A United Nations Roundtable on D&I Backlash in the Tech Industry

Summary of 8 December 2017 Roundtable on Avoiding/Addressing Backlash to Diversity & Inclusion programs in the tech sector held at Microsoft premises, 11 Times Square, NY

The context for the event was the desire by the organizers (ITU and UN Women) and participants to share and learn about the phenomenon of backlash and how to avoid and address it for more successful diversity and inclusion programmes, including on gender equality, in the tech sector. EQUALS (equals.org) is a multi-stakeholder partnership that seeks to bring women and girls to tech and tech to women and girls, including by helping initiatives on ICT access, skills and leadership for women and girls be more effective through learning, sharing, collaboration and coordination. Backlash and fatigue are themes that can stand in the way of faster and sustainable progress for all types of organizations.

Is backlash/fatigue to diversity and inclusion programmes a real or fake problem?

Participants felt that it is real. In some places, in keeping with the culture e.g. East Coast vs West Coast of the US, the backlash is more vocal and direct than in others. Similarly, where there are channels for concerns to be expressed, the backlash/fatigue is expressed in a more explicit way. Participants expressed a preference for having concerns be voiced so that they can be engaged with and addressed, rather than being allowed to simmer or manifest as resistance or thwarting of programmes. Data from a recent survey by ORC International/EY was circulated that showed:

  • 35% of respondents think the focus on diversity in the workplace has overlooked white men (43% are males, 26% are females)
  • 62% of these think white men are being overlooked for promotion and advancement opportunities
  • 49% think white men are being excluded from diversity programs and initiatives
  • 26% think white men are not included in mentorship or training programs
  • 26% think white men do not feel comfortable using benefits, e.g., paternity leave

What forms does backlash take?

Participants have seen it in response to policies, programs and targets around recruitment and promotions and in relation to supplier diversity programs. One participant shared that interdependence in a collaborative culture is not yet as well understood as it could be, thus some people feel that equal opportunity for women and minorities can come only at the expense of a decrease in their own opportunities.

One participant shared that some men feel that diversity and inclusion programmes are an attack on them as men or that diversity and inclusion are verbs that are done to men.

Another participant shared that it is important to remember that in some contexts bias, backlash and resistance is not merely unconscious, but can be overt resistance, discrimination and even violence.

Yet another noted that backlash and overt bias is manifest in social media comments everyday.

It was pointed out that the world is less equal today and inequalities are growing. There has always been some backlash, but it may be getting worse or at least becoming more vocal.

One participant shared that some interpret efforts to increase equal opportunity for women owned businesses that currently receive even only 1% of spend as “taking contracts away from men.”

The participants were interested to come together to share and learn about practices to avoid/address backlash and fatigue to help make all diversity and inclusion efforts more successful and effective.

What strategies are participants using to address it?


