How Can Technology Leaders be Better Allies for Diversity?

Robert Munro

This article is advice for technology leaders who want to build and support diverse teams. I share examples from my time leading technology teams and the best ways I have found to be a better ally for diversity. I share this knowing am I am still a long path to continually becoming better at understanding and supporting diversity in technology companies.

I learned most of my tactics for being a better supporter for diversity by trial and error. So, I hope this article helps reduce the errors for anyone trying to build diverse teams for the first time. You’ll still make errors, and you just need to accept this as part of the process of becoming a better leader.

For deeper reading, especially about the individual actions anyone can take (not just leaders) I recommend the recently published Better Allies, by Karen Catlin. Catlin’s call for more people to share their tactics for being a better ally shaped the final content of this article. I’m not going to copy all Catlin’s points here — I really do recommend that you read Better Allies if you are also reading this post!

Like I come back to again in the article below, there’s a distinction that Catlin makes between an “ally” (which is good) and a “knight” (which is bad). Making the assumption that a person needs an ally can be perceived as condescending. So, I apologize if any part of this article feels like it is disempowering underrepresented people by the assumption that they all need allies — that is not my belief or my intention in this article. For the leaders among you, be mindful that you’ll come across wrong sometimes and you should own it when you do.

Getting diversity right is not a game that you can easily reset

I cover the following:

  1. The privilege of being an ally: how to leverage your privilege to speak out in favor of diversity.
  2. Combatting denials of inequality: how to get your team members to agree that inherent biases exist.
  3. Managing diversity as a leader: what types of diversity you should care about and why you don’t need to be an expert in any of them.
  4. How to build a diverse team: strategies for hiring diverse workforces while being honest about your current diversity.
  5. How to support a diverse team: strategies for supporting a diverse workforce while being honest about where you are falling short.

Most of my Silicon Valley experience is in Machine Learning, so I’m drawing mostly on examples from the AI industry. For a great recent publication that is specific to AI, see the AI Now Institute’s paper on “Discriminating Systems: Gender, Race, and Power”, by Sarah Myers West, Meredith Whittaker, and Kate Crawford.

The privilege of being an ally for diversity

Allies have the ability to point out inequality in professional settings without fearing the same repercussions as victims. Here are some examples from within my career:

  1. I once refused a job offer after my day-long interview panel was comprised 100% of men from similar backgrounds. The company came back to me and promised to improve diversity, including in their hiring practice, and renewed their offer.
  2. At one exit interview for a company, my only criticism was that their decision-making process let the loudest voices win, which disproportionately biased against people who were less fluent in English and also against non-males who were brought up in cultures where boys are socialized to speak up more than girls. I was still immediately able to build a business partnership between this company at my next company.
  3. I have on many occasions refused invitations to speak at conferences that didn’t have a diverse selection of speakers. Most (although not all) have invited me back to speak at later conferences with a demonstration that they have been more mindful about diversity in their speakers.

In all three cases, I was exercising my privilege as an ally to speak against inequality. If a non-male applicant had complained about an all-male interview panel, it is likely that they would have received the same apology, but maybe not the repeated job offer for fear that they would become someone who complains regularly while in the organization. The same is true for the exit interview. A person who complained about being the victim of inequality would be less likely to be invited to be a business partner with that same organization in the future, because of similar fears.

If you see inequality, speak up. When you are not claiming to be a victim yourself, it is harder for someone to dismiss your criticism as a negative personal experience, rather than independently witnessing inequality.

It is your choice whether to speak up privately or publicly. People are more receptive to criticism when not put in the public spotlight and they are less likely to interpret a private message as virtue signaling. On the other hand, people can also be more dismissive when they are not in the public spotlight, so it is a trade-off.

If you follow my twitter account, @WWRob, you’ll see that I regularly call people out publicly for not embracing language diversity in AI. English makes up 5% of the world’s conversations but more than 95% of language-enabled technologies, so there is a large inequality. This obviously correlates strongly with ethnicity and to a lesser extent with gender, but I only claim deep expertise for the linguistic diversity component of this bias.

