Diversity & inclusion in creative spaces

Ashley Walls
Aug 20, 2018 · 6 min read

Diversity. Inclusion. Culture. These words are being tossed around left and right, especially in the tech industry. Diversity reports show little to no improvement, so how do we generate change?

Cheryl Ingram joined AIGA Seattle’s diversity & inclusion panel event in June, held at Uber’s Seattle office. Photo credit: Jen Au.

AIGA Seattle hosted a phenomenal event earlier this summer at Uber’s Seattle office to tackle how companies can practice inclusion in creative workplaces. Cheryl Ingram hosted the evening, an incredible woman who is the CEO and founder of not one, but two diversity & inclusion-focused companies. Diverse City specializes in workplace diversity and equity assessments, and Inclusology, a benchmarking information and technology company.

AIGA event graphic, courtesy of Judy Ko.

With Cheryl as our moderator for the evening, she helped us jump right in. Close to a dozen professionals, ranging from engineers at Google to recruiters at TEKSystems, helped facilitate table discussions that focused on one topic. Some of my colleagues from Microsoft, Margaret Price and Karen Mui Scott, led table discussions around applying inclusive design principles to hiring practices and building out inclusive modern workplaces. Questions ranged from discussing the top issues of underrepresented designers to what changes companies can make to their hiring and interview processes to make them less biased.

Kiné Camara (center), an account executive at Creative Circle, spoke was a panelist at the AIGA workshop. Photo credit: Jen Au.

At my table we tackled, “As companies are starting to navigate bias in their hiring and interview process, what can institutions who train/educate candidates for the workforce do better to prepare them for the process?” We started from the employee side of the table, asking, “What can/should candidates do to prepare their mindset to enter the workplace?”

Right away, we dove into what part of the recruiting process fell on the employee, and what part fell on the prospective employer. Candidates need to remember that the recruiting process is a dialogue — you’re interviewing the company, too! Ask thoughtful questions about things you’re concerned about during your interview process. It’ll take time and practice, but it’s an integral part of the process. A big point of discussion was around company values. They’re published on most employer’s websites, and candidates almost always would have received them as part of an interview preparation with a recruiter.

This is the part where the ball is in the employee’s court. Review the values and see if they align with your personal beliefs. If they don’t, then you’ll constantly be facing an uphill battle to change them (if you wanted), or be stuck obliging by guidelines you don’t fundamentally believe in. You’ll likely end up in a toxic relationship with your employer and be unhappy. Work for a company you believe in, and that can get things off to the right start.

Sage Quiamno (center), marketing manager for the Female Founders Alliance, contributes to a group discussion at the AIGA workshop. Photo credit: Jen Au.

But on to the stickier subject — converting all of these passionate conversations into tangible actions that employees and companies can take to make their workplaces more inclusive. We spent over an hour as a large group discussing this exact topic, and the conversation isn’t even close to finished. Here are just a few specific actions we discussed that companies can take to make their workplaces more diverse and inclusive:

  • Employee Resource/Cultural Affinity Groups: Many companies already have employee resource groups, or cultural affinity groups. Continuing to fund and support those, as well as encouraging active engagement with them, is a must-have for a truly inclusive workplace. These groups provide a community for folks who may not have many other people like them in their immediate teams and workstreams.
  • Hiring: Start looking in new places. There are thousands of stories about diverse hires with “nontraditional” backgrounds who excel. Why keep going to the same top-10 schools that everyone else in your industry does? Mix things up a bit and look for folks with passion and who are scrappily building their skillset. Visit HBCUs and community colleges (not just for the sake of checking a box, but with the same rigor and poise as when you visit your top-10 schools). Take a risk on a candidate who may not be perfect on paper, but has huge potential.
  • Create mentorship and “reverse mentorship” programming: Mentorship is a two-way street. You’ll learn a new perspective while sharing yours and can help open each other’s eyes to new experiences. “Reverse mentoring” is that same idea, but where senior leadership is actively seeking mentorship from people below them in an organization chart. Leaders tend to have a lot of context for what’s happening in the company, but not a ton of detail. The opposite tends to be true for folks in more individual contributor-type roles. Both sides benefit greatly from this activity.
  • Include D&I and culture-related activities in performance reviews: At the end of the day, money talks. Every company does performance reviews differently, but they drive promotions, bonuses and career trajectory. If an inclusive workplace culture is your goal, then you should treat it like a business deliverable — hold people accountable and reward employees that are actively contributing their talents to that space. This also creates a level of ownership for every person in the company, because whether you’re a VP or a college intern, how you show up to work impacts your team’s culture.

I want to take a moment to step back, and call out a few things. First, these aren’t original ideas. They’re things that evangelists and leaders in this space know to be true, and companies are using to varying degrees of success.

There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution for inclusion, but these are small steps that can generate groundswell for monumental change in companies.

And, before the trolls roll out, I want to call out that I’m not professionally trained or educated in diversity, inclusion, or equity. I’m a woman of color at a tech company sharing her lived experience, and am trying to make my company a more inclusive one.

At the end of the day, diversity and inclusion comes down to people and behavior. You may have 200 employee groups and 10 diversity trainings, but if someone truly doesn’t care about recognizing the equity of other human beings and continues to create a toxic environment, a company has two choices: put their money where their mouth is and address the problematic employee, or shove it under the rug and continue with business as usual. Where does your company fall?

Diversity and inclusion will be an ongoing conversation. A recent colleague of mine put it lightly when she said, “Look, there is no finish line. You’ll make progress, but you won’t ever cross the finish line. Your work is never done.”

It’s with that mindset of uncompleted work that I task you to reflect on how you’re contributing to your workplace culture. Are you helping foster a community of diversity and inclusion? Are you showing up to work authentically? Are you contributing to tough conversations, and encouraging others to be uncomfortable and vulnerable? If not, pick up a shovel and get to work. We can’t get this done without you.

As a note, proceeds from the AIGA event partially benefitted Unloop, which is a nonprofit building a new pipeline of software development talent for companies while helping people with criminal records re-integrate into the community. AIGA Seattle will be hosting more events like this in the future, so stay tuned by signing up for their newsletter.

If you are interested in contributing your ideas and energy to broaden and strengthen the chapter’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, please contact diversity@seattle.aiga.org.

Ashley Walls

Written by

UX writer @ Microsoft. Subaru-driving Seattleite with hiking stickers on my bumper. All views are my own.

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