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Lessons learned trying to build momentum for diversity & inclusion

In 2014 I started actively working to improve the diversity of our 60-person team at Q42. At that point we had four female employees and very little overall diversity, so I wanted to see if we could change that by focusing on the problem. The Netherlands has very poor diversity figures in tech, math and science compared to nearly every other country worldwide, so it felt like any effort in this area would be an improvement.

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Proportion of women among IT specialists in European countries, 2015. Netherlands in bottom 5, below average.

A small group of us met for a while, discussing what we could do but not really taking any action. I moved to the US towards the end of the year and wasn’t able to contribute again until early 2016. At that point I wanted to do more than just talk, so I invited one of the managing partners to launch an initiative with me called Project <div>, in which we started a conversation about our goals both inside the company and, after he suggested it, publicly.

Some things worked well and some didn’t. Overall the effort led to increased awareness and the kindling of real change, but we also made plenty of mistakes. During the process I did a lot of research. I also reached out to experts to learn about increasing diversity and inclusion in a company like ours, but of all the advice I got, I felt like there was one thing missing: practical initial steps and tips you can use to get started if you have no prior experience and no engaged outside consultants. High-level guidance is great, but in practice actually doing something turns out to involve interpersonal relationships and expectation management. So I’m sharing my lessons learned in hope that if you’re trying to kick the tires of an initiative in your organisation, you can benefit from what I did right and wrong.

Avoid or explain loaded words & phrases

Talking in-depth about diversity and inclusion seemed to be paralysing to some because of all the jargon that the conversation comes with. I think this is because concepts like “privilege”, “preferred pronouns” or even “feminism”, despite being prevalent and well-understood in the social justice community, aren’t necessarily ideas people are familiar with. This made it hard to have a conversation with some and led to them disengaging from the topic.

In fact, we realised we needed to define diversity and inclusion themselves. The Covington recommendations for Uber’s diversity and inclusion problems has a good summary of the difference between diversity and inclusion:

Ergo, inclusion follows from diversity. Some people argue that there’s another component, belonging (for instance, Airbnb calls out belonging specifically), which goes even further.

As a designer I’ve always been focused on avoiding tech jargon and writing accessible copy, so I tried to prioritise using straightforward language to talk about important issues and only delve into more detail if people asked or when things got farther along.

Something I didn’t get a chance to do was create a guide for all the jargon and perhaps get a group together to work through some of the definitions and address questions. Not everyone spends that much time on Twitter and Tumblr, after all. ;-)

Use metaphor, framing and context

Relying on metaphor worked well, for instance by applying Andrea Barrica’s advice of describing the problem as “diversity debt”, similar to the phrase “technical debt” used in software development. Specifically, this was a way to talk about the idea that because things are skewed in tech right now, it may be our responsibility to “skew it back” in the other direction by biasing our hiring process towards underrepresented groups in order to achieve equality. By contrasting that with technical debt, engineers were more easily able to make the connection to their daily work and seemed less likely to associate it with “political correctness”.

Another way to talk about diversity was to frame it as a superset of accessibility, which is a topic the company is quite experienced with and around which there is no longer so much controversy. This way, it could be compared to our efforts working with clients who didn’t understand the value of accessibility.

Prefer debate and empathy over strict rules

There was a joke making the rounds in the office that had started to upset some people. They had reached a point where they could no longer accept being confronted by it, so they started asking those making it to stop. This upset those making the joke, because they felt it was their right to be able to say whatever they wanted. To address the tension, management convened people who made the joke and people who wanted the joke to be banned.

Despite the knee-jerk reaction from both sides that this discussion ought to be easily resolvable, it turned out to be more complicated than that. Do you outright ban making such jokes, even if they don’t intend them to be offensive? Or do you engage them in a civilised debate and explain why it can be considered offensive? Either way, the result was that rather than ban jokes, we’d ask people to not make jokes that might offend others.

The lesson for me was that trying to address the problem with explicit do’s and don’ts at this point was counterproductive. Instead, we needed to work on empathy and create more opportunities for conversation so that each side understood the other better, because no one was to be hurtful — they just weren’t really listening to each other. By explaining that an office is a workplace where you may not know how jokes will be received by your colleagues, business partners and clients, rather than your living room with just your close friends who share your sense of humour, we hoped to help people understand how some jokes can be inappropriate. It turned out to be a great example of a problem with the culture that needed addressing, but would take time to fix itself as the new behaviour norm spread.