For other diversity issues that I observe, I almost always use direct communication and keep it private. This is true even when I am the target of discrimination, which (currently) is mostly due to being an immigrant in USA. I tend to only go public when someone tries to attack me for pointing out inequality, in which case I am ruthless. It was on one of these occasions 18 months ago that led Better Allies to thank me, when I ended up in a public battle with a conference that showed 30+ past speakers on their website, all of who were male:

I appreciate the recognition, but it didn’t make me want to generally be more public when fighting for diversity. I was publicly calling out a conference for lack of diversity in speakers, but I feel like I’ve had just as much success when telling conference organizers privately and directly. I still almost always engage people directly and privately when I witness or experience inequality.

It was fun to learn that the Better Allies twitter account was also run by Karen Catlin. I didn’t know it was the same person until I started reading her book. But I guess a little sad in that there’s one less voice for diversity than I thought, as two voices turned out to be the same person.

If being a more public ally is the right thing for you, then that is fine, too, so long you don’t try to own narratives that aren’t yours or find yourself acting as a savior/knight instead of an ally. I don’t have a general answer to whether private or public action is best to fight inequality and can only recommend that you use your best judgment!

I wish I could say it always works out well when you speak out. One of the best technology leaders I know witnessed one of their colleagues making ableist comments about a third colleague. The witness filed a complaint with HR, only for the CEO to berate the witness for “not being a team player”. The CEO was in a mentoring relationship with the accused person (a bad relationship model, as I cover below) and clearly did not appreciate their mentee being criticized. The witness/ally was ultimately given the option of a demotion or quitting, and chose the latter. It was a delight to write the witness a glowing reference for their next job at a much less toxic company.

If you’re looking for praise or for advancement in your own career, you are being an ally for the wrong reasons. As well as being the ethical course, there is nothing more satisfying than working in a diverse and performant organization. You’ll receive a net benefit by being around a more diverse group of colleagues every day and create better technologies as a result, despite the occasional set-back.

Combatting denials of inequality

As a leader, you will encounter people in your organization who refuse to believe that inequality exists. If you don’t have everyone on board to help ensure diversity in your organization, then you will struggle to improve the situation.

Here are two common patterns for denying that there are problems with equality, and the ways I have found to deal with them:

1. People who confuse inequality & hardship

People will often confuse inequality with hardship. This is commonly used as an excuse to not take diversity seriously. When someone from a more privileged demographic says “I grew up poor” or “I put myself through college”, this is often what they mean: “I struggled so I don’t have to be sensitive to someone else’s struggles”. It took me a while to really appreciate this distinction personally, but it is an important one.

When people come to you with arguments like “I grew up poor”, I recommend reminding them that they are privileged today to be working at Silicon Valley technology company (or a technology company almost anywhere in world). It won’t help to question their past hardships, which you should accept as real. Try an analogy: “there were other people who started with exactly the same hardships and were just as smart, but they didn’t make it to where you are now because of worse discrimination against their ethnicity, gender, nationality, etc.” Similarly, you can also say “there are people who should be at our company, but are not because of systemic biases that they have faced throughout their lives that kept them from even getting to an interview.”

If they bring the conversation back to themselves, then try a different tactic. Ask them: “would you like to make the path easier for someone like yourself in the future?” If you can’t get someone to understand the difference between inequality and hardship, then this tactic appeals to their own experience. If someone cannot even empathize with a younger version of themselves, then question whether this person belongs in your organization.

2. People who confuse identity & harmony

People often confuse identity and harmony, similar to how they confuse inequality and hardship. Just because everyone in an office seems to get along harmoniously, it doesn’t mean that everyone feels like their personal identity is represented. When you hear about companies imploding and people exclaiming “but everyone got along so well!”, then this was often the case.

Because everything seems fine on the surface, this problem can be harder to identify. My advice for leaders is to be wary of any part of your company that seems monocultural. It can seem calm on the surface but in reality, there are probably people who feel unrepresented with no outlet to express this. If you have a team that hires their 10th male developer from the same background and age-range as the previous 9, then this should set off alarm bells. Ensure that everyone in that part of your organization has a voice and look for patterns of group behavior that advantage the most privileged.

When organizations become too monocultural, a singularity will form and space-time will collapse

Managing diversity as a leader

Every dimension of diversity matters, whether or not it happens to be a protected class of people today. Here in California, the protected classes (https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/employment)/ are:

  • Race, color
  • Ancestry, national origin
  • Religion, creed
  • Age (over 40)
  • Disability, mental and physical
  • Sex, gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding or related medical conditions)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity, gender expression
  • Medical condition
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Military and veteran status

National origin is the most recent addition. You could legally discriminate against people using national origin until one year ago (July of 2018). People would previously hide their bigotry under a cloak of national origin discrimination, so it was nice to see this loophole closed in California.

