Ashleigh Ainsley shares his thoughts on the progress towards greater ethnic diversity in tech, the intersections between class and ethnicity and the necessity of accountability if diversity and inclusion is to get back on track.
Colorintech is dedicated to increasing the number of people from ethnic minorities entering, and prospering, in the UK tech workforce.
Prior to 2016 Ashleigh Ainsley had, via a state education, Oxford University and an internship at Google, built an impressive career in digital strategic consultancy. He met his co-founder Dion McKenzie at a tech event where, as was usually the case, there weren't many people in the room who looked like them.
"We talked about why we didn't see many people like us at the events we went to," says Ainsley. "We knew they existed but there wasn't a community of Black people in tech in London. Colorintech was born out of being aware that there were lots of opportunities that were inaccessible for people like me."
Colorintech brings ethnic minority communities closer to corporates for the benefit of both and is built on three pathways. The first is NXT Gen which is an early career pathway. The second, for entrepreneurs is #BUILD and Advance is for more experienced career professionals. More than 5000 individuals have graduated from their programmes which have attracted some impressively big name sponsors including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Sky.
Colorintech also stages Black Tech Fest and conducts research - of which more later.
Class, race and culture
Analysing the propensity of the tech sector to attract a certain type of person - and the tendency of people, particularly women, from ethnic minorities to remove themselves from it or avoid it altogether - involves picking at multiple threads comprising race, ethnicity, gender and class. Is the under representation of Black people in the tech sector almost as much a class issue as one of ethnicity? Is it discrimination or something less overt but harder to quantify? Ainsley picks at these threads when reflecting on his own education and early career.
"There is classism involved because lack of privilege tends to be concentrated in the people who are from ethnic minority backgrounds because of the legacy of things like slavery and immigration policies. When my grandparents came to this country there was no opportunity to become middle class.
"So the class system is part of it but there are elements that are particular to ethnicity and race as well. Some are cultural. I had an opportunity at Google to consider a career in Ireland. One of the reasons that I was put off is that I wouldn't have been around a community of people who are like me. People want things that are related to their culture and their community so if you're moving to a place where you don't have that, you are more likely to feel uncomfortable."
The cultural ‘fitting in' issue that Ainsley describes is often cited by individuals leaving tech roles as one of the reasons for their departure. It's a perfect description of some of the structural challenges that minorities encounter. Nobody sets out to deliberately exclude Black tech workers, but somehow, it's still the outcome. When you aren't on the receiving end of it, it's easy to misunderstand just how subtle and pervasive discrimination can be.
Ainsley continues: "Not every social challenge that people like me have is because the colour of our skin but that's not to say that the colour of our skin doesn't create any challenges. There are white working-class boys from Lewisham [where Ainsley grew up] that will have all the same challenges as me and would have felt just as awkward as I did walking into Oxford on day one.
Progress and accountability
Data on the ethnic diversity of the tech workforce is very limited, so its difficult to ascertain whether efforts to enhance it have paid off. There is a distinct lack of curiosity on the subject of barriers to entry and progression for Black and minority ethnic tech workers demonstrated by many employers as well as the present government.
However, there has been an increase in companies self-reporting ethnicity data and ColorinTech has conducted two rounds of research - one into barriers to entry for people of colour into tech, and one into the factors enabling the progression of ethnically underepresented professionals. The former, conducted in 2022, found 65% of Black tech professionals experienced barriers to entering the sector. In addition, more than a quarter (30%) expressed concerns about being their true selves. They linked authenticity to a lower likelihood of progression. We're back to fitting in again.
Nonetheless, whilst Ainsley laments the lack of curiosity, hard data and longitudinal studies, he's optimistic.
"We know from people being more vocal and from more companies self-reporting that representation has increased but there's no standardisation and it relies on self-reporting."
The companies who are choosing to self-report are leading the way, but the recognition that tech needs to change to better represent its customers is slowly filtering through the tech ecosystem.
"I think there were three phases," says Ainsley. "Pre-2020 people would deny that there was even an issue. In 2020, with the murder of George Floyd, there was a recognition that society had issues and that individual companies weren't standing outside of that. There was a push to hire diversity people and money was allocated. Companies started showing up a lot more, people started to listen to their colleagues. Some of that inclusion work isn't glitzy and its hard to report on but it has probably done a lot to make people feel more valued in their workplace."
So job done then? Not so much. Ainsley pinpoints one of the biggest failings of what some of the non-technical media like to refer to as the "diversity and inclusion agenda."
"How many organisations have tied executive performance to performance across a number of diversity metrics?" he asks. "One or two of the FTSE100 might have a morsel of someone's bonus related to that but almost nobody is backing this with cash or accountability.
"If you're a manager, and average company retention is maybe 90% over two years but your team averages 50% people are going to be asking questions about you and doing lots of exit interviews. We don't have the same energy, enthusiasm or process for diversity. It's always too complicated, too awkward, too difficult. If you measure things, if people's performance assessment was linked to diversity metrics, you'd get a change overnight in how much time and budget people dedicate to sorting it out."
Countering the backlash
There is now an observable backlash underway against diversity and inclusion efforts, driven by a highly combustible combination of powerful reactionaries who rather enjoy their privilege (whilst also denying that it exists), tiny minorities at the fringes of wokery who create an open goal for the first group, social media algorithms pushing the most divisive content imaginable, and the wider print and broadcast media obsession with all things woke.
Unfortunately, the perception that the diversity and inclusion (D&I) "industry" exists but is failing to actually enact change isn't completely wide of the mark. The pace of change is glacial. Ainsley doesn't think the case for diversity needs remaking, but does think that without accountability at the top, efforts are likely to fail.
"Several years ago, people saw D&I professionals as a silver bullet, as a panacea that could come in and solve any problems they might have. Companies acknowledged they had workforce issues and they hired D&I professionals but didn't give them enough budget. Or they did give them budget but now that's been cut, or they've now cut people in those teams. They were set up to fail. Because there was no buy in from the top about why it matters, they're just viewed as the D&I police. There's no explanation of why it's important for the business."
Unfortunately, many corporates (and media) have, instead of reflecting on why outsourcing deeply entrenched structural problems to a handful of inadequately funded and ill supported people was never going to work, have drawn the wrong conclusions from D&I failure.
"People look at D&I failure and see it as justification for why it shouldn't exist, or they see it as evidence that they didn't have an issue in the first place."
What this has led to, Ainsley has observed, is companies taking a different approach.
"What I've found," he says, "is that when a company says that they don't need a D&I person because they are going to bake it into everyone's targets it means that nobody is accountable so it just falls by the wayside. Yes, it should be part of everyone's job but you've got to make people accountable for it."
If everyone is accountable, then no one is.