of the business. Unfairness, stereotyping, and a lack of opportunity for professional growth are just some of the reasons why talented people from underrepresented groups voluntarily leave their jobs in the tech industry. Until DIB is prioritized alongside other important business targets, attrition of talented folks is likely to continue.

Read part one of our multipart series to go inside GitLab’s journey to building a more diverse and inclusive workplace and accelerating growth of diversity in our leadership team.

“How @gitlab and other tech companies are working to do more for diversity” – Sara Kassabian

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