  • A number of participants emphasized having high-level executives show that diversity and inclusion is a priority of theirs and not just a policy set by others i.e. owning the policies and having authentic commitment to them.
  • Presenting policies, programs and targets as shared goals and encouraging people to understand that they are about making the company more successful and making the work environment more inclusive and better for everyone, responding to the growing unmet need for talent in the context of skills shortages, the need to continually disrupt the company itself and be innovative especially in the face of the 4th industrial revolution. Given that the current numbers of women and minorities in senior and tech roles at tech companies is low, it was pointed out that being more inclusive is also a real market opportunity to attract the best talent and a competitive advantage over competitors with less favourable reputations.
  • Building on these ideas, it was emphasized that the arguments for programmes are strengthened when they are explicitly tied to company priorities and its bottom line.
  • Engaging majority groups, including men, was seen as a key priority for successful diversity and inclusion programmes. Show men how inequality and bias also negatively affects them and what benefits diversity and inclusion bring also for them. Also engage men as allies and mentors.
  • Some companies are working on addressing internal power dynamics and how they play out in workplace settings recognizing that hierarchy can make it hard for some leaders to model inclusive behavior. This article was referred to: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/
  • Some feel that a new approach to unconscious bias training is needed as acknowledging that we all have bias is not enough on its own to remove it. Work by researchers such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett was flagged and the suggestion was made that we may need to work on rewiring our brains for inclusion recognizing that our brains are actually quite malleable. In this regard, it was noted that the workplace is a really important setting for people to have experiences of engaging with people who may be different from themselves and in helping to learn more inclusive behaviour. Programmes that create more opportunities for majority groups in the workplace to be exposed to women and minority leaders and employees and to have experiences where they are in the minority can facilitate support for diversity and inclusion programmes and build empathy.
  • An example was shared of how support for LGBTI issues such as marriage equality was built including by ordinary people speaking to their friends and family and having their own opportunities to engage one on one as well as collectively to move the conversation forward.
  • Starting with the concept of inclusion for all and providing specific tools and clear strategies with actual tasks that can be undertaken to support inclusion – what to do differently, what to watch out for to counteract unconscious bias, what to ask etc
  • Training supportive male leaders in the company to be authentic advocates and mentors and engaging them as allies to help address the underrepresentation of women and minorities
  • Several participants mentioned the importance of making internal communications really clear to avoid misunderstanding that can fuel backlash. This includes as to the problem that they are intended to solve, as to the purpose and value of the programmes, and as to what they will concretely mean for employees.
  • One participant shared that their company called backlash and a sense of unjustified entitlement out for what it is. Addressing stereotypes in marketing and advertising for external audiences also proved to be a learning experience for addressing such issues internally as well.
  • Getting better at measuring the success of programmes and at telling compelling stories. Some fatigue comes from the feeling that diversity and inclusion programmes are not yielding results. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that it can take a long time for diversity and inclusion programmes to yield results.
  • Some called on academic institutions to take on more responsibility for teaching inclusive behaviour and dispelling stereotypes about women in tech. It was noted, for example, that James Damore had a graduate degree from Harvard and yet his memo was filled with basic myths and stereotypes.
  • While training helps, it was noted that certain types of training can be limited in its impact. Some training programs may even encourage or entrench bias and backlash. Several participants emphasized that the key is to effect a culture change that supports inclusion. In such settings, training will be more effective. The order of interventions can be really important.
  • As well as working on culture, it was also suggested that we need to equip women now with tools (not just technical skills, but also soft skills) and support to navigate their careers in the male dominated tech sector to help reverse the trend of declining women in tech. Informal guidance on issues like how decisions get made, how do people have influence and get visibility for their work at the organization, what is really needed to get ahead etc can be invaluable to successful upward mobility at a company. One woman technologist expressed how she increasingly feels like an endangered species as she has seen many other talented women leave the field.
  • Investing in building a really strong pipeline of women and minorities to draw from internally and externally was emphasized by several participants so that people are not scrambling at the last minute to find a token person to meet diversity targets, which can fuel backlash. Instead, look for candidates (including for internships) widely, use channels that are likely to attract women and minority candidates, support awards and programmes for women, girls and minorities in tech, mentoring programmes, host events for women and minorities in your premises, have diverse recruiters, proactively encourage women and minorities to apply, leverage networks of female and minority employees to reach a broader pool, have your leaders give talks in diverse settings etc
  • Some resistance and fatigue can be addressed by listening to the concerns and engaging with them to counter them with facts and data. Those expressing backlash may not have thought it through. Those who previously resisted can sometimes become very effective champions in engaging others that are resisting. Male allies for gender equality can be really helpful in engaging other men as they may sometimes be seen as more authentic and independent on gender equality issues than women who may be seen as having a vested interest. UN Women shared an example of how a police officer that was overtly resistant to women’s empowerment was engaged with and then later asked to speak to the audience as an authority figure about the issues. A corporate participant shared how when they have experienced backlash from men about hiring decisions where a woman or minority man was selected that they have enlisted and briefed men to engage with the person to talk through the concerns, process and decision, and that it has helped people to see that it was merit based and that the perceptions of their preferred candidate vis a vis the successful candidate may not have been accurate.
  • Bottom up strategies as well as top down approaches were recommended by a number of participants including speaking in the language of those the programmes seek to engage, understanding the perspectives of the persons whose behavior they seek to change. Shifts in mindset were called for. If majority groups could see that inclusion helps grow the pie so that all will benefit in the medium to longer term, there may be more support. Some felt that CEOs sometimes have a rose coloured view, which differs from the view of those in the trenches who may see diversity and inclusion programmes as taking your job away to give it to someone else. It was suggested that employee resource groups could be given a greater voice and influence internally and externally.
  • Engaging leaders continues to be very important. It is vital that diversity and inclusion not just be delegated to human resources or be seen only as a compliance issue. It needs to be part of their job and part of how they are evaluated. A number of participants emphasized that diversity and inclusion must be seen as strategic by the organization’s leadership. Popular and influential male leaders at different levels can also be informally or formally tapped to help win over other colleagues.
  • As well as major diversity and inclusion initiatives, informal channels such as meeting over coffee to find out what blocks exist for women and what women need to advance can be fruitful and attract less backlash. Direct questions in a safe space may be needed to get candid answers. One approach that a company mentioned was offering coding bootcamps to women in non technical roles to help them transition within the company.
  • The question was raised of whether diversity and inclusion needs new branding and language to engineer out backlash. Some felt that there were lingering issues of baggage from misunderstanding about the goals of affirmative action. While department names and programmes may not need to change, participants were interested in the potential of new language such as fairness. Although some pointed out that fairness itself can be subjective and be used by those expressing backlash too. Nevertheless, informal recruitment and decision making around promotions and assignments can be shown to also harm less connected, more introverted men and the company too, and lead to a lower overall quality of talent. The nepotism (or as one participant put it “putting the thumb on the scale for someone that you like”) inherent in a “bros-club” can be called out and rejected in favour of a true merit based, formal and more transparent approach. A participant shared a story of how she had pointed out how informality of processes and its negative impact on the company and that her comments were appreciated.
  • The increasing role of AI and technology tools in recruitment was seen as both an opportunity (to avoid bias) and a risk for inclusion (replication of existing bias). Similarly, it was flagged that AI can lead to exposure to narrower and narrower tailored material that may mean that women and minorities may miss opportunities and information key for advancement that majority groups may be getting.
  • Making available and pitching programmes (flexible work arrangements, leave, support for care etc) that are key to women’s empowerment and achieving gender equality as for all employees can also help address backlash. This includes programmes that also support men in their care responsibilities outside of work. See the resource mentioned below on Tackling Childcare as one example.
  • Supporting women owned businesses and start ups in your ecosystem, including through equal opportunity procurement, mentoring, to build your pool of suppliers and business partners.

