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Steps to Make Diversity & Inclusion a Reality

Photo credit: Centre for Gender Economics

Over my time as an engineer, I’ve repeatedly heard some examples of efforts people make to fit in at their workplace: sending emails at odd hours to show that one is working overtime, purposely avoiding asking about work-life balance in an interview to downplay being a parent, and pro-actively hiding one’s show of religious faith. This is troubling. As discussed in my previous posts, the diversity statistics in tech are abysmal and it simply isn’t a pipeline problem; the lack of diversity in tech is a cultural one.

Too often tech culture promotes the pounding of red bulls and tremendously long hours, which makes those with commitments at home insecure about advocating for them in the workplace. Stereotypes of what an engineer should look like, “brogrammers” and the widespread misconception that companies need to lower the bar to hire minorities don’t exactly create welcoming environments. Neither does a culture of apathy when people of color are disproportionately being murdered by the police.

Not surprisingly, most women who leave tech cite discriminatory environments as their main reason for leaving, not because they disliked the work itself. I unfortunately couldn’t find as much quality data around the retention of people from different age groups, races, sexualities or abilities, but feelings of isolation and battling discrimination is far from only a women’s issue. These feelings are often more pronounced among those who identify with multiple underrepresented groups.

It is beyond evident that diversity is a complex topic, and a combination of different factors have resulted in a culture of homogeneity in Silicon Valley, some of which have been discussed in my previous posts. It is also evident that monoculture is bad for innovation, as the tech industry won’t reach its full potential if we have the same approaches to problem-solving and ideation. Simply put, lack of diversity is bad for business. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel — and we can reach it if we put in the work to build inclusive workplaces, which will help attract and retain underrepresented talent.

Here are some suggestions that can help individuals create a better, more inclusive work environment in technology:

  • Diagnose your unconscious biases and figure out ways to not let them shadow your judgment of others. We all have them, and the sooner we know what they are, the faster we can try our best to fight them. Here is a test that can help.
  • Eliminate the term “culture fit” from your vocabulary, and don’t let your co-workers use it to describe a candidate. Push them for specific reasons for not wanting to hire someone, as there could be bias hidden behind that term.
  • Eliminate the term “diversity hire” from your vocabulary as well. The label implies that one was hired to check a box at a company, and not based on his or her skills. However, minorities are typically hired based on their experience and not potential, so if they have been hired, they are likely qualified as they have had to constantly prove themselves to overcome bias. If you label people that, you are basically telling them that they don’t deserve to work at your company.
  • Try to understand society-induced behaviors and don’t dismiss people because of them. For example, women are more likely to use the passive voice by saying phrases like “I think”, “I believe”, “I was wondering” and people might quickly judge this as a sign of incompetence. Judge a person by their substance, and not by superficialities. Stop policing how others speak.
  • Be self-aware and cognizant of your surroundings — do you subconsciously give the easiest work to that one woman on your team? Do you see other co-workers constantly interrupting her? Is your behavior patronizing? Make sure to be self-aware of microagressions, and call others out when you see it happening.
  • Speak up when you see instances of sexism, racism, ageism or other behavior that contributes to a hostile work environment at your workplace. If you are uncomfortable speaking up at the moment, make sure to report it and follow up to make sure action is taken.
  • Hold your leadership accountable and and don’t give up even if it’s an uphill-battle. Are your perks family-friendly and gender neutral? What is the process for reporting harassment? What is your company doing to source candidates outside their homogenous networks? Hold your leadership accountable to providing satisfactory means of doing this, and more.
  • Pay attention to people and be empathetic. For example, don’t spend the entire lunch table conversation talking about American football if that excludes some of the international folks at the table or vice-versa — simple gestures like including everyone in a conversation can help people feel less isolated at the workplace. It’s the little things that count.
  • Mentor others in your community, like high school and college students or those without as much access to opportunities, if you want to have an impact outside of your work environment.

And, here are some examples of things organizations can do:

  • Make an effort to diversify your hiring pipeline by getting involved with organizations similar to Code2040, Lesbians Who Tech, Ability InTech Summit and high quality bootcamps like Codepath and Hackbright that care about and promote diversity. It’s not realistic to assume that you will get a good representation of people through job postings alone.
  • Referral bonuses aren’t great for diversity if you start off with a homogenous group of people. It might be more rewarding for companies to put that bonus budget towards diversity outreach programs instead, as employees will most likely refer their competent friends either way if they are invested in the company.
  • Use gender neutral language in job postings and try not to have a huge bullet list of requirements as studies show that minorities generally won’t apply to jobs unless they are able to check off ALL the requirements. There are tools like Textio that can help assess bias in your job descriptions.
  • When reviewing resumes and coding challenges, don’t have names or other identifying information involved, as a “Joe” is much more likely to receive a call back compared to “Jennifer” or “Jamal”. There are technology solutions that can help with that, like Blendoor and GapJumpers.
  • Don’t rely on self-nominations for promotions, and have objective criteria for performance reviews to limit subjectivity. Studies show that women self promote to a lesser degree than men and bias can often creep into performance reviews.
  • Have detailed policies and reporting structure in place to easily report inappropriate behavior in the workplace and have accountability metrics around this. Do the same with interviewing candidates. Usually people don’t report due to fear of backlash — this section from Project Include is a great resource for companies on how to mitigate this fear.
  • Try to have daycare support if possible and make sure your maternity and paternity leave/policies are supportive for working parents, including single parents. Allow for flexible working hours for primary care-takers, if not for everybody. As long as people get their work done, their hours of face time in the office shouldn’t matter as much!
  • Make sure to have policies and resources for employees to support gender-transitioning in the workplace, people with disabilities and veterans. These guidelines and this case-study is a good starting place for creating an inclusive environment for transgender people.
  • Make sure managers are trained to support everyone, and not just technology or people like themselves. No matter how skilled they are as an engineers, managers who don’t understand how to appropriately support people with different needs will cause employee dissatisfaction and attrition.
  • Provide safe spaces for employees to support each other, perhaps through Employee Resource Groups or Affinity groups. Provide a safe space for your employees to grieve and take action against injustices that are happening in their communities — acknowledge the hurt in the community and support them.
  • Publicly or internally release your diversity and salary statistics and make goals around these. Also demographically track the candidates that you interview and company-wide attrition and look for concerning patterns. You can’t know if you are improving if you aren’t measuring anything. The inclusion survey is also a great tool to measure inclusion at one’s company.

These are by no means a complete list nor one-size-fits-all solution to the diversity and inclusion problem in tech, but just some suggestions that I hope are useful. I would also suggest using Project Include and Homebrew’s guide to build inclusion into your company culture.

I’ll conclude this series by saying this: please don’t let the burden of fixing diversity and inclusion rest primarily on the underrepresented people at your company, who are most impacted by it in the first place. It is exhausting, unpaid labor and it isn’t fair. Be a real ally by taking action and holding your leaders accountable!

What does your company do that has really helped? Let me know in the comments or through twitter. I will continue to share out resources there, so feel free follow me @anitas3791

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