SAE recently hosted a ‘Tackling racism in tech’ panel event, led by SAE London’s expert Web lecturer, Dominic Patmore. Dominic was joined by expert speakers Nathaniel Dadzie (Software Product Manager), Kathryn Tingle (Technical Programme Manager, Sainsbury’s) and Ashish Suri (Lead Product Manager, Tesco).
To begin with, Domic explained why the event was needed, with a quiz which outlined some stats about representation in the technology sector. Each of the speakers gave a background of their career history, explaining what encouraged them to pursue a career in tech.
SAE Glasgow Audio Production student Moa Jansson said: “Great panel members from different backgrounds and the host did a good job raising awareness at the very start of the panel with a quiz, asking the attendees what percent of BAME CEOs there are in tech companies in the UK today. Some said "not enough", which is 100% true and the correct answer to that question was, sadly, 0. Eye opening event. Really happy to have attended!”
Attendee Toren Duske said: “This panel really showed me that racism in tech is strong and sadly prevalent all around the world. We can keep standing up and show that one voice for change, one panel can start the well-needed spark to carry change for the black, brown, LGBTQ communities, and all other discriminated groups in tech. This event is exactly what we need right now to keep fighting for more diverse communities in tech and in general.”
Then, the attendees were asked thought-provoking questions about racism and how to counter racism and unconscious bias in the workplace by Dom. A transcript of the event is included below so you can see what each of the speakers had to say on the different issues. Please note, some responses have been edited for sense and clarity:
Dom: How do you think the tech industry has evolved in terms of diversity and where do you think it should go?
Nate: I started out in 2015. I was quickly disenfranchised with the whole uni experience as the only black student out of 40 students - one of five in the whole school of architecture. Felt geared against progression. Felt like tech was a place where I could express myself. In the corporate world of tech there are some of the same challenges; not seeing people like you.
Dom: It is hard when you are the only black person. If you can count people who look like you on one hand it’s a bit of an issue. What are some of the differences between when you first started out and now?
Kathryn: The major contrast between then and now is the fact that the need for diversity within tech message is being amplified more. Tech companies and companies in general are making diversity inclusion statements, publishing DNI targets and making more of a conscious effort to be more diverse. There is still very much an issue and to change the curve it’s an uphill battle and until there is true cultural systemic and structural change within organisations, education, policy and government it’s always going to take longer than it humanly feels it should take to happen. Diversity isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it’s essential. Lack of diversity is a breeding ground for issues e.g. AI, machine learning - where there’s a lack of diversity in the backend there are problems for the users who may not look like the engineer.
Dom: Only this year Github decided to allow users to call their main branch something other than ‘master’. Why is it taking so long for progress to be made? Where does your optimism lie?
Kathryn: I’m quite an optimistic person in general but very pragmatic. We’ve had to wait this long because structures and racism serve a purpose - it serves a particular section of society and it has done for so long. We’re still struggling because there is a section of society that benefits from the constructs. But look, we’ve got our first Black and South Asian President [Kamala Harris], we’ve had the first Black president [Barack Obama] - we have seen certain movements and certain changes.
Dom - Ashish - you didn’t go into corporations but worked as a freelancer. What are your experiences of racism as an entrepreneur or freelancer?
Ashish: As a freelancer the question always arisis. I check that I can share with the internal and external stakeholders that I am a freelancer. There was an example of a microaggression where someone once left my contract out for everyone to see. I like freelancing because you get to figure out whether this is a place you want to stay and work or not; I want to know what the hierarchy is like at the companies where I am working. I’ve experiences stereotypes e.g. “You’re Indian, you must be good at coding.” But complacency arises when you don’t pick up on those microaggressions. From a corporate perspective people have been complacent. Only now people are realising there are consequences from a lack of diversity.
Dom: How can graduates step into a workplace that genuinely respects them - what should they be looking out for? How do you know when it’s time to leave a negative work environment?
Ashish: Do your best and expect the worst. Go in with a positive mindset. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be scared to step away, and don’t think “I’m never going to get this opportunity again.” If you’ve got an opportunity once you can get it again. If you don’t like the people you work with, leave - life is short! I’ve worked with amazing people in my life. You need to be strong in terms of having conversations with your organisation if you are uncomfortable. If it isn’t resolved, step out of the situation.
