by Damon Carter

How IT leaders can effectively address systemic racism

Aug 03, 202011 mins
Diversity and InclusionIT LeadershipStaff Management

Systemic racism in IT is an uncomfortable truth. Now is the time to recognize it and eradicate it. Here's how to get started.

crumpled paper racism fighting racism resist blm blacks in it by ekaterina79 getty images
Credit: Ekaterina79 / Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a four-part series on how IT leaders can effectively address systemic racism in their organizations. 

In response to ongoing protests across the United States (and globally) denouncing the institution of systemic racism that has plagued the black community for more than 400 years, many corporations have publicly announced their full support for social justice reform, anti-racism tactics, and “allyship” in various ways. 

Since technology directly shapes how business is conducted globally and given the political capital IT leaders have earned through their progressive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, CIOs are well positioned to play an integral role in helping to eradicate systemic racism in their organizations.  To do this, they must strategically employ a systemic solution.  This special series will cover recommended actions that IT leaders can begin employing today to drive this dynamic shift into the future.

Acknowledge the impact

In the United States, systemic racism has been a powerful influence throughout American history.  It was meticulously designed to keep people of color, who were considered to be “less than” in society, in their place.  As a consequence of the institution of slavery, the black community has been significantly impacted by the pervasive practice of institutional discrimination for generations, which has been clearly evident in key functional areas of society such as criminal justice, housing, education and voting rights.

Unfortunately, workplace cultures have also been influenced by systemic racism and people of color have historically been subjected to a wide variety of implicit and explicit discriminatory practices in the workplace.  This persistent lack of fair and equitable treatment has directly contributed to the present wealth gap experienced by the black community in the United States.  According to a recent article in The Washington Post, “In 2016, the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household…”  Regrettably, there has been a lack of progress in the United States with respect to addressing this financial inequity over the past 70 years. 

Indeed, despite compelling economic benefits for valuing diversity in the workplace, the IT industry has struggled to make any significant improvements with respect to the overall representation of people of color.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total percentage of people of color in the IT industry has essentially remained flat over the past five years.  IT leaders now have a tremendous opportunity to effectuate positive changes in society by creating workplace cultures that provide equal opportunities for people of color to thrive and prosper. 

Leading transformational change with integrity

During periods of transformational change, it is important to fully acknowledge where you have been in the past before you can determine where you need to go in the future.  Subsequently, there are several critical steps that IT leaders must take to initiate the dynamic changes required to cultivate a fair and equitable workplace culture for all employees. 

Thoughtfully executing each of these early leadership moments is paramount to working towards effectively addressing systemic racism in the workplace.

  • Acknowledge and condemn. Given the nature of these pivotal social issues, silence could be interpreted by employees as acceptance of the status quo or indifference. Therefore, IT leaders must first acknowledge the purpose of the protests with their employees and clearly condemn the institution of systemic racism in society and in the workplace.
  • Reflect and discuss. CIOs should create safe space for their respective leadership teams to collectively reflect on how systemic racism has adversely impacted the organization in various ways. By doing so, the entire leadership team can safely and confidentially discuss to what extent institutional biases have negatively affected the organization’s culture.
  • Commit. IT leaders must commit to mitigating the negative impacts of all forms of social injustice in the workplace for all employees and cultivate a workplace culture that consistently promotes equality (i.e., equivalent access to tools, resources and opportunities), equity (i.e., access to tools and resources that fairly meets the diverse needs of recipients) and justice (i.e., systemically addressing disparities to ensure fair and equitable treatment) for all IT talent.

3 steps to preparing for change

In the early stages, there are several critical actions that the leadership team must take to help prepare the workplace culture for meaningful organizational changes.

1. Reimagine a new workplace culture

Since people of color have always been disadvantaged by systemic racism in the workplace, the IT leadership team must establish a new corporate standard that will provocatively change the current employee experience by envisioning a new workplace culture that consistently promotes justice for all employees.  The IT leadership team must conscientiously work together to establish a clear, progressive vision for the organization. 

For example, the new workplace culture may be redefined as a true meritocracy, with a sense of belonging firmly rooted in mutual trust and respect for all employees. Then, the IT leadership team would openly communicate the new vision to the staff and begin learning how to bring it to full realization across the organization (more detailed information on this will be covered later in the series).  In doing so, it is also important to ensure that the new vision strategically aligns with the core values of the organization, which will help to ensure sustainability for the future.

2. Reframe diversity and inclusion efforts to Corporate Social Justice

For more than a decade, the highly touted business case for diversity and inclusion has been primarily based on how companies can significantly benefit from recruiting, developing and retaining diverse talent.  Research has shown that diversity has a positive impact on profitability and innovation, among other business indicators.

