Most Companies Believe They Understand Diversity. Do They?

A few years back I landed a job at a Silicon Valley unicorn company. It was in every magazine, all over TechCrunch, and a darling of the Midwest Tech Company employment boom. Known for its quirky culture and oodles of LaCroix sparkling water in the fridge, it was supposed to be amazing. And it was. But as a woman in tech, I have to say that this fabulous tech company lacked a certain something; namely, other females.

But as a woman in tech, I have to say that this fabulous tech company lacked a certain something: namely, other females.

For a company hiring literally thousands of people every year, I couldn’t understand how it was possible not to have more diversity in their hires. “It’s a pipeline problem.” “It’s Recruiting’s fault.” This was the extent of most diversity conversations I had in my first six months (which I’d heard at plenty of other companies, too) and I had one consistent response to this:

Face. Palm.

To me, an explicit diversity strategy for an e-commerce company with a 70% female customer base seemed totally logical. There are literally piles of research that point towards diversity as the solution to addressing the customer satisfaction, innovative product, and internal business culture challenges we were facing.  

At the organizational level, I was part of a small self-organized group that started our first Employee Resource Group, Women@. Over a dozen women from across the company came together and created what would eventually become a 200+ member collective. We drove diversity-inspired leadership and mentorship programs and helped to promote development opportunities that stretched to our international offices. This group was a great start, but it still wasn’t addressing the specific challenges that I was facing within tech.

So I went straight to our CTO and said in my best Fake It Till You Make It/Please See Me As A Leader voice, “I can fill your recruiting bucket with great diverse talent all day long, but if we [the leaders in Product and Engineering] don’t support a culture that allows those individuals to flourish, they will not stay here. Our bucket is leaking. Let’s fix this. Let’s actually hold people accountable to a recruiting strategy that supports diversity. Let’s address our unconscious systemic barriers. Let’s take a look at our own manager trainings.”

I easily could have been fired for being so blunt, but instead he supported me. He agreed that we needed to do more as leaders in the organization and it was up to us to make change happen. Together, we put a team of cross-pollinated engineering, project management and product leaders in place to drive new culture initiatives within our vertical.

We made great strides in the organization and improved our numbers in recruiting, retaining, and promoting women across the organization and within my own vertical. Here’s what we did:

  • First of all, we viewed our journey from an attract/retain/advance perspective.

  • Then we edited our job descriptions to better reflect diversity.

  • We helped hiring managers define their recruiting strategy to limit bias in the resume review process.

  • We held in-depth, technical-specific interview trainings.

  • We took several male engineering leaders to Grace Hopper Conference to show them just how many thousands of candidates there were who were capable of filling the jobs they were hiring for. That experience helped them see our diversity challenges from a new perspective. They finally understood that no, we did not have a pipeline problem; the problem was embedded in the culture itself and they had the power to change it.

  • We began addressing our neurodiversity challenges to help leaders focus on growing all their talented teammates. Turns out, there already were women working on the teams who were simply being overlooked and under-supported.

  • With regards to retention and development, we empowered everyone in the community (not only leaders) to create lightweight Interest Leagues that supported peer mentorship and leadership trainings that drove connection across teams, verticals, locations and “likeness.”

Next we wanted to tackle our support of returning women back into the organization after parental leave. Our policy and benefits package was not competitive in the industry: our mothers’ rooms were small, cramped closets with no sinks, no storage, not easily accessible, and had no technology in them to support work while attending to personal care needs.

We made immediate improvement to the rooms: we added storage, refrigeration, and loaner laptops for flexible working needs. We even put new-mother reading material in the rooms for a bit of soft support. The new rooms were beautiful.

And then I got pregnant.

And all our work, done with the best of intentions and plenty of research and benchmarking, went out the window with a little thing called “perspective.”

I had a terrible pregnancy. I was high-risk, sick all day long, unable to travel (which had been an unspoken job requirement) and I needed to exercise my FMLA benefits early because my boy, Sawyer, was born prematurely at 35 weeks. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no way to understand what happens to a woman’s body after giving birth: the hormones, the physical recovery of labor, the postpartum depression, the sheer exhaustion that consumes you. It is HARD.

Even at eight weeks postpartum, the idea of going back to work made me want to throw up in my mouth a little. And the idea of lugging my enormous hospital-grade double breast pump to the office, setting it out on my desk in our “open space” environment, and then taking my laptop into a room to hook up like a cow while dialing into a remote meeting? That made me angry.