Kathryn: If you’ve got an opportunity you will get another one. I’m from the school of thought that resilience is really important, but so is being forthright. Don’t be scared as a graduate, feel like you can show up to work as your full self within the realms of professionalism. You should feel safe in doing so. If you take on a job where your mental health is affected or you aren’t safe from a race or diversity point of view then it’s time to move on. Your mental health is everything. I sometimes think, “OK I’m the only black woman in this boardroom and I’ve presented to the CEO and his peers and I’m always the only black person and woman within many rooms regardless of hierarchy. I’m going to show up and make room for myself even in non diverse spaces and I’m going to do my best.” Sometimes we feel as ethnic minorities “We have to work 10x harder for not even the same amount of recognition” but it is ingrained in me that I will always work hard and put my best foot forward.
Nate: When I first got into tech I was just happy to be there. I didn’t have anyone to tell me about the importance of my mental health, and that I have worth outside of being a quota. Our parents' generation had to achieve 5x, 10x more just to get somewhere - they downloaded this into us because that was their experience. You have to battle imposter syndrome, knowing that you are where you are supposed to be. You are allowed to bring yourself to work and take ownership. Leave places that don’t allow you to grow.
Ashish: Often get told to set an example when you are the only person who looks like you in a room. But you don’t represent the whole country - be yourself. The concept of freelancing in India doesn’t really exist and people tend to put themselves under a lot of pressure.
Dom: Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You article details the process of negotiating with Netflix over the rights to her work. You need to know your worth so you can navigate these spaces and know when something doesn’t feel right.
BAME students make up 25% - 10-15% of the population as the whole. “The majority” of the managers in tech have said we need to address this. But there’s been limited progress. What can members of “the majority” (i.e. caucasian people) be thinking of - how can they take steps to help?
Nate: When something isn’t working in a company you need to start asking questions, look internally. Look at who is doing the hiring, who gets through the hiring process. You need a granular level analysis to understand how applicants get filtered into your company. What does your advert look like? Where do you post it? Look where BAME applicants went to university. Speak to other firms and ask about their demographics. You might get people in to do a one day diversity training thing but that’s a quick fix that is unlikely to change the systemic injustices. You can’t wait for a black or brown person to show up for an interview and then say “we’ve got one”! Treat it as a fact finding mission like you would in any business where something isn’t working properly.
Kathryn: Finding the root of the issue is important. Think about your internal processes - what does management and HR look like and how does that contribute to the recruitment and retention of diverse employees? Needs to be a genuine willingness to have within organisations. Cultural change has to come from the top down and infiltrate that way. People who have been in an organisation for a long time won’t spark change if they have been quite comfortable with the status quo. We don’t want tick box exercises but it’s important to have measures in place that the board is held to. Having surveys e.g. pulse checks of employees from a diversity lens. When it comes to collecting data, companies need to be more cognizant of how they are collecting data. I have an issue with the term ‘BAME’ because we are not a monolithic group of people. It allows corporations to hide in averages and sometimes there is a minority within a minority.
Ashish: If you’re not in a senior role, just have conversations. Would be happy to answer questions about the diversity of the workforce in an interview e.g. 80% of our workforce is European, are you OK with that? From a personal and people perspective you need to have conversations.
Dom: What can a manager in tech do to help from a middle management role?
Kathryn: When she is hiring talent she is thinking about how to make it a fair process for all candidates e.g. neurodivergence as well as race, gender etc. As a middle manager you can instill certain practices that ensure your team, incoming talent and interview candidates all feel welcome, equal and appreciated. If you’re not happy with the speed or pace of change from the messages that are coming from the top there are certain things you can do as a middle manager. I feel that my employer is making active and important steps towards progress.
Dom: Where do you see the role of education in disrupting systemic racism? How do you help the majority understand why these issues are important - without criticism or pointing fingers?
