A glimpse inside the minds of tech’s DEI leaders

Diversity and inclusion as an idea has been on the agenda of tech companies for years now. But the industry still lacks true inclusion, despite best efforts put forth by heads of diversity, equity and inclusion at these companies.

At TC Sessions: Justice, I spoke with Uber Chief Diversity Officer Bo Young Lee and Netflix VP of Inclusion Strategy for Product Wade Davis about the work that still needs to be done, the effects of California’s Proposition 22 and more.

On last summer’s racial justice uprising

Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent collective consciousness around racial injustice in the U.S., many tech companies spoke out about racism and equality. Davis said he was happy to see more people speaking about those issues but also a bit frustrated that “it takes something like that for folks to get truly engaged.”

Davis: And inside of Netflix, one of the things that I was really intentional about is to tell our employees who are not Black, right, to not ask our employees how they feel but for them to be much more introspective of what it felt like for them, right, as a white person, or however they identify for them to do the introspection. Because that’s what it means to be an ally — to not put the labor on the group that is already feeling the impact and the oppression. And what we found was that many of our employees, for the first time had to wrestle with like, what it means to be white. What it means to be in a situation where you are seeing someone who looks like you take the life of someone who looks like me. So we really tried to switch the actual narrative and the conversation to not add more labor and trauma on our Black employees. (Timestamp: 1:10)

Lee said she was a bit skeptical at the time because we’ve seen this type of response before in light of the violent killings of Black people.

Lee: And then within a few weeks you see that interest and that focus wane once more. So I was skeptical that the enthusiasm would continue and enthusiasm in a way to try to solve all of our racism problems in a short period of time. I was surprised that it did continue. (Timestamp: 3:31)

In her conversations with her counterparts at Uber, Lee said she wanted to make sure that the company didn’t make such a wide commitment that “those commitments became nothing more than virtue signaling at the end of the day.”

Lee: I said to my leadership, if you really want to come out and make some bold statements about being anti-racist, I’m going to create almost a litmus test to make sure that you really understand what that means because I don’t want to go up as a company to say we’re going to be anti-racist and then do nothing about it because that just relives and rehashes the injustices that we’ve seen in the past. (Timestamp: 4:25)

So when Uber’s first post-anti-racism diversity report came out, and it showed Uber’s Black employee base declined, Lee said at the time that was not acceptable.

Lee: I think part of the commitments we made around being really anti-racist is transparency at all costs, even when we know that transparency could potentially make us look, not reflect as positively on us. So the question did go back, as you know, when we were putting together our diversity report is, ‘wow, these numbers are not where we want them to be. None of us are happy about it.’ But in our commitment of being accountable, you know, we want the public to hold us accountable. We want to hold people accountable, we want to be accountable to our workforce, we’re going to be as transparent about why that decline in black employees happened and underrepresented people happened, what the cause was and what we are doing. (Timestamp: 6:11)

On being early in the DEI journey

Netflix, despite having previously reported diversity numbers, only released its first official diversity report this year. That’s partly because the team has only been in place for the last three years, Davis said.

Davis: So we’re still at the awareness building phase, like from a foundational standpoint, and we’re really trying to double down so that folks know why I&D matters. Like, what it actually is, and how it impacts all of us. Because oftentimes, folks think of all of these isms and phobias as something that happens to other people. But if we can really make folks understand that there’s a cost to all these isms, and phobias to all of us individually, interpersonally, culturally and institutionally, then it makes it easier down the road when folks start to feel somewhat fatigued, right? Because there is always that fatigue factor. So we’re really trying to get ahead of that. And to have folks to think through like, what is in it for me, and what is in it for my colleagues. (Timestamp: 17:33)

Sharing the DEI load

Too often does the work of DEI fall on just a handful of people. At Netflix, Davis said it’s important that there is a shared load, and that all of its leaders are able to speak to the importance of diversity at the company.

Davis: And I would say our other largest goal is to make sure that all of our leaders can speak to the importance of AI and be more than just a talking point. So how do we build a model that’s a train the trainer model, where each of our leaders has a one to one inclusion coach, which requires them to have monthly sit-downs with their inclusion partner, where they go on a real intensive journey, so that they can understand how does their leadership style need to evolve and adapt and expand and flex to meet the needs of a larger set of individuals and not the historical ones who folks have engaged with? And we found that to put our leaders on the spot, so that when someone calls me to give a talk, I can say ‘No, our COO Greg Peters is just as competent and capable to sit on this panel about inclusion as I am.’ And we feel that we’re modeling and signaling to our entire organization that this is not just a nice to have, but it’s part and parcel to your success as an employee, as a leader and to our success as an organization. (Timestamp: 18:26)

On Prop 22’s impact on people of color

Prop 22 went into effect in California earlier this year after a contentious battle where one side, including Uber, Lyft and other tech companies, wanted workers to remain independent contractors and the other side wanted gig workers to be made employees and therefore entitled to more benefits. Prop 22’s passage was a win for Uber and its counterparts, which collectively spent north of $200 million on its campaign efforts.

Some have wondered how Uber can reconcile its commitment to anti-racism given that many gig workers are people of color. Lee, however, pushed back on that characterization.

Lee: I would challenge some of those that believe that Prop 22 actually disproportionately hurts people of color. If you actually look at the way the civil rights organizations that came out in support of Prop 22, the NAACP of Northern California and Hawaii came out in support of Prop 22, most of the Hispanic civil rights organizations as well. (Timestamp: 24:59)

Prop 22, of course, was in response to the passage of AB 5, which set new standards of worker classification that were designed to make it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors.

Lee: And you looked at the way those exceptions were being made to AB 5, you saw that the exceptions were disproportionately being made for those IC — you know, independent contractor roles that were predominantly represented by white workers. And they were all getting exceptions from AB 5. And then you look at the roles that were predominantly represented by people of color, especially underrepresented people of color, and those roles were not getting exceptions in AB 5. […] For me, how I define racism isn’t based on intent but it’s based on impact. And when I see that kind of level of disparate, disproportionate impact, that’s when I think about, you know, what is racist or not. So I would challenge this notion that [Prop 22] actually disproportionately hurt people of color, especially given that we had civil rights organizations that said we support Prop 22. So, I don’t think there’s anything that really needs to be reconciled, from my perspective and from the organization’s perspective. (Timestamp: 24:59)

You can read the entire transcript here.

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