I also strongly preferred involving someone in a conversation and educating them to become more empathetic than, for example, firing them, because that doesn’t increase the likelihood that they will understand the other party’s point of view and felt like shirking our responsibility to increase overall inclusion.

Give each other the benefit of the doubt

When I initially started talking about diversity and inclusion, there were some knee-jerk assumptions that I wanted to introduce a quota or that I expected our company to become a reflection of the wider culture. I had claimed neither, but people were making connections to what they’d heard and remembered about it on the news, online or in political discussions.

There was also a tendency to assume the opponent in debates was being intentionally combative, when they merely had honest questions. (There were occasional attempts at trolling, but thankfully more often than not people were genuine and curious.) We argued that if, in technical discussions, we’re likely to approach a debate from a position of mutual respect, why not apply that same standard when discussing topics like inclusion?

Once we actually all took the time to talk to each other and respect each other’s viewpoints, it turned out that there were a lot of overlapping goals and our thoughts on the matter weren’t so different. It’s just a politically charged subject. Most engineering subjects aren’t particularly political, so our team was inexperienced when it came to debating them. This appeared to be a side effect of a homogeneous culture where most already agree with each other’s politics and confrontations are rare.

Be patient

I had to accept that I was much more well-read on the topic than almost everyone else. I was also more interested, finding social justice and sociology to be fascinating in a way that others found it cumbersome or just not particularly relevant.

The way I like to talk about it is that people who’ve heard of Ellen Pao, Susan Fowler, unconscious bias and diversity debt are knowledgeable on the topic of diversity & inclusion. I found it best to assume my co-workers were newcomers and start from there. I realised I may have a long road ahead of me, but each step of the way, as my perfectly intelligent and reasonable colleagues learned more about the topic (and hopefully gave me the benefit of the doubt), their overall knowledge increased and conversations became easier. Ultimately, I had faith that while this effort may take years, any improvement I could contribute was worth it.

Start building consensus with the people likely to support you

Rather than creating tension by focusing on those in opposition, I tried to identify and spend time with those who were likely to become champions. I hoped this would gradually ease the burden on me, and provide different viewpoints, reducing the chance that I would became that “diversity person”. I don’t think I succeeded, ultimately, but at least I was able to help some become more confident when talking about the subject. Or perhaps it just takes longer.

I realised this was a good approach because we would see this with our clients all the time: those with little experience working with tech or with agencies would be a handful and demand the most attention, whereas those who were a bit more familiar with how we worked tended to be easier to satisfy.

Don’t assume members of underrepresented groups will want to participate

Just because someone is a woman or Muslim or has a disability doesn’t mean that they want to be reminded of that every day or be confronted about their identity all the time. I was aware of this (being from an underrepresented group and subject to discrimination myself) so I decided against proactively including those people who identified that way in the initial conversations.

Some colleagues did reach out to them once we started the company-wide conversation, which caused some tension, but we were able to prevent any lasting damage by discussing the situation with both parties. I hadn’t anticipated it ahead of time, though, and I wish I had.

Some members of underrepresented groups were curious why they had not been involved. I realised there was a risk they may feel that I was debating a topic close to their identity on their behalf, so we took care to explain that we had no ill intent and were trying to protect them, but that they were welcome to join if they wanted.

Avoid anecdotes and be prepared to counter them with data

I’ll always remember the time someone described a show they had seen on the Discovery Channel that proved women “don’t have the brains” for tech because a study showed female orangutans were more likely to play with dolls than male orangutans.

In such moments it’s easy to be stunned and not have a constructive path forward (it ended in a debate about nature vs. nurture), but it’s moments like that where having access to data like this is useful:

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If women “don’t have the brains”, then how do you explain this?

By data I mean a study that provides a concise counterpoint to the anecdote being presented, sometimes summarised in a graph or chart. After all, this topic has been researched to death. Finding studies isn’t hard, especially for the US. If the debate is happening online you can more handily link to it or embed it in the chat, but even in person it helps to be able to provide precise figures, sources, and context and wean people off relying on anecdotal evidence. I wrote another post containing all my research into diversity & inclusion that includes such data points that have been useful to me.

