Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

When is your workplace DEI actually tokenism?

Google senior technical product manager Ayodele Duyile explains the box-checking traps companies fall into — and how much better your inclusive workplace can be without it.

Are you building an inclusive workplace, or just checking boxes?

(Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels)

Ayodele “Ayo” Duyile was fresh out of college and in his first job as a software engineer when he got an opportunity to do recruitment on several HBCU campuses. His role was to meet promising students of color and help them bridge the industry’s racial gap.

“I was the only Black software engineer [at the company],” Duyile said. “At the time, I was like, ‘This is pretty cool. I’m fresh out of school, a software engineer making good money. This is just awesome, and the company actually reached out to me to work with them on campus recruiting with HBCUs. I can pay it forward.'”

And he did meet plenty of talented students looking for their first break in tech out of schools like Howard University, Norfolk State and Hampton University. As time went on, though, the cracks started to show.

“I would notice that none of these people that I’ve met at these hiring events would actually make it into the interview round,” he said. “Obviously there were no offers extended. So, after months went by, I realized that this was an act of tokenism – essentially, [the company held the events] just to check a box to say, ‘We were here, and we were present, we showed up.’ I didn’t realize that I actually had a part in that as well, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I ultimately left the hiring team for this reason, and ultimately left the company for this reason, too.”

Duyile, now a senior technical product manager at Google, adjunct professor at Temple University, and founder of backdoortech.io and the nonprofit Techsgiving.org, shared this experience with tokenism during his webinar “Avoid ‘tokenism without change:’ The ethics of brand marketing of company diversity,” part of Technical.ly’s Most Diverse Tech Hub initiative.

Ayo Duyile. (Courtesy photo)

What is tokenism?

The definition of tokenism, Duyile says, is the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort to increase diversity or otherwise include underrepresented groups.

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Examples, many shared by webinar participants, include:

  • Juneteenth branding
  • Increasing diversity only on the entry level, not the leadership level
  • Announcing intentions for hiring a chief diversity officer when police brutality is in the headlines
  • Hiring a DEI recruiter but giving them no voice or budget
  • Hiring a person of color in a leadership position in order to pass off a failing company to them
  • Events that support DEI but no policies to support diverse employees
  • A company that lacks diversity putting Black and Latinx people prominently in their marketing materials
  • Using diverse personnel as the voice of the company when a problem arises relating to DEI issues
  • Empty bandwagon gestures — a well-known example being the “black square” social media trend after George Floyd’s death
  • Hiring a diversity council with no diversity in its leadership positions
  • Focusing on diversity in hiring but not retention

“There’s such a movement for diversity in tech, and I love that,” Duyile said. “But we’re talking about people landing roles when we should really be talking about people thriving in these roles and staying in these roles. Some of this is on personnel, but a lot of this is actually on the company’s culture as well. A lot of these companies are looking to check boxes and say they hit their goal. That is tokenism.”

Inclusivity as a key to sustainability

It’s a common refrain that diversity is good for business, but inclusion is good for your bottom line, too.

“I want you guys to understand that embracing diversity isn’t just a kumbaya thing or just something as good from a humanity perspective,” Duyile said. “This is actually the key to a sustainable organization.”

The top reason: retention.

“One of the big things with tech is that there are a lot of people job hopping, and it will make it a lot harder for me to jump to a different company if I know that this one is an inclusive organization,” he said. “And inclusive teams mean inclusive products, which ultimately mean larger profits for the company as well.”

The future of diversity in the workplace

Diversifying big tech companies has proven to be a slow-going effort. FAANG companies — that’s Facebook (Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google — are showing an average of 2% growth for Black employees, Latinx employees and women in the workforce, Duyile noted.

“We understand that this is a long game,” he said. “We will take that over no growth or actually receding growth.” Trends like the shift to remote work, the growth of tech training apprenticeships and the dropping of college-degree requirements can boost access to the industry for historically underrepresented communities.

For existing employees, it’s important to establish employee resource groups, or ERGs, where employees can connect with other employees in similar situations and influence policies.

“Diversity is empathetic and results driven, right? So in the case of my [HBCU] experience, empathy would have been focused on being results driven, actually having a set number of people to make it to the interview rounds,” Duyile said. “Let’s say that we’re actually going to make sure that XYZ amount gets hired as well, or making sure that you’re at least taking a foot forward to make sure that people are actually given a fair opportunity.”

Watch the full webinar:

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