Left to Right: Janet Ikpa, LaFawn Davis, Aubrey Blanche and Y-Vonne Hutchinson, panelists at SXSW event, “Tech-no-color: Advancing Women of Color in Tech.” Images: Instagram SXSW
Everyone knows that Silicon Valley is white men’s club. Some of the large tech companies have created positions for heads of diversity and inclusion. Often, these jobs are filled by women of color. It’s a job description that’s sometimes seen as a public relations move designed to deflect criticism in a tech industry with a tarnished image of bad workplace culture.
A panel of women experts on diversity and inclusion — some of them, tech founders — took the stage at SXSW to discuss tech’s diversity problem and the question of whose job it is to fix it.
It’s not the job of Black women to fix tech’s diversity problem, said LaFawn Davis, global head of culture and inclusion at Twilio, a San Francisco-based cloud communications platform.
White women — and men — who have power at companies need to step up, step aside, and make room for others, Davis said.
The panelists started with a discussion on what intersectionality means, and why it matters in the workplace.
- Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of Ready Set, a diversity solutions firm based in Oakland, California, and a co-founder of Project Include. She worked as an international labor and human rights lawyer with foreign governments, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.N. She is a member of Harvard Law’s Institute for Global Law and Policy network.
- Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian. She is the co-founder of Sycamore, a community fixing the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders.
- Janet Ikpa, diversity, equity and inclusion lead at Hired. She’s a former diversity strategist and program manager at Twitter.
- LaFawn Davis, global head of culture and inclusion at Twilio. Before Twilio, she led PayPal’s culture and inclusion strategy.
LaFawn Davis: I’m Black, queer, an empty nester and fabulous.
Aubrey Blanche: I’m mixed race, Latina, queer, and making peace with the fact that I’m actually a disabled person.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson: I’m a Black woman from the South, from Texas.
LaFawn Davis: Intersectionality just means we all have layers. Different pieces and parts of ourselves just mean we all experience things in a different way. A lot of companies say, “We’re going to focus on gender right now. We’re just going to do gender.” Here’s the thing. Lesbians are women too. Women of color are women too. Queer women, women too, disabled women, women too. I go down a whole list. Each program for a binary identity, you push out everybody else. When we come to work, we come with all those layers. At work if you’re doing things for people of color, you’re still missing women of color.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson: I’d like to add a bit of historical context. In 2014 and 2015 we saw a ton of programs that focused on white women. There’s some recent research that we’ve been seeing declines of representation of African American women in the tech industry while seeing increases of white women. Now the largest-growing pay gap is between white women and Black women. So now when we think about who we’re solving for and who’s making gains, the research is starting to reflect that those non-intersectional approaches do leave certain women from certain groups behind.
Janet Ikpa: Whose responsibility is it when it comes to addressing these issues? Is it the women of color themselves? Is it the company’s problem? The government? In Iceland, it’s now illegal for a company to even have a wage gap.
LaFawn Davis: It’s everyone. It’s not one company. This is a system of oppression that’s been longstanding and continues. Until we break down the system of oppression, this issue isn’t going to (go away). It does take the people that have the voices, it does take the people that get to the table to actually make room for others.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson: My job, I work across communities so I can see what works at some companies and doesn’t work at others. One of the biggest indicators of success that I see is CEO buy-in. If the CEO’s not buying in, there are certain things you can do but the changes you’re going to be able to make are incremental and probably won’t be sustainable. It’s important to figure out how we leverage our collective power and gear that to influencers that have more power than we do — and to hold them accountable, even when there are other competing priorities on the table.
LaFawn Davis: I was in a room with 150 C-level executives and my CEO was in the room. The question was: What can white allies do, especially at the C-level? You’re running companies, you’re decision makers, you’re in the room with lots of people who are not. I looked at all of them and I said, “White women, when you get your seat at the table … it is your responsibility to make room for others. You cannot put it all on the shoulders of the oppressed to make these changes. We can only fight for so long. What we need is a change in power that has everything to do with leadership, that has everything to do with people that actually have a seat at the table to get out of the way and make room for others.
Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — the most compelling business news you need to know about reversing inequality in tech, delivered straight to your inbox.