You might have different protected classes in the country/region that you live in and it is a moving target: it’s fair to assume that this will not be the last protected class to be added to Californian law. Regardless of the current law where you live, you should be sensitive to any class of people who are routinely discriminated against.

How to build a diverse team

I’ve built diverse teams from scratch and come in to lead existing teams with a goal of improving diversity. It’s much easier to build diversity from scratch: don’t leave diversity as something to take care of later. No organization needs to be non-diverse simply to attract enough good people.

1. Listen and learn

Your staff will bring many experiences with them. Listen carefully to all of them, because many people will not immediately want to openly share the experiences that they have had in the past that have shaped them. You won’t be able to build a diverse team if you can’t listen to the diversity of experiences. While you can’t be an expert on every dimension of diversity, you can be genuinely empathetic about what matters to people that you are hiring, their personal experiences of inequality and discrimination included.

2. Be mindful about how you present your team to the world

If you have a problem with a diverse pipeline of candidates, then you are probably presenting yourself to the world in a way the signals you are not a place that values diversity. The company Textio has built its HR tools around this premise to help some of the problem: what unconscious bias are you representing in your job descriptions?

Within boundaries, you can also fix this with small things like changing your website. For example, there was one time when I was at a company that didn’t have the diversity in leadership that we wanted. The company as a whole was more diverse, so we updated the ‘about us’ page on our website to show a grid of people rather than the hierarchy from leadership down. It was one honest representation of the company that better reflected who we wanted to join us.

3. Be honest

To continue the previous point, there’s a fine line between representing the company that you want to be and misrepresenting the company that you are today. If you feel like you are deceiving people or brushing your problems under the carpet, then choose a different strategy. For example, if you adopt a grid layout of your employees on your website to highlight diversity, that is probably ok. But if you are deliberately adding/subtracting people from your website to make your company look more diverse than you really are, then you are probably not being honest.

Be open about the problems you do have. If you’ve just pushed out all your minorities in technical leadership, don’t then host a “diversity panel” to talk about your expertise and use that to try to attract candidates. If you only offer minimal health benefits and the parental leave required by law, don’t promote your benefits while recruiting only to have to make excuses later. Build diversity with humility.

3. Make diversity central to the products you are building

Is your product localized into as many languages as possible? Is your business model only trying to solve the pain-points of privileged people? These are the important questions to ask about putting your commitment to diversity into practice.

Social impact can help with recruiting. If you can admit that you do not have the diversity that you would like in your company, but you can then point to the fact that your product has a positive impact on a diverse number of people worldwide, then that will help demonstrate your commitment to diversity to your candidates. As above, you need to be honest.

How to support a diverse team

1. Listen and learn

Don’t stop listening to people once they are in the door. You can continue to learn and be empathetic about what matters to people that you manage. Again, listen to everyone equally and be conscious that people who are from different backgrounds to you are less likely to be open with you.

Consider whether your words at work should be the same as at home

Address any problems as soon as you see them. You’re most likely to witness unconscious bias. It could even be as benign as someone being over-familiar by using words or behaviors that are ok in-group, but not ok if they are not a member of that group. You don’t have to make everything a Human Resources (HR) matter if it’s a small issue. You should always follow your company’s HR policies, but at the same time be conscious that raising all issues to HR and making a big deal out of them will make some people more reluctant to report small issues in the future. You will need to use your best judgment about the appropriate level of response and be mindful that the level of response is itself an important factor.

When you are trying to listen, be careful about asking leading questions that could lead to issues that you create. For example, if a new employee has an accent, don’t ask them where they are from then use that as an excuse to tell them about the time you went on vacation to that place, without asking them about their experience and personal history there.

2. Allow feedback through multiple channels

Some people prefer to give feedback in group settings where there is a bigger audience. Some people will be uncomfortable in a group setting. In particular, some people will not be comfortable offering an opinion that differs from their manager in a group setting, and people who are second language speakers will often feel less empowered to speak up in large group settings.

Sitting in a circle and assuring people they are equal won’t magically change this. This false sense of egalitarianism is one of the biggest problems in many technology companies, because it only feels equal to the most privileged.