Get buy-in from leadership as well as grassroots support

Initially I tried to start a closed group with several colleagues to discuss what to do if we wanted to engage with this topic. Because I thought it was sensitive and controversial, I didn’t feel confident having an open debate about it and needed time to quietly start discussing it with coworkers and find the right approach. The downside of this was that it was unlikely to lead to any real change, because company leadership wasn’t going to make any changes to things like recruiting methods or job openings without consensus from the partner group or a stakeholder who could own it and move forward. We ended up trying to commit to two goals: reducing unconscious bias, and improving the percentage of underrepresented minorities in technical positions over a year-long period. Neither of these proved achievable without support from leadership.

Once I did ask a managing partner to join me in trying to figure this out together, I was positively surprised by his suggestion of publicly writing about our experiences. It lent a sense of legitimacy to the endeavour, since I wasn’t a manager. Talking more openly about the situation even led to several coworkers reaching out and wanting to become more involved.

Avoid becoming cynical

It’s hard, but I tried to keep a “glass half-full” mentality: every day I worked on this was a day people would understand the problem a little better. When I felt myself getting jaded, I tried to disengage for a while and get some distance. On the flipside, I recognised that too much of this topic at once could overload my teammates because many perceived it to be political and controversial and could react passionately. (In fact, I discovered a certain idiosyncrasy to “political correctness”: people tend to label something politically correct only when they disagree with that particular thing.)

In the end I received performance feedback that I hadn’t really accomplished this, and some coworkers had in fact felt too much pressure to discuss or form an opinion about the subject, which was tough to hear because I had been trying to avoid that.

Talk publicly about what you’re doing —and be ready for honest feedback

When we started Project <div>, we decided to write open letters to each other about diversity & inclusion, starting with me introducing the idea to my colleague and him responding to that. We didn’t know how long we would keep it up, but our first letter received some pretty vitriolic feedback. It was bad enough that we stopped after only two exchanges.

I had expected that kind of response, because I’ve been reading about the topic and lurking in the space for years. But I hadn’t considered my colleague’s reaction: he was shaken by it and it kept him up at night. I was able to reply to the people who posted such harsh feedback and bring things to a more civilised level of discourse, but the damage had been done. While I felt that they had the right to be upset about the state of things in the tech industry, it was unfair that they attacked us for talking about our efforts to understand it, and it actually damaged the perception across the company of the value of investing in the problem.

So although I think going public on this topic is a healthy idea, we may have started too soon and not been quite ready yet. Maybe we weren’t ready for the kind of unvarnished honesty that people outside our organisation were going to give us. I should have briefed everyone on the kind of response we were likely to get, although it makes me wonder if we would have proceeded had they known ahead of time what was likely to happen.

Avoid the “order over justice” problem

While researching diversity and inclusion I came upon this fragment of a letter by Martin Luther King Jr. from the time of the US civil rights movement:

There’s a depressing truth to it: some would rather keep the status quo because it’s comfortable for them than risk making waves by addressing it. This was the case across our teams and it’s hard to resolve since those suffering from it don’t realise the scale of the problem. It’s not that they’re against becoming more inclusive per say, it’s that they don’t accept giving up their own privilege of not being confronted with the problem or not having to think about it. I don’t have a solution for this behaviour.

Invite people from outside the company to add their voices

It can help to involve people from outside the company. For instance, the managing partner who worked on Project <div> with me started talking to a former client of ours who has been sending him useful studies, links, and her advice on diversity & inclusion.

We also hosted a meetup teaching women to code at our office a few times and some of the consultants and speakers there ended up being useful people to bounce ideas off of and get feedback on initiatives we had planned.

In the future I’d want to invite friends to host unconscious bias workshops, speak about their experiences as members of underrepresented minorities and share what things are like at their companies. I’d also commission independent consultants like Paradigm to provide training and find an organisation like Great Place to Work that can take a look at the culture and write up a report with recommendations.

