How to Make Tech Companies More Equitable

TSP • @myTSPnet


When a piece of software or an algorithm is created, there’s almost always a sense of algorithmic bias within it, because the algorithm naturally reflects the biases of its creator. More often than not, algorithm creators are white men, giving them an inherent advantage. This is called embedded inequity. Embedded inequity is often overlooked, yet, it’s prevalent in tech companies and the technology they create.

Big Tech is belatedly waking up to this reality, as seen from IBM and Amazon announcing that they are pausing facial-recognition deployment because it can enhance bias in police surveillance. One approach to improving algorithmic bias is increasing diversity in the tech field. The percentage of Black employees in major tech companies has only risen by low single digits over the last eight years, and the number of Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has dropped from six in 2012 to four in 2020.

Exclusion and inequity issues are systemic and will not be remedied by one-off changes or quick fixes. These problems need multilayered solutions and participation from the entire company. So, how do we improve such a difficult and system-wide problem? Here are three steps to help your tech company become more equitable.

It’s imperative that you actively seek input from your community so that your company is a reflection of the real world. Asking questions to the people around you allows for simple and direct feedback, which can help tackle bias. Building a community that accounts for demographic and geographic representation is crucial. Ask yourself, “Who are we actually accountable for?” and, “How do we seek differing opinions?” Every approach is different — there no magic formula that solves embedded inequity.

An open line of communication is a good place to start when establishing equity in your tech company. Building communities that reflect those in the real world is hard work, but it’s the best way to ensure that the technology created is tackling biases.

Equity begins slowly. Values need to be company-wide rather than treated as a box-checking exercise, otherwise, nothing will change. You must find where having proper equity truly matters. Is it in sales, or in the design itself? Finding problem spots allows you to identify and fix them.

Your company must take your processes seriously to establish order. If there’s no adherence to your principles, you can’t expect to make any improvements. Everyone should feel responsible to establish equity. It stems from proper procedures and evaluating, then reevaluating your processes until embedded inequity is no longer an issue.

Tech projects, like building software, that could take six months may take much longer because of the proper approach to inclusion. It’s worth the extra time to not only create the best output possible, but also avoid exclusion. Rather than moving fast, be sure to move slowly and build consensus. This creates a diverse, equitable and inclusive final product. One example of this is the Institute of the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which in the late 1990s was a pioneer of the arts as a method for sparking difficult conversations by creating “safe space for unsafe ideas” and emphasizing the process of public engagement in the creation of art.

Team building allows for accountability. When in a large group, some may slip under the radar. Create smaller groups within your organization to hold everyone accountable for creating diversity and inclusion. Conversations among team partners must be honest and acknowledge both successes and failures.

Failing to discuss flaws will never lead to improvement. Companies take direction from their partners, so it’s important to collectively shape expectations and commitments around equity, inclusion and user protection. If an issue is important to a group, it’s likely to quickly surface.

Equity in any system requires heavy lifting at the beginning, and equity in the tech industry is no exception. There are many deep-rooted issues that are tough to bring out, but as you slowly chip away, it’ll get easier. We need leaders that are brave and hardworking to make these changes, because equity is not only possible, it’s essential for a better future.