It will take an innovative spirit to boost DEI in tech

A session at PRWeek’s Racial Equity Summit shines light on the necessary steps to make progress on diversity and inclusion in the sector.

Clockwise from top: Facebook's Monique McKenzie, Cisco's Letty Ledbetter, Norton LifeLock's Krista Todd and Charlene Wheeless
Clockwise from top: Facebook's Monique McKenzie, Cisco's Letty Ledbetter, Norton LifeLock's Krista Todd and Charlene Wheeless

The tech sector is hardly alone in its need to make significant strides to increase the number of diverse professionals within its ranks. 

However, as Charlene Wheeless, principal of her eponymous consultancy and senior equity and justice adviser at APCO Worldwide, said, the disappointment in its lack of progress stems from the fact that one might expect more from an industry known for innovation.

Wheeless, moderating the session What It’s Like to be Black in the Tech PR Sector at PRWeek’s Racial Equity Summit, noted that recent coverage of the space found few of the top PR pros are non-white. 

The numbers underscore the problem, but the perspectives of Letty Ledbetter, VP of global comms, product and technologies at Cisco, highlight the issues that professionals of color in tech PR too often face.

She was quick to credit individuals who championed her as she rose to the senior level, particularly citing a manager at an early career job for introducing her to the CEO and constantly encouraging her to “exercise her voice.” 

“That gave me the confidence to be more proactive and seek out the bigger, more challenging assignments,” recalled Ledbetter.

Although she was climbing the ladder, obstacles remained, especially the prevalence of microaggression. There were too many instances of her being “complimented” for being well-spoken or well-mannered.

That also hit a nerve with Monique McKenzie, head of lifestyle communications at Facebook. 

“It troubles me when I’m told how well-spoken I am,” she said. “I’m a communicator. Why would you expect otherwise?”

While those comments might seem minor, when they happen consistently – as they often do – they take a toll, added McKenzie.

Yet there is cause for hope. McKenzie was quick to note that she works with 50 or 60 people of color at Facebook. Beyond that, she is buoyed by the unique role that professionals of color can play at tech companies, particularly in social media. 

“The user base tends to over-index within Black communities,” explains McKenzie. “A lot of Black culture is driving many social media companies. That’s an opportunity.” 

Krista Todd, VP of marketing and communications at NortonLifeLock, said she is confident that broader societal events of 2020 have increased the genuine intent to deal with the issue of diversity and inclusion, but intent is not enough.

“Everyone must take personal responsibility to ensure there is equity and the same opportunities available regardless of skin color,” she said.

McKenzie noted her frustration at constant laments by those in hiring positions about the lack of qualified people of color for roles in tech PR. 

“That’s simply not true,” she says. “You need to put in the work to identify the many talented people of color who are there.”

The panel also noted some signs of progress. Ledbetter highlighted the increasing number of agencies that have created formalized mentor programs for professionals of color. She’s also been buoyed by a greater commitment to a “see something, say something” approach, where all pros are calling out microaggressions when they see them and creating a safe space where people can have that type of dialogue.

McKenzie said she is also encouraged that more firms have recently hired chief diversity and inclusion officers. While that’s a noteworthy step, “companies cannot expect that all of the responsibility for improvement in D&I fall solely to that role,” she counseled. “It is everyone’s responsibility, especially those in positions of recruiting, hiring, referring and retaining.”

The panelists also stressed the importance of allyship. 

“If you wish to be an ally for a PR pro of color,” said McKenzie, “you must be prepared to put in the work. You must be comfortable being uncomfortable. You also have to be an advocate for them while they are not in the room, not just in front of them.”

“And when you advocate for them,” she continued, “do so on matters such as equal pay, too.” Women of color who work in PR, added McKenzie, are often not paid the same as white professionals doing the same job.

“It’s not up to you to determine if you will be an ally,” said Todd. “You must gain the trust and respect to assume that role. You must commit to take the necessary actions. Only then do you earn the right to be an ally.”

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