“Our differences are truly our greatest strength,” Shelley Zalis, CEO at The Female Quotient, said today during a panel about diversity in tech at CES 2021.
“We talk about inclusive cultures, we talk about equitable cultures, but we know that it all starts at the top. It starts with leadership, it starts with a conscious mindset for change,” she said, kicking off a discussion about actions tech companies can take to ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace that empowers women and underrepresented people.
Latasha Gillespie and countless others know the importance of that ethos. “There’s been many times in the room where I’ve been the only woman, the only African American, and often lonely. But interesting enough, what has been has great about those moments as well is it’s been empowering. I realize that I bring a unique perspective based on my own set of life experiences that no one else in the room has, and so it’s empowered me to find my voice,” the head of global diversity, equity, and inclusion at Amazon Studios said.
Gillespie’s role and aspirations at Amazon require her to work to understand the “needs and concerns of marginalized communities that I don’t personally identify with so that I can be a good advocate on their behalf,” she explained.
Overcoming that isolation or only-ness starts with risk taking and learning how to take calculated risks, Gillespie said. Many women know the sacrifices so many others have endured before them, and understand the consequences they can engender by opening doors of opportunity and power for future generations, but it also explains why women, particularly women of color, are often reticent to take more risks, she explained.
“The risk part is every day do something that makes you completely uncomfortable — something that scares you, something that takes you out of your comfort zone because it’s a muscle you have to develop day in and day out,” Gillespie said. “The calculated part of risk taking is asking yourself when I look back on this 10 or 15 years from now, am I going to be more upset with myself that I said this or took this action, or didn’t say it or didn’t take that action?”
Those hard questions lead to more calculated risk taking and eventually getting over the imposter syndrome, according to Gillespie.
“What I’ve learned recently is that both men and women have the imposter syndrome. Men just ignore those voices and women allow them to amplify and get louder in their head,” Zalis said. “We’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Gillespie noted that “at my age I’m probably halfway through my life, God willing. So at this point, if I can’t lean into disruption and take more risks, then why am I taking up space?”
Terri Cooper, vice chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Deloitte, said she too is committed to making sure that women and women of color are broadly represented and empowered at the consultancy because she doesn’t want marginalized communities or other women to suffer the same challenges she’s faced in her career.
“I just personally want to be able to look back over a career of close to 30 years now and say I did make a difference, and it may not be huge, but there are hundreds of women that I know deep in my heart that I had an opportunity to help them on their journey,” she said.
Commitment to these outcomes requires all of us to ask how we personally show up in times of need, Cooper said. “Any of us can say I’m an inclusive leader and I embrace diversity, and yet when you show up, do you actually demonstrate that as a trait? Do you actually welcome everybody in the room, or do you do what’s happened to me so many times, which is somebody walks into the room and they only greet the people that look like them or sound like them?”
She also encourages people to “be curious, get to know people. Don’t immediately launch into a business conversation. Understand people’s heritage and backgrounds, and the experiences that they have so that you can also help them bring the best to the table.”
That level of curiosity also requires cultural intelligence and the courage to call out bad behavior, Cooper said. “Every single one of us has a responsibility to actually be an advocate for our colleagues.”
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which puts on the annual CES soiree in the Mojave Desert, claims it is bringing intentionality to these challenges — after featuring an all-male keynote lineup as recently as 2018. And it’s doing so by making sure its speaker program and individuals on stage represent the full breadth of experiences and backgrounds that are impacted by technology, according to Tiffany Moore, SVP of political and industry affairs at CTA.
“Everything you want is just outside of your comfort zone, so we need to be cognizant of that,” she said.
Keys to Inclusivity and Equity in Tech
While the discussion was framed as one for C-Suite executives and how they can foster these changes, Gillespie noted that leadership is personally defined by most people, and who people identify as leaders magnifies what they consider to be the most important characteristics of leadership on these issues.
“I had leaders who pushed me, who challenged me to think big, who challenged me to push past my own perceived limitations, who brought an energy that made wanting to work hard fun and exciting, like you were really changing the world and making a difference,” she said.
“What motivates you may not motivate me, and leaders have to be attuned to that,” Gillespie said.
“We used to follow the golden rule — do unto others as you’d want done unto yourself,” Zalis said. However, she contends that these inequities and biases call for all of us to adopt “the platinum rule — do unto others as they’d want done unto themselves, because what might be OK for you might not be OK for me.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion necessitates a personalized approach wherein all of us “look, listen, and see everyone for who they are and who they want to be,” she said.
Businesses need to treat these outcomes with the same respect and vigor they apply to financial performance, quality of work, and other important business metrics, Gillespie said.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion needs to be embedded as a mechanism in business processes, and not a one-off or occasional activity, she added. “That’s how you start to make it a part of your business and have teeth and sticky, because if it feels like a flavor of the month that’s exactly what it will be.”
Additionally, as everyone continues to grapple with an unrelenting global pandemic, it’s important for leaders to sense and acknowledge the mental health of their colleagues, Cooper said.
“You really have to look at the faces of your colleagues” and sense when someone is potentially struggling, she said.
“I think all of us are trying to keep this really great Zoom facade, from the point of view it’s all OK, I can keep moving on,” Cooper said. “And yet, deep down you know we’re all experiencing that loneliness, the isolation, the mental drain that it has every day.”
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