Race and the Technology Sector’s Reckoning: Questions to Ask Now

June 30, 2020

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The technology sector has an outsized role to play in supporting health and economic outcomes, and in enabling people to live better lives. The industry itself has created that expectation, with the promise of improved well-being so often highlighted by tech leaders when they talk about their products and services, partnerships, job creation and investment growth.

But 2020 has brought with it the beginnings of a real reckoning that will see the tech sector grapple not only with its own industry challenges, but also with some of the most difficult moral and ethical questions of our time.

From the privacy concerns associated with the contract tracing tools needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, to active debates about the degree to which the lack of diversity in tech builds inherent bias into products and services, it is time for tech companies and leaders to ask themselves how serious they are about lifting up all people equally and improving society.

The research described in this report is focused on the recovery from the global pandemic, and its implications for business and society. But between the time our research was completed and released here, the reality of centuries-old, institutionalized racism and injustice has forced us to take a deep and painful look at our societies and demand that we take urgent action.

The murder of an unarmed Black American named George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, was brutal and shocking, but unfortunately, not a surprise to millions of Black Americans who know that they — or someone they love — could easily have been in his place.

Mr. Floyd’s name was brutally added to the list of killings that includes Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others over too many years. Sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends. Too often America — especially White America — has ignored the value of their lives and the truth of their deaths.

But George Floyd and the 8 minutes 46 seconds that ended his life have not been ignored. They have instead sparked outrage and, as momentum builds behind protests all over the world, the first seeds of optimism that this time change will be real and lasting. The cellphone video that bore witness to Mr. Floyd’s murder generated a call to action and a breakthrough in public awareness, evidence that technology will be instrumental in achieving meaningful change.

Every company has the obligation to take sustained action that will bring fairness and equity to people who have been attacked and excluded for no other reason than the color of their skin. However, as Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans describe in their book on new power dynamics, the technology industry plays a part in transforming power into current rather than currency and making it available to people regardless of race, class and economic status. That can have a bigger impact on ideas, information and the economy, and thus creates a bigger ethical obligation for tech companies to use their strengths for good. They can do that through the visibility of their words and their substantial donations to good causes, but it must go much further and start with getting the industry’s house in order.

Actions that diversify talent pipelines, increase representation of Black and Brown people, offer pathways to executive leadership and create a true culture of belonging are no longer nice to have. They are central to building trust and reputation.

Here are some of the questions businesses and leaders must ask themselves in order to ensure they are fit for purpose now and in the future:

  • What actions are you taking to build a real pipeline for a diverse workforce?
  • What additional programs and resources will you put in place to recruit and develop more people of color as talent and leaders?
  • How are you defining diversity and considering intersectionality? Are you thinking about women of color and people of color in the LGBTQ+ community? Have you narrowed your focus to board diversity or are you thinking holistically?
  • Have you considered actions to help ensure you have diversity in your supply chain?
  • Are you thinking about converting your contract workers into permanent employees and offering them better compensation as one path to reducing economic inequality?
  • What other actions are you planning to take, if any, that will meaningfully contribute to justice and equity, internally and externally?
  • Are there policies and practices you need to address in order to be more inclusive?
  • Are you committed to regularly listening to your Black and Brown employees?
  • After listening, even if what you hear is unfavorable, are you committed to action?
  • Are you willing to use your voice (including executives), your platform, your channels and your influence to fight against injustices, stand in solidarity with Black and Brown communities and advocate for their rights?
  • Have you been present, passionate leaders or willful witnesses?
  • Have you as individual leaders or as an organization donated to political PACs or candidates that may be perceived as being at odds with commitments to inclusivity and justice?

At FleishmanHillard, we have committed to taking action and accountability in our own organization. We join with leaders in the technology industry calling for equity, and for an end to the passive expectation that things will change over time. Whether it is justice in a court of law, or economic and social justice, justice delayed is justice denied.

Read more from FleishmanHillard’s Recovery and Resurgence Communications: what tech sector pros need to do now report here.