What are some other resources, information and initiatives that are relevant to this issue?

  • A partial list of resources, initiatives and information along with suggestions for avoiding/addressing backlash was circulated along with a brief case study from Berkeley about a response to a tech company’s public experience of backlash. (See resource list)
  • Others:
    • An article on communicating human rights more effectively was referred to: http://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2017/how-better-communicate-common-values-fundamental-rights-and-freedoms-meeting-report
    • The UN Women/UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles were referred to as a holistic approach for businesses to gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace, marketplace and community: www.weprinciples.org Several tech companies are signatories.
    • IFC, Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer Supported Childcare: https://ifcextapps.ifc.org/IFCExt/Pressroom/IFCPressRoom.nsf/0/5D0200E6236AF8FC852581A70078E3DE This include case studies showing that employers that offered childcare found that it led to a substantial reduction in employee turnover; improved the quality of applicants and the speed at which vacancies can be filled; increased productivity through reduced absences, greater focus, and enhanced motivation and commitment; and improved gender diversity and the advancement of women into leadership positions.
    • The Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks: http://centreforglobalinclusion.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/GDIB-V.090517.pdf
    • Articles by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.


As the summary shows, the discussion was a very rich 2.5 hours. Participants seemed to like the format and expressed interest in other opportunities to convene again (perhaps in 6 months) on other related themes and/or to take the discussion on the same theme to other tech hub cities. Participants were invited to approach ITU and UN Women with ideas along these lines or to express interest, and/or to reply on the email thread.

Related work: