Black History Month seems like an opportune time to comment on the recent pullback of DEI initiatives, particularly in tech, as a reminder of a historical story.

It’s a story of the perpetual dance between social progress and regression as America’s historically marginalized communities are concerned. However, the significance of DEI is even more pronounced in this era of rapid AI advancement. Despite our intentions, advances in AI enter a world that does not promote agency, equity and well-being for everyone in equal measure.

Consequently, with fewer diverse voices represented in tech already and AI specifically, the risk of perpetuating and exacerbating social inequity is highly probable absent those with lived experiences capable of informing development.

Sustained DEI commitment is necessary

To realize the promise of AI while safeguarding inclusivity, we need a sustained commitment to diversity. This means engaging stakeholders across the AI lifecycle and, crucially, employing them as well! It requires understanding diverse perspectives through multi-lateral communication and compels us to keep equity at the forefront, not just as a periodic priority but as an everyday practice.

Decision makers must realize that when institutional commitments to DEI are rescinded, it erodes cultural trust and distances us further from more profitable innovation. Those of us old enough to have seen similar cycles are not surprised but no less frustrated because we know rescinding DEI initiatives spark skepticism about the authenticity of future efforts when the next social crisis occurs. This cycle makes building partnerships so critical for responsible and profitable progress harder. Sustaining an emphasis on DEI is key to trust.

Aligning DEI with profitability

There is an imperative to establish DEI as intrinsic to profitable business models and corporate success. This shifts the framing to view inclusion as an essential expertise that unlocks innovation and growth. When DEI lives at the operational core beyond charity, it sustains as a competitive advantage rather than a discretionary budget item. This reframing propels organizations to weave DEI thoroughly into goals.

Responsible innovators must intentionally build an ethos of inclusivity into processes, products and people. To date, that has been an effort best championed by DEI initiatives, as opposed to diminished throughout the organization. I’m proud that at SAS we continue to bolster our DEI efforts, capably led by Danielle Pavliv, our Chief Diversity Officer. From an AI perspective, I’ve assigned my team the business objective of partnering with our employee inclusion groups so their communities actively inform and shape AI projects.

Doing so embeds diverse viewpoints from the start so that the resulting innovations are safe for all, particularly the most vulnerable. And importantly, making this activity a business objective tied to performance increases its likelihood of implementation.

The time is always right

In pursuing responsible innovation, it’s vital to embed diversity, equity and inclusion from the outset, rather than merely reacting after the moment's crisis. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure is not where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and controversy.”

While it may not be the tech industry’s fault, today’s social challenges are our problem, and they demand a reconnection with our fundamental values of equity, compassion and human dignity. Despite inevitable obstacles, our collective future hinges on enabling all individuals to thrive, and DEI initiatives can help.

Especially given the promise and peril of AI, espousing noble ideals is not enough. It requires purposeful action, prioritizing ethical inquiry and human-centric design. The path may seem arduous at times, but history teaches us that each step grounded in a shared moral foundation brings us closer to a just world where prosperity is truly inclusive and sustainable for all.

Read more from SAS bloggers on equity and responsibility


About Author

Reggie Townsend

Vice President, SAS Data Ethics Practice (DEP)

Reggie Townsend is the VP of the SAS Data Ethics Practice (DEP). As the guiding hand for the company’s responsible innovation efforts, the DEP empowers employees and customers to deploy data-driven systems that promote human well-being, agency and equity to meet new and existing regulations and policies. Townsend serves on national committees and boards promoting trustworthy and responsible AI, combining his passion and knowledge with SAS’ more than four decades of AI and analytics expertise.

Leave A Reply

Back to Top