Ensure that there are multiple ways for people to contribute to your organization’s decision making. For more details on this in the context of the building products, see this recent article I wrote:

3. It is about what you say, not what you mean

It is hard to know what is in someone’s heart, so it is their words that matter the most. It is not enough that someone didn’t mean to say something that sounds discriminatory: you have to be mindful not to come across that way.

On the upside, you can encourage people to apologize in the same way, which will be easier for them. If you find that a team member has said something insensitive, you can ask them to apologize for what they said, not what they meant. If they want to qualify it, ask them to do that second, eg: “I shouldn’t have said X. I didn’t mean it to come across that way”, rather than leading with “I didn’t mean X”. In other words, acknowledge that a statement could be perceived as insensitive before making excuses.

This “what you said”/“what you meant” distinction is an interesting one that I only learned recently and have found to be really effective. I forget where I read about it — I’ll link to the source if I remember later! You’ll also see that I used it in the 3rd paragraph of this article pre-emptively. Don’t be scared of admitting mistakes: admitting your errors can demonstrate that you are genuinely trying better than an assertation that you always mean well. You’re not going to learn if you are not self-critical.

4. Mix socially outside your line of management

It is good to have people in your social network that you can talk to about professional issues. I’m constantly grateful that my best friends don’t even really know what I do in my day job because it’s also important to have people who treat you the same regardless of your highs and lows professionally.

You are probably going to mix socially with people who have similar backgrounds to you. That is fine, but if your social life includes people that you manage, especially if they are from similar backgrounds to you, then you are creating the perception of favoritism that might be hard to get away from.

Company social events can make this difficult. As a rule of thumb that I recommend to leaders: go to social events with colleagues on weeknights, but leave early every time and avoid social events on Friday nights or weekends (or whatever day of the week your company has its downtime). Use a rule of two drinks maximum in one sitting with anyone in your line of management. Are you able to drink more? Good for you, but it’s not about you: it’s about the people you manage and their consumption. In addition to the increased the chance of witnessing inappropriate behavior, it’s also about being perceived as playing favorites by talking more to people that you have more in common with.

If you organize social events, make them inclusive by not basing them around drinking or foods that not everyone can consume. You don’t have to go overboard and appeal only to the most restrictive demographic, simply make sure there are options.

5. Mentor people outside your line of management

It is great to see a younger version of yourself and want to help them avoid all the mistakes that you made. But for the same reason as socializing, you should not take on a mentoring role with people you also manage, unless that mentorship is equal across all the people you manage. Otherwise, you could be perceived as playing favorites by spending more time putting professional development into people that you have more in common with.

This is why many large companies will introduce mentorship programs that are deliberately independent of the management structure.

6. No-one gets a pass

I have only twice seen people be openly bigoted in a work environment. The first was an employee of color, who I fired immediately after they made anti-semitic remarks. The second was a female VC, who vocalized her support for the ban of people from Muslim countries when I said that I had lived in a majority Muslim country (Sierra Leone) before moving to the USA.

There is no one group of people more or less likely to have biases, and being underrepresented does not give someone permission to discriminate against others. It will be tough for you as a leader to criticize someone for being biased if you come from a more privileged background than they do, but you have to treat everyone equally, including any discriminatory behavior.

7. Be flexible in compensation and timing

Some of the most dedicated and high performing employees I’ve ever had were single parents. Unlike most people at startups whose compensation plans lean heavily on equity (stock that you might not be able to sell for years, if at all) they preferred cash compensation. They also needed flexibility to collect their children from care or school. In no way did this diminish their overall commitment to the company or their internal ownership of our success.

So, be flexible in how people are compensated and don’t tie their equity-ownership to their personal ownership. If you can only afford to employ people who are privileged enough to have a strong financial safety net, then you do not have a real company.

8. Forgive mistakes on both sides

You probably make mistakes from a position of privilege every day and get away with it. Don’t condemn someone if they make a mistake from a non-privileged position.

At some point, someone will come to you with a discrimination complaint that you suspect might be exaggerated. You might be lucky enough to find out for certain — perhaps it was on a conference call that was recorded — but chances are that you will have to make a judgment call with incomplete information. Even if you do have the evidence that this is not a real complaint, do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the person is being deliberately misleading in their complaint. People misremember situations all the time.