Avoid bikeshedding, try to be decisive, commit to measurable actions

At a meetup organised by Github that we hosted during Pride month, I heard from some attendees that we didn’t have a Code of Conduct for our other meetups and that the lack of one may discourage some people from coming. I brought that feedback into our diversity Slack channel and asked the group: what can we do about this? How about starting with an existing Code of Conduct like the Contributor Covenant?

Unfortunately the discussion turned into a bikeshed in which the group slowly removed the parts of such a Code of Conduct offering support until there was barely anything left, and I abandoned the plan rather than publish a Code of Conduct that didn’t make any meaningful commitments.

In the future, with support from leadership, I would approach this differently by deciding on a direction with a small number of people, pushing that out, and then gathering feedback through a direct channel.

Take cultural differences into account

It’s easy to read Medium articles explaining how to handle diversity & inclusion in the Bay Area, or the US in general (there are plenty). Solutions seem straightforward: for instance, since California has at-will employment, “just fire them” is relatively common advice. But things are different in the Netherlands, where employees are given permanent contracts that can’t easily be broken by the employer without proof of effort to correct behaviour.

Another difference I found is general cultural sensitivity to issues like diversity. In the Netherlands, diversity in general isn’t really a household topic (rather, multiculturalism is), so when you start talking about it you’re confronting people with a world they’re unfamiliar with. In fact, the Netherlands has an exceptionally poor record when it comes to underrepresented minority groups in tech and science. Gender diversity is out of whack compared to nearly every other country :

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People in the Netherlands are most biased against women in tech. From https://d-miller.github.io/Stereotypes-Table/

The number of articles or published papers on diversity and inclusion in the Netherlands appears to be low or harder to find. As such my approach would be to reach out to local colleges, identify local groups dedicated to women in tech and other forms of diversity and analyse how those cultural differences influence the steps taken. Why Are There More Women in CS in Other Cultures?, which lists numerous sources, seems like a good place to start for women in tech.

Take it a step at a time

When I started on this project I wrote a long pitch document arguing for investing in more diversity and inclusion and shared that with various people throughout the company. In it, I claimed we should strive to be the best at this in the country, because why do anything if you don’t fully commit to it? That backfired: the impression was that I was overvaluing the importance of what was seen as a component of human resources. Instead, I should have made some progress before introducing that ambition.

Once I adjusted my expectations, it became easier to make progress. It was easier collaborating on rewriting job openings to use fewer masculine words and phrases than dramatically overhauling the entire recruiting pipeline. There was less pushback trying to hire a first intern from an underrepresented minority group than attempting to introduce a complex internship program. Etc.

Find a mentor outside the company to support you

When I found myself feeling isolated, I had a look around and reached out to people outside the company for support. I needed some positive reinforcement and guidance on doing something like this at a small company and with little internal backup. I found it in people from companies who were several steps ahead of us, like GitHub and Google, which was very helpful, but I wish I could have found someone who was a little less far ahead and at a smaller company so that we could compare notes.

Remember diversity and inclusion are more than just “women in tech”

We decided to start with attracting more women to the company because we had so few of them and I was honestly concerned about the effect the imbalance was having on the culture. But there is of course more to being inclusive than just hiring women.

We took some first steps in this area by making sure our offices are accessible to people with disabilities, hosting our first Pride-themed meetup (which drew a completely new audience to the office) and starting an internal group focused on making things more manageable for introverts, but there’s so much more to do.

The above is a long list of what I learned, but I feel like I still have so much more to learn. I want to work in a culture that is interested in addressing these issues, with diverse colleagues from multiple backgrounds. That’s why I’ve committed to only working for businesses in the future that have clearly outlined diversity policies, have shown improvement in the area, and fulfill some other requirements (such as being founded by members of an underrepresented group or by having such members as executives). Especially in view of what has transpired in Silicon Valley over the past few weeks, it feels like a low bar for me to clear.

Coming out of this experience my conclusion is that a lot of our struggles could be avoided by appointing a diversity executive with lateral authority to implement a company-wide program (which is something other tech companies like GitHub and Slack have done), and by involving an external diversity consultant who can help smoothen the introduction, train staff in accordance with company culture, and depoliticise the subject.

Thankfully, patience, respect and goodwill can go a long way, and I’m glad I was able to move the needle slightly. :)


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Escape the cyberpunk dystopia - UXE + DEI @google

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