If you follow the technology business, you've heard the debate:
Is there enough diversity in the industry's workforce to foster innovation?
And is diversity even the issue?
What about inclusion?
In this excerpt from our award-winning Technologist Talk podcast, Ulysses Smith, a leader in organizational diversity and inclusion, provides some answers. Smith, an advisor to CompTIA’s Advancing Tech Talent and Diversity Community, describes nuances of a diverse, inclusive workplace and how tech-focused firms can create one.
Here's an edited transcript of the first episode in a 3-part series featuring Smith:
R.C. “Bob” Dirkes: Hello, I'm your host Bob Dirkes... In this episode, we'll look at what [diversity and inclusion] mean, and how technology-focused firms can reach their goals. Let's talk with Ulysses Smith…, a featured speaker at the  CompTIA Community Forum. He says diversity is a hot topic for technology firms right now, in part, because there's a clear need and it's not as though the tech industry is an isolated case."
Ulysses Smith: It's funny because I think the same issues that are in tech are not new, right? They're not new and they're not isolated to tech. You look at other industries. You look at the finance industry. You look at consulting overall. Go back to some of the largest consulting firms in the country… they've grappled with this for years.
We also have to acknowledge and speak to some of the big culture issues that have arisen, where you've seen so many people, women in particular… who have spoken up over the last few years about just how toxic some of the cultures at these big tech companies are... I think that was jarring to so many people to really think, "Wow, these companies that are really supposed to be the best at all of this stuff, who have really been at the forefront of innovation, who've really been leading the way in terms of all these things turns out, they're actually not that great [at diversity and inclusion]. Turns out...they're having the same issues that some of these other companies have been having for years."
Bob: But how do you turn those situations around? What should a company aim to achieve with diversity and inclusion? That can be difficult to define, especially given how some people have thought of these concepts in the past.
Smith: Even prior to diversity, you had multiculturalism, you had… the worst word ever, which is tolerance. That's pretty much where a lot of people started in. Unfortunately, you still see a lot of places and a lot of people preaching tolerance, which, honestly, is probably one of the worst things I think in my mind we could talk about. The thought that comes to mind, the feeling that comes to mind when one talks about tolerance is not really a positive one, right? It really just means, "I can stand your existence up to a certain point, right? But when it gets a little too different for me, then I have to back away." That's the polar opposite of inclusion.
Bob: Diversity and inclusion may be the goals, but Smith says the two words don't mean the same thing, and the difference is important. They represent different points along a continuum, with diversity being the most basic.
Smith: Diversity is really just a simple acknowledgment of difference. Right? Diversity means by definition, really, literally just means different. You can have diversity of so many things. What diversity is not – though I think most people have tried to make it that way – diversity actually doesn't talk about inequity or inequality. Diversity doesn't talk about barriers or access to opportunities…. It really just… acknowledges the fact that there are so many different things, whether those are people, those are objects. It's just difference. That's all diversity is.
Bob: Inclusion, on the other hand, is much more all-encompassing.
Smith: Inclusion, for me, really has to do with the culture and the climate of a place, right? This came up after a realization that diversity was not enough… This epiphany that people had that's saying, "While just getting a bunch of different people in the room is great, but that's not the end of it. We have to start talking about what happens once a bunch of different people are in the room, right?
“How do they interact with one another? How are we able to recognize bias when it comes up? Are we able to check our stereotypes and our assumptions about other people? Are we making decisions based on assumptions and stereotypes, right?
“And how do we keep that from happening, right? Are we able to really challenge a lot of the biases that take place? How do we create that climate where people can ask questions of one another and learn from one another, and do so in a way that is respectful?”
And that comes from a place of willingness to learn and to change and to check ourselves and continuous development the entire time.
Bob: Getting to that climate is a lot easier if a company has been built on these values from the beginning. …Diversity and inclusion can be incorporated into the foundation of the firm, not just in numbers, but in the very feel of how the business works.
Smith: It really is about thinking through a really solid, solid, solid strategy and foundation for not only including different people into the organization but also shaping a culture. You really want to shape a culture. I think that's probably one of the most difficult things to correct down the line. …[but] if we are introducing people into the workforce from the beginning, and the company culture is built around inclusion, and that internal sense of belonging, that's a surefire way to get a company to reach its pinnacle of success.
Bob: Sounds good for companies and for the technologists who work for them. But how does a firm get started? Smith says that's often the hardest part. And it's what we'll talk about next time…
Technologist Talk is an award-winning podcast produced by Creating IT Futures, CompTIA’s tech workforce charity, where we talk to business leaders, workforce professionals and talent developers about shaping the careers of today’s and tomorrow’s technology workers.
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