Non-engineering roles are given too little attention in today’s tech diversity and inclusion initiatives. Here’s why we need to change that.

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In 2017, lack of diversity in tech is still a problem. Google has spent over $100 million on diversity initiatives. Intel has allocated $300 million towards increasing workplace diversity. Yet while hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in recent years by the tech industry to increase diversity, the numbers remain disappointing. These initiatives are falling short.

Tech companies, nonprofits and other organizations are currently driving initiatives aimed at attracting women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and others from underrepresented groups, but these campaigns are almost entirely focused on how to get more minorities into technical roles. Reaching these groups and paving the way for them to succeed at tech companies is crucial. But as an industry, we are going to be unsuccessful in our mission to increase tech diversity if we don’t also think about creative ways to engage and retain minorities in non-engineering roles. Perhaps we don’t think it’s an issue–and, admittedly, other departments are often more diverse than engineering. Yet, recent statistics from NCWIT show that engineering isn’t the only area where minorities are underrepresented. For example, only 25% of tech salespeople are women. Women represent only 12 percent of sales leaders.  Thirty percent of 450 tech executives surveyed by Reuters reported that their groups had no women in leadership positions.

Many tech leadership positions are non-technical roles, and many are paths to the C-suite; focusing on inclusivity among non-technical roles will be key to improving the diversity in tech leadership

In 2017, tech leadership is still predominantly white and male. This problem isn’t exclusive to our industry; according to CNN Money, only around 14% of the top leadership positions at companies in the S&P 500 are held by women. Inability to see oneself in a leadership role contributes heavily to churn among women and minorities backgrounds. Women are more than twice as likely as men to leave tech careers. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows U.S. women working in STEM and tech are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry. NCWIT research reports 48% of Black women in tech feel their careers are “stalled” without promotion opportunity. Lack of representation in leadership absolutely plays a role in this flight from tech jobs. Increasing leadership diversity in each department helps every department.

Engineers can and do become leaders at tech companies–but we should also focus our inclusion efforts on cultivating leaders from underrepresented groups from all roles. This diverse leadership can more effectively drive towards, and sustain, a diverse industry.

It is not all bad news

Some companies like Atlassian pay particular attention to company-wide diversity initiatives, ensuring diversity isn’t siloed in one department, and companies like Twitter offer inclusive benefits such as parental leave policies, gender reassignment surgery, partner benefits, and more, while other companies host employee resource groups and other inclusion efforts that do help retain diverse talent across the org chart. Lesbians Who Tech organization puts on an event called “bring a lesbian to work day” where LGBTQ people and allies can help queer women shadow us and learn what it’s like to work in tech. These efforts are laudable, but overall in the tech industry, we don’t do enough to explicitly attract and retain minorities in non-engineering roles. Here are some ideas for extending tech diversity initiatives to the entire company.

Immersion programs for aspiring engineers are great–we need similar programs for non-technical roles, too

The diversity initiatives that have been shown to work for increasing minorities in engineering roles can also be applied to non-technical roles. For example, to help address the gap between the tech pipeline and hires, Girls Who Code offers immersion opportunities so that girls who are learning how to code can get a glimpse into what it will be like if they work at a tech company. Coding bootcamps now help people from all backgrounds gain the skills they need to be successful in programming and data science roles. These bootcamps, immersion programs and “pipeline cultivation” for programming can work for attracting diverse talent in non-technical roles, too. The assumption may be that these aren’t necessary for filling non-technical roles; after all, coding is a specific skill, and many non-technical roles don’t require additional training for candidates to be successful–but I would argue that’s untrue.

There are candidates who are qualified skill-wise for non-technical roles but who don’t know how to break into tech or don’t think the industry is for them. In addition, many minority candidates who have experience working in tech in non-technical roles aren’t getting hired or promoted. Organized immersion and training programs targeting non-technical fields could build the confidence and exposure needed to be successful in tech’s unique environment.

Identify cultures within your organization that are disadvantaging women and minorities, then set goals around, measure and publish diversity stats for the whole company

Inclusivity is key to retaining talent; recent studies reported in the Harvard Business Review suggests that diversity “doesn’t stick” without inclusion. ShareRoot COO Mischa McPherson developed and executed a plan to create a more inclusive tech sales teams. At the time she joined ShareRoot, the percentage of women on the sales team was 25%. She knew before she’d reach her goal of increasing diverse talent, she’d have to work hard as a leader to show a career path for underrepresented team members. 

When Misha arrived at ShareRoot she set a goal to increase the proportion of women to men on the sales team to 50/50. In her first four months on the job she increased the proportion of women on the sales team to thirty-three percent. Misha was deliberate in changing the previous culture and moved the company closer to the goal she set by measuring progress and publishing stats around it for the whole company. 

Final Thoughts: Why this matters to me

I’m passionate about this topic because I’m in a non-engineering role and I’ve seen firsthand that our group is often underserved by tech diversity initiatives. I am confident that this is not intentional; we’ve become so focused on increasing much-needed diversity in engineering departments that we’ve lost sight of the rest of the tech org chart. We need to do more to reach and retain minorities for non-technical roles, improving the industry as a whole. I recently participated in an interview with Inventing Heron aimed at encouraging young people to consider tech careers–including non-engineering roles, and also recently gave a talk at Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco this year on how to grow your career in a non-technical role. In 2014, I founded Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup  in Boulder, which frequently hosts events that are aimed at people in non-engineering roles.

As an industry, we need to develop and implement more intersectional initiatives aimed at helping minorities succeed in any role in tech; when we do this, everyone will benefit.

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