If you have pockets of toxicity in your company, it might be impossible for someone to distinguish the general toxic behavior from their experience of targeted discrimination. If that is the case, then their mistaken impression of discrimination is partially your fault, because you have some responsibility for the culture in your company.

9. Be careful about the behavior that you enable

This probably my most controversial observation: I don’t think the biggest problem with “bro culture’’ is with the bros themselves.

There is an unhealthy cycle that can form in technology companies. Technology leaders often value anti-establishment behavior as a core value of building technology that is disruptive to their industry. But when someone makes anti-establishment comments in an insensitive way (like going into graphic detail about “f*#king a competitor”) then that sends the wrong message to the company about the right kind of behavior.

An example is Uber when it was widely criticized for bro culture. The media reported this started with the founding CEO, Travis Kalanick. But people who worked there report it differently: they say Kalanick was not particularly emotive in his leadership, but his face always lit up when the worst examples of bro culture were exhibited around him.

You can be a more or less emotive leader — there is nothing wrong with displaying any level of emotion consistently. But you need to be careful about tacitly enabling the wrong culture by being inconsistent by reacting positively only to toxic behavior. This doesn’t excuse anyone exhibiting the bad parts of bro culture from the responsibilities of their individual actions, but I do see the broader enabling culture as the larger issue.

10. Be Honest

As with hiring, be honest internally. Be open about where you are falling short and your strategies to correct those errors.

If you tried a campaign to recruit more diverse people into your team and it didn’t work, simply tell your team “we tried a strategy and it didn’t work so we will try something else”. Don’t give in and say “we tried a strategy and discovered that there were no diverse candidates”. That will ring hollow. Own that not everything will work and that you will continue to find ways to improve diversity.

Don’t inherently trust recruiters if they tell you that there are no diverse candidates for a role. Your recruiters are working for you and their incentives aren’t aligned. They might not tell you about the gaps they observe in your recruiting process. They might have diversity problems with their own pipeline. They might want to get the next commission faster with a smaller funnel of non-diverse candidates. Recruiters are working hard to figure out solutions to diversity problems just like the rest of us and have not yet found the answers.

Where are the allies?

If oppressed people fighting for justice was all that was needed for equality, then we would already have equality. It is not for lack of effort among the victims of inequality that we still lack diverse representation in most of the world, technology companies included. We’ll move faster towards equality where there are allies for diversity.

Allies tend not to speak up as much as victims of discrimination would like. I started writing this article to share a story about recent discrimination that I have faced, but then I changed my mind. I decided it would be better for me to share what I have learned as a leader trying to foster diversity, rather than sharing my personal victim story. I might tell my own discrimination story later, depending on whether it is treated fairly by those responsible to address it. For now, my advice about trying to be a better ally is more important.

Let’s return to a distinction between an “ally” (which is good) and a “knight” (which is bad), that is covered in the Better Allies book. This is one of the biggest dangers about being a privileged person in a leadership role: your role is to support diversity, not to be a savior. That is why “Listen and Learn” is the first point for the “building diverse teams” and “supporting diverse teams” sections in this article. There might be underrepresented people in your organization that don’t want support from their leadership to overcome inequality: they might perceive it as condescending and assuming that they are not capable of overcoming adversity in this part of their professional life. This is a fair way for them to feel and so it is something that you should listen to, for that person. But do not use individual differences as an excuse to ignore inequality elsewhere. You might encounter this argument: “Person X (an underrepresented person) doesn’t think there’s a problem, so our company is fine”. If you let any one person’s individual perception drive broader actions, then you are missing the point of pluralism. You can still support other underrepresented people directly and be mindful to avoid inequalities in your organization as a whole.

For leaders reading this article, the advice I gave here only scratches the surface on the tactics that you can use, and is obviously limited to my experience. For example, I have never practiced positive discrimination to explicitly target certain demographics of people, so I don’t know how I would implement a positive discrimination strategy or when it would be appropriate or inappropriate.

Like I said at the start, I recommend Better Allies as a book to learn more about individual actions. If you have any other tactics or resources that you have found successful, please share them!

Robert Munro

July 2019

Robert Munro

Written by

Author of Human-in-the-Loop Machine Learning: http://bit.ly/huml_book. Coder ⇨ Bicycle Traveler ⇨ Disaster Response Leader ⇨ Stanford PhD ⇨ AI Exec. @WWWRob

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