Why you need to make inclusion a corporate priority

Why you need to make inclusion a corporate priority

Recent reports suggest EDI advisors are leaving tech companies at a disproportionately high rate. CILAR’s Maya Roy explains why this trend is bad for business.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, businesses pledged to tackle racism in their companies, investing in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives. They acknowledged the need to change hiring practices and created EDI-focused roles. Notably, the rate of new chief diversity officer hires at U.S. companies in 2021 was nearly three times the rate at which hires for such roles were made in the previous 16 months.

But that momentum seems to be slowing, if not downright reversing.

Amid economic upheaval, about “30 percent of professionals who started EDI roles following the murder of George Floyd have since left the field,” according to 2023 analysis from Live Data Technologies. Meanwhile, in February 2023, Revelio Labs reported that EDI roles at tech companies were disappearing almost twice as fast as non-EDI roles. The same report found that some companies also saw sharp declines in hires of racialized individuals, regardless of department. But does this signal a move away from diversity and inclusion in tech — or is the story more complicated than that?

There are real reasons to worry, says Maya Roy, CEO of the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR), an organization that aims to dismantle systemic barriers for people of colour in the workplace. It’s also clear, she says, why some companies are pulling back on EDI initiatives (and that shift doesn’t make good business sense).

Here, Roy talks about the business implications of deprioritizing diversity and why we need to get better at having hard conversations.

How are tech companies doing when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion?

We actually just commissioned some polling around that exact question, and what we’re seeing is that BIPOC Canadians are still experiencing disproportionate barriers. But the other thing that concerns me is that the data reflects the polarization we’re seeing in society — we only want to talk to people who agree with us. In Canada and around the world, polarization is affecting democratic elections. It’s affecting people’s ability to feel safe in their communities and their workplaces.

Based on news coverage and online chatter, it seems like there’s a concerted effort to undermine EDI efforts. Some tech companies are even pulling back on diversity initiatives. Is that something you’ve seen in practice?

What’s happening right now is what I would call “rightsizing.” The companies who always intended to do the work, who were working to centre human rights in good faith, are continuing to do that work. And then there are the companies who are simply moving on to the next flavour of the month. It really pains me when Black lives, racialized lives, women’s and children’s lives are seen as a fad, as opposed to, for example, how J.P. Morgan has consistently said this is the right thing to do.

Why do you think EDI is being targeted?

I think the real reason is much deeper than “Oh, that’s just woke.” People are understandably upset and mistrustful, because a lot of things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to. It’s harder to afford groceries, there’s a housing crisis, we keep hearing about layoffs. Before COVID, we knew things were broken, but that has become especially clear since the pandemic. So, EDI is really a proxy for a much deeper problem around social inequality.

How much do we need to worry about tech companies pulling back from EDI initiatives?

Even if the language around EDI changes, the work will continue, because no company today can succeed without it. We know, for example, companies that do engage in EDI work have a better understanding of what their investors want and what their customers want. Applying EDI is actually good for your bottom line. Studies have shown that your people are happier, your business is stronger, you actually make more money and you’re able to connect with the community in a completely different way. There are also consequences for not applying EDI. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission recently banned a national drugstore chain from using AI facial recognition for five years because its surveillance system was racially profiling customers.

At the end of the day, would you rather get it right and have a strong company, brand and reputation? Or do you want to get it wrong and have to deal with the social media backlash, the fines, your customers losing faith in you? That’s really the question.

There’s also a talent acquisition angle, right? According to a recent report from Deloitte, Gen Z cares a lot about a company’s values, which means those looking to diversify their talent pipelines need to prioritize social good — and communicate that commitment.

Yes. In a knowledge economy, you need not just the best people and the best brains, but the best brains who are committed to what you’re doing and are aligned with your values. If people don’t feel valued or respected, you’re not going to get the best out of them. Why should we go to the lowest common denominator? Gen Z has raised the standards around conversations, and personally, I’m here for that.

What do you think needs to happen now?

CILAR is going to continue to talk about different solutions to disrupt algorithmic bias with our members, and we’re also looking at how we get more diverse people into tech. Ultimately, research has shown that when you have more diverse people sitting around a table, you make better decisions, everybody benefits and the company does better.

There’s some really interesting research out of the States:  when Democrats and Republicans (even pro-Trump Republicans) were put in a room to have conversations about values — such as family, community and prosperity — they actually started to co-create a shared future. This type of radical, deep listening is not a magic solution, and it can be uncomfortable, but sometimes we have to go outside our comfort zone. There are ways to disrupt the cycle of hate and the cycle of dehumanization.

What could that look like?

After the October 7 terrorist attacks, we spoke to our community partner, Millions of Conversations, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, about how to have those conversations. They have a toolkit created by an Arab-American human rights lawyer, Samar Ali, which we wound up using to help CILAR members with lived experience talk about Islamophobia, genocide and antisemitism. Even though there’s so much dividing us right now, we can’t stay silent. Colleagues have told me that it’s actually the silence that kills. We really need to have those difficult conversations.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meaningful innovation: MaRS believes “innovation” means advancing Canadian technology for the benefit of all people. Join our mission.