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Tennessee Council Tackles IT’s Diversity, Inclusion Gap

A recently formed diversity and inclusion council within Tennessee's Strategic Technology Solutions agency looks to address workplace diversity by creating a safe space for employees to discuss and learn about related issues.

Silhouette profile group of men and women of diverse culture.
As part of an effort to bolster diversity and inclusion within Tennessee’s Strategic Technology Solutions agency (STS), two employees have formed a diversity and inclusion council as a safe space for employees to discuss and address these issues.

The effort was publicly shared at the recent NASCIO conference by state Chief Information Officer Stephanie Dedmon, who expressed the importance of enhancing diversity, noting that it’s a challenge without an easy fix — especially in technical positions that tend to be occupied by white males.

A study conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission supported Dedmon's statement, showing the high-tech sector employs a larger share of whites (63.5 to 68.5 percent); Asian Americans (5.8 to 14 percent); and men (52 to 64 percent) and a smaller share of African Americans (7.4 to 14.4 percent); Hispanics (8 to 13.9 percent); and women (36 to 48 percent).

After approaching Dedmon about the idea — which was inspired by the George Floyd tragedy and the national discussion that followed — STS Project Delivery Director Lawrence Sanders and STS IT Director Todd Bartine, created a charter to provide structure for the council and recruitment began.

“Having put this structure around it with the charter and then placing people in teams, we then said, 'we want to see what you do with your team,'” Bartine said. “Looking back, I’m glad we did it that way because we wound up with some wonderful, creative people with good ideas.”

Currently, there are four teams, including data analytics, recruitment, inclusion and outreach. However, the council plans to add a fifth team to manage communications.

“Right now, there are 16 members on the council,” Dedmon said. “From a recruitment standpoint, they’ve started looking at our baseline statistics of where we are today and where do we have room for improvement.”

Another issue the council looks to address is unconscious biases.

For example, Sanders, a Black man, said, “A lot of times when I go to a movie theater or fast-food restaurant and I’m in line, and there are individuals in front of me, and behind me, they could be, you know white males of any particular age, and the person working at these establishments will say 'Hello, sir. How are you? What can I do for you today?' But, when I come up, it’s like 'hey, bro, how you doing?'”

“It’s just those slight things, and nobody means anything by it,” he added. “But at the same time, it speaks to even in teenagers that there’s already kind of a thing that’s built there, where people may not even realize that they’re seeing someone as lesser than.”

As for how this concept translates to a workplace setting, Bartine commented on the different responsibilities each team has taken on and how their efforts have impacted the department as a whole.

“Data analytics is just that we want this to be a data-driven exercise,” he said. “We need some people to go out there and find out what’s available, where there are actual data gaps and where there isn’t the information that we need so we can start making logical comparisons.”

Based on that information, Bartine explained, the recruitment team can apply this information to the job posting and hiring process.

This includes looking at how the agency recruits individuals for new job opportunities, what methods are being used to put out job postings, how applications are worded, and if they can be improved — along with identifying if there are implicit biases that need to be removed.

As for the challenges facing the council, Dedmon pointed to measuring success and educating the department’s workforce as key focus areas.

“One of the questions is: how do we know that this is meaningful and that we’re making progress?” she said. “I mean, there are some easier things that are quantitative, but when you get a resume, how do you know?”

As for educating the department’s workforce, Dedmon explained that it’s a very big hill to climb, especially since the technology industry has been a male-oriented industry for a long time. However, she stressed, the council looks to change this concept one step at a time.

Overall, aside from diversifying and creating inclusion within the department’s workforce, the council aims to provide a safe place to discuss sensitive topics and any mistakes that are made.

“One of the things we’ve put out there is that, hey, we are going to make mistakes,” Sanders said. “Somebody may say something that they wish they could take back, and then we just have to be open enough to understand that and give people the room to be able to talk about it.”

Bartine also commented on this topic, saying, “Silence after George Floyd caused a real sort of pain within the agency. We can’t not speak or say what has to be said just because we are afraid to say the wrong thing.”

If we can create a culture that can tolerate that and handle that gracefully with some share of respect and trust, then we have done our jobs, he added.
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.