A conversation with Per Scholas’s Damien Howard on DEIB in tech

Diversity efforts at tech companies often stall when it comes time to actually implement them, expert tells IT Brew.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Source: cienpies/Getty Images

· 3 min read

Male and pale. That’s the tech industry’s well-earned reputation for having an overwhelmingly white workforce. Well over half (62%) of tech workers are white, according to Zippia research, and that’s not projected to change substantially.

Some companies are taking steps to address the shortfall, largely through diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) policies. But those efforts are largely window dressing, according to critics like Per Scholas’s Chief Enterprise Solutions Officer Damien Howard.

Howard, in an interview with IT Brew, detailed what he sees as the problem with implementing DEIB at tech companies and the resistance faced by proponents—as well as the solution.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Barriers to entry into the tech workforce still exist for people of color and those of marginalized backgrounds in general. What is it about DEIB that isn’t clicking?

I like to focus on workforce, work model, and workplace because it still is a barrier. It’s a barrier, in my opinion, from many conversations that I’ve had with C-suite leaders, because of how it’s perceived. When leaders hear DEIB, they automatically begin to think that there’s something additional that they have to do, instead of just looking at it as a standard best practice for their business and how to move the business forward.

Is that what the challenge is, that it’s easy to say you’ll implement these policies but when it comes to doing the work, that’s more difficult? What are you hearing specifically about and from the C-suite on this?

The biggest challenge that I see with DEIB implementation inside of organizations is that you’ve had people who believed it was a lot of window dressing. So, they would agree, “Yes, we are about the DEIB, we want to do this.”

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But then when you dig under the hood, the practical items are not there or the measurements when you start looking for it: What do you mean by DEIB? What’s your measurements? How are you measuring that? The measurements don’t match what they’re saying.

The resistance is there. A lot of companies don’t want to be transparent about what the measurements are, or they have static numbers that they put out. That’s a form of resistance—don’t get too close to us, let us tell you what we want you to hear. And then there’s some resistance just out front, meaning, when you look at what has happened to the economy, DEIB departments have been gutted because of the economic uncertainty.

You’ve laid out a convincing case for the reasons this process has stalled out for a large number of tech companies. So, what’s the solution?

I will just reiterate that we need to train individuals on what this means. This is not something extra, this is not going outside of our scope as an organization. This is simply saying, “Hey, if we want a diverse workforce, and we want to be better, we need to have multiple lenses looking at the same problem, so that we can come up with dynamic products, services, and solutions.”

Training is mandatory. And that’s a part of the reason why it’s stalling. And then I was actually on a panel with Gartner yesterday with CIOs. And I was telling them the same thing—when you think about any other initiative inside of a company that fails, it normally lands around training, or execution, and lack of clarity around measurements. And I believe those are the same items that are stalling progress on DEIB.—EH

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to software development and gaming, IT Brew delivers the latest news and analysis of trends shaping the IT industry, like only The Brew can.