Ashish: Terms like BAME aren’t widely used; education provides a big role in helping people understand the jargon. Universities can teach diversity and share how the world outside is. It makes it easier for people to put themselves in a different environment if they understand what it is going to be like. Discussing racism and any form of bias should be taught within a university level - careers advisors and lecturers should help. Ask the company “what sort of diversity is there in this organisation?” when you go for job interviews.
Nate: A diverse team genuinely does better so there is profit on the line for companies. We need to move away from “we feel bad so we’re going to give a few people an opportunity and then pat ourselves on the back”. You’re at a disadvantage when not including diversity. It’s win win - the more people you have from diverse backgrounds, the better the company will do. Educate yourself, read the studies. There’s a lot of emotional attachment and sometimes shame but actually there’s nothing like a good bit of hard capitalism to motivate people further up the company!
Kathryn: The curriculum needs rethinking. Primary and secondary socialisation have a huge bearing on later life; you need to make sure that irrespective of where you are in the school career that the syllabus is reflective of i) true, authentic history that is balanced in the way that things are portrayed irrespective of what country you are educated in and ii) how can you shape a curriculum which is field-oriented but also interrogating what diversity and inclusion means, and what does it mean to be consciously inclusive? I strongly believe the curriculum needs to improve and it needs to extend beyond primary and secondary education.
Next came a question from one of the attendees - is there any advice for an artist moving into the industry?
Kathryn: There’s so much richness and diversity in the arts as a result of your culture. Never shy away from bringing flair to your work. It’s beautiful that there is so much diversity and stories to tell.
Another question from an attendee was “Are there any tech companies that represent the BAME community?”
Kathryn: There are plenty of startups within the tech space - YSYS, BYP, Colour in Tech - grassroots organisations that represent the BAME community.
Dom - “the majority” often gets a bad rep i.e. Greg Clarke. Are there any points where you had a positive interaction with a member of “the majority”?
Ashish: My models are the people I work with. Interviewed for Institute of Cancer Research - they asked me ‘What do you think a Business Analyst is supposed to do?’. I said “A business analyst is supposed to be an elf”. Two people smiled and then I elaborated and explained that elves cannot lie but they won’t tell you everything - and my manager later said that got you the job. I’ve learned you have to connect with people on their level - what do they understand? As a newbie, let people know you have a certain skill set and you’re good at it or you have the aptitude and you’re ready to learn. I also worked with a Central London agency - when they interviewed me they said “you’ll fit in”. They reassured me that other people didn’t have experience before coming to the team. Believe in your skillset.
Nate: For the longest time there weren’t people in the industry who I wanted to be. It’s only gradually over time you learn about people doing cool things. They might not be FTSE 500 companies but there are lots of new startups being led by BAME people. I look up to the founder of Fan Bytes, Tim Armoo - working with large corporations to connect with Gen Z. He started out in university and built the company while studying. The great thing with tech is that it decentralises gatekeepers - the cost has been brought down and more people can build stuff out of thin air.
Dom: How can we magnify grassroots organisations, the people who are doing great work but might not be in the FTSE 100?
Kathryn: Representation is very important. It’s important when it comes to role modelling. It’s scientifically proven that when a person sees someone who looks like them or who reminds them of an affinity e.g. a woman, it leads to that person feeling inspired and encouraged. Little girls are enamoured by the new Vice President.
Ashish: Everyone reported that CEO of Google is the first Indian-origin CEO - but IBM appointed an Indian CEO the year before! So look at representation and celebrate it where it exists.
One attendee asked, “How do you avoid branding yourself with stereotypical tropes?”
Nate: Live your truth as much as you can, because people will put you in a box. It’s important to bring your whole self to your working environment. When people make assumptions and say something wanting you to affirm it, you can respond and correct their assumption. It’s not just for them to see, but it’s a self-affirmation for you - a commitment to what you want to be.
Ashish: Be yourself. Don’t brand yourself.
Another question came from an attendee: “How do you start a diverse company in tech?”
Kathryn: Make sure that you align yourself with diverse communities that exist within tech - being plugged into those spaces, let them know you have an open door policy. Let others signal boost you. If you are trying to acquire customers you think “where do these people hang out?” so why not apply that to hiring practices.
Thanks to all of the speakers for their time and insights, this is an important issue and we are grateful to them for sharing their lived experiences.