Creating Diversity in Your IT Staff

Can your IT operations be at their peak without diversity? Many analysts say you're less competitive if you're running a homogeneous shop.
Can your IT operations be at their peak without diversity?

Compared to other industries, IT's record with race-bias lawsuits might not be the worst, but if CIOs aren't tracking diversity, their IT organizations may be at an even costlier disadvantage.

All things being equal in terms of skills and abilities, IT staffs that are racially, nationally, and gender diverse build better software and attract more customers than non-diverse organizations.

So why don't more CIOs make diversity planning a higher priority for their technology organizations?

It could be the belief that IT organizations don't discriminate much on the basis of racial lines. Data from a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation released in 2002 found that IT organizations don't suffer much from racial bias. Only 2 percent of race-based complaints to the EEOC were from technology companies.

However, it also could be the belief that IT workers spend more time communing with their computer screens than they do with their colleagues, making talent the fundamental basis for staffing and salary decisions.

Whatever the reasoning, say experts, CIOs shouldn't pay attention to diversity simply out of fear of a racial-bias lawsuit -- such as the $5 billion case brought against Microsoft in 2001 by some of its African-American workers. CIOs, obviously should never discriminate, but they also should pay attention to diversity because it makes them more competitive.

''It's really hard to find a non-diverse environment that survives,'' says Hamid Alipour, vice president of Technology and Systems at New York-based ESPN Mobile, which brings ESPN's content to mobile devices. That's because a diverse IT group draws from more cultural perspectives in creating software to serve an increasingly diverse marketplace.

''It's definitely very critical... Just imagine if you are all white male Americans and you were to [focus on] a one-dimensional kind of IT, serving perhaps that very category or class of society that we have recruited from,'' adds Alipour.

In ESPN's case, having such a homogenous workplace could turn off millions of customers. The company has viewers from different races and nationalities in more than 60 countries with 90 million viewers in the U.S. alone. Many of ESPN's viewers (and mobile device users) are Hispanic and African American, says Alipour. So Alipour wants a diverse IT group in order to design better user interfaces, for instance, that will appeal to a demographically diverse audience.

Recognizing the importance of a multi-cultural workplace goes beyond just corporate America.

Technology membership organizations such as Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA) and the IEEE-USA are working for diversity because, in a general sense, many IT shops don't have the data to support that they're doing anything at all about diversity.

''Every company has given good lip service to the idea that diversity is important,'' says Wayne Hicks, BDPA national president, and president and CEO of Cincinnati Business Incubator. ''What (the BDPA) is hoping is that companies will recognize that we don't think your company can be successful moving into the 21st century if you don't have this as part of your culture.''

In IEEE's case the Washington, D.C.-based organization wants to foster diversity in corporate America and among its membership.

''Representation of blacks in the IEEE membership is in the single digits, and in most engineering societies, it's pretty low,'' says Pender M. McCarter, director of communications and public relations at IEEE-USA. McCarter works on career and technology enhancement policy for the IEEE, the world's largest technology association, and also sits on the diversity committee of the American Association of Engineering Societies.

What can CIOs do to improve diversity?

''[CIOs] don't need permission from anyone to [take charge of diversity]. They are in control of their IT operations, including their IT workforce,'' says Hicks. Take leadership and make the managers within the IT department accountable for creating a diverse workforce.

Create metrics that track diversity. The top five best practices that encourage diversity, according to a National Urban League Study called Diversity Practices that Work, conducted by Global Lead Management Consulting of Baltimore, are:

  • Market to diverse customers and consumers;
  • Retain diverse talent;
  • Recruit diverse talent;
  • Make sure leadership is committed and involved, and
  • Make culture and values inclusive.

    But efforts to increase diversity in IT needn't stop there.

    Part of the trouble with diversity in technology staffing has to do with the low number of minorities and women graduating in the engineer field, notes McCarter. Only 20 percent of undergraduate university students are women. And according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering data from 1990 to 2000, 11 percent of those earning undergraduate degrees in engineering were Asian. Other minorities combined accounted for another 10 percent.

    Because of this, BDPA encourages companies to broaden their recruiting efforts to include companies that specifically target minority job seekers, such as LatPro and

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