Certainly, these business impacts are important, but depending on them to justify the value of diversity and inclusion could have a negative impact on people of color.  A recent article published by University of Virginia, Darden School of Business, underscores how companies can unjustly minimize the value of diversity by only acknowledging its impact on profitability: “When companies value diversity for its impact on profitability, it commodifies blackness and objectifies black people, making them valuable to the extent that they can boost organizational performance.”  Providing fair and equitable employment opportunities for all employees is an ethical obligation for organizations simply because it is the right thing to do

Furthermore, diversity and inclusion should be reframed as a key dimension of Corporate Social Justice.  According to a recent article, “Corporate Social Justice is a framework regulated by the trust between a company and its employees, customers, shareholders, and the broader community it touches, with the goal of explicitly doing good by all of them.”  Given the myriad of positive social and economic impacts that companies can influence by cultivating a fair and equitable workplace culture, diversity and inclusion must be established as the strategic cornerstone of Corporate Social Justice.

3. Debunk common misconceptions

IT leaders must be prepared to immediately address several common misconceptions regarding diversity and inclusion efforts before they become impediments to organizational change. Here are a few myths to watch out for:

  • The “diversity of thought” fallacy — the misconception that an organization can achieve the substantive benefits of diversity and inclusion by simply having more than one perspective in the room, without any regard for various dimensions of diversity (i.e., ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.). This misguided belief serves as a diversion tactic and adversely impacts meaningful strategic efforts by underestimating the full value of diverse perspectives to the organization.
  • The unicorn effect — the false narrative that qualified people of color are not readily available in the marketplace. Even though the IT job market has been highly competitive over the past couple of years, IT leaders can successfully locate qualified people of color by employing new recruiting tactics.  For instance, hiring managers can establish strategic partnerships with diverse IT professional associations or target Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for early-in-career talent (more detailed information on this will be covered later in the series).
  • Affirmative action aftermath — the common delusion that hiring managers are often expected to lower performance expectations or hiring standards when recruiting people of color. This myth has been promulgated in various ways over time to systemically undermine the effectiveness of affirmative action programs and has negatively impacted people of color in the workplace.  A 2014 study conducted by three business school professors found that, “[d]iversity hires are often assumed by other employees to have been hired for their sex or their skin color alone, not because they’re qualified for their jobs — and that stigma even rubs off on the individuals themselves, so they either stop trying to get ahead or quit.”  Given these negative consequences, it is important for IT leaders to swiftly address this unfair misperception of people of color whenever the opportunity presents itself in the workplace.
  • What about me-ism the belief that diversity and inclusion efforts exclude white employees. During the preliminary stages of building an inclusive workplace culture, there may be some employees who believe that the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts somehow exclude them. Additionally, some employees may believe that they will be unjustly denied opportunities for career advancement. However, a truly inclusive work environment consistently engages and provides all employees with equal opportunities to prosper. Additionally, leaders should not be discouraged when confronted by these employee concerns.  Instead, this creates a unique opportunity for leaders to listen and learn from employees who can provide a different perspective, which positively contributes to building a more inclusive environment.  Furthermore, IT leaders can help prevent employees from feeling disenfranchised by thoughtfully helping them understand how to become actively engaged in a variety of constructive ways. 

Leading with personal conviction

It is vital for IT leaders to first acknowledge that systemic racism exists and recognize the extent to which it has adversely impacted the black community, as well as other people of color, historically.  Despite significant changes to federal laws and public policy in support of social justice over the past 70 years, systemic racism has consistently denied opportunities to generations of people of color who aspire to prosper in their professional careers and adequately provide for their families.  Consequently, the corporate policies and social constructs that many companies have been built on were inherently designed to disadvantage minorities, while exclusively advancing the interests of the majority.

Due to the social nature of this transformational shift, IT leaders must collectively lead with conviction by reimagining a workplace culture that consistently demonstrates equality, equity and justice for all employees, at all times.  Failure to do so will only result in nominal improvements and much like a virus, the institution of systemic racism will evolve to manifest itself in a different way.  For example, a company could successfully implement new recruiting practices that significantly improve the acquisition of diverse talent.  Yet, this will be a fruitless effort if people of color are consistently denied opportunities for career advancement and eventually leave the company.  IT leaders must act now with clear purpose to begin the journey to eradicating systemic racism in the workplace and remain steadfast in their commitment to do so.  In the words of Mark Twain, “Progressive improvement beats delayed perfection.”

The next article in this series will address how IT leaders can effectively create safe space for all employees to engage, educate, and learn from each other in support of this important strategic imperative for the organization.