How was all that supposed to actually, successfully “on-ramp” me back into the organization?

We had been so wrong. In our attempt to improve things for mothers in our organization, all we had done was taken research from data that was skewed by bias itself and allowed a group of individuals — none of whom had actually birthed a baby — to determine policies for people whose experiences we had no understanding of. We all thought we were doing the right thing, but we were still making decisions that helped the business’ bottom line rather than the health and happiness of our employees.

I’ve been doing diversity work for almost 10 years, and because I’m a woman, I felt that gave me a pass to make sweeping generalizations about other marginalized groups in business. As HR professionals, we can read a McKinsey report, send out an engagement survey, and hold focus groups.

But the reality is, if an industry is 93% male, your company is 84% male, and those males are 21-35 years old, they probably don’t really care about maternity policies.

So your lowest common denominator improvements to a previously non-existent policy aren’t ground-breaking; they’re shallow and privileged. This is the same flawed infrastructure applied to any number of diversity and inclusion measures that many companies make for minorities such as LGBTQ, Veterans, socio-economically challenged, neurodiverse, and senior categories — all with great intentions and totally out-of-touch realities.

Only when I was on the floor crying into my own breast pump did I realize just how far off-base my diversity strategy was. So what should we do to ensure that this doesn’t happen with other benefits like mentoring and sponsoring for marginalized groups, or development opportunities, or benefit policies for transgender health care?

Well, first, here’s what we should NOT do. We should not ask our one transgender Facebook friend about what they’d like. We should not benchmark against a reseach data set that includes companies like Chick-Fil-A for LGBTQ policies. And we should not tout as “successful” maternity leave improvements like “Nesting Leave”. A policy which provides additional early parental leave all while knowing only 5% of women deliver on their insurance-stamped due date, meaning that the new policy will actually cost the company less money because so few employees will be able to use it.

So here are five things that you should actively be doing as you begin your diversity journey:

1) Understand why you have a diversity strategy in the first place. Talk to your leaders about the WHY behind the ask. Boil that down to its essence and build a transparent communication that makes it crystal clear to your entire organization why diversity and inclusion are important to the entire business. Make it clear that diversity is not a line item on an HR spreadsheet; it’s a company value and cultural pillar.

Make it clear that diversity is not a line item on an HR spreadsheet; it’s a company value and a cultural pillar.

2) A good diversity strategy is woven into the cultural fabric of your organization. It’s not part of a “rollout.” There is no “done.” Don’t stop at one unconscious bias training. Inclusion work needs to become part of the company vernacular, so you need to talk about it often at all levels as it pertains to recruiting the best person, developing unique talents on the teams, building the best products, and coaching leaders to lead all of their people.

3) Policy/guideline/benefit-makers must do their research. Whoever is in charge of creating policies, guidelines or benefits should be doing extensive research with regards to the marginalized groups that the policy/guideline/benefit is attempting to impact. If your diversity strategy sets a goal that you employ a more gender-diverse work group in the next 18 months, you may want to consider how attractive the current policies are to someone who’s not just looking for free beer and an annual company beach trip. Do you have code of conduct structures in place for your communication channels and code reviews?

Ask me about the leader who suggested that everyone at his company get time off for the NCAA Basketball Tournament because “Who doesn’t love basketball?” over a drink sometime.

4) Provide unconscious bias trainings to everyone in the organization but don’t make it mandatory. Give people a few opportunities to opt into the workshops/trainings. It can be a slow sell and that’s OK. Initially, bias can be scary for people to talk about, so have empathy for those who aren’t super comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. On the other hand, those people who don’t see diversity as valuable or who actively undermine it will inevitably be uncovered, and leadership has a different challenge to work out at that point (see #1). Are those people right for an organization that is devoted to inclusion? Maybe not. Let them opt in or opt out to your cultural commitment. And if they opt out? Show them the door.

5) Leadership accountability. The ethos of an organization is always a reflection of the character of its leaders. If your leaders don’t see inclusivity as a core value and are not held accountable in fostering it in all aspects of their work, you simply can’t build an inclusive culture.

So you think you understand diversity? Well, all the research and "best practices" in the world won’t make a difference to diversity in tech if the policies are A) being created without the input of these minorities and B) not supported by the leadership in the organization. Change doesn’t happen overnight with one amended internal policy, so keep tackling the problem over and over from all angles and with the help of a diverse group of people in order to have a long-lasting, positive impact.