Tech company efforts to diversify by hiring more women are falling short in a key way: Leaving out women of color.
"You see this in most large-scale initiatives built to create equality," said Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at software company Atlassian. "When you focus on the larger group we call women, which is itself very diverse, you end up in a program that serves the needs of the majority in that group, which are white women."
Affirmative action programs have primarily benefited white women, a number of studies have shown. "We see that replicated in the tech industry, which is problematic, because we end up leaving women who don't fall into that camp behind," Blanche said. "You don't get as much diversity as you'd like."
Research shows that diverse teams are more innovative and creative, and that employees are happier. "As America becomes more diverse and globalized, it is smart to understand how to support greater diversity of your own workforce and of customers," Blanche said. "It's smart from a business perspective, and it has social impact."
Blanche offers the following six tips for tech leaders who want to achieve true diversity of thought and experience on their teams.
1. Take an intersectional approach.
It's important to think about diversity from an intersectional lens, Blanche said. That means considering how gender is influenced by race, religion, and other identifications.
Atlassian's framework for diversity is called "n-Space," and refers to the uncountable number of characteristics and experiences each employee brings to the workplace. The approach aims to recognize and celebrate those differences to improve each person's quality of work.
"It helps address the needs of minority women, and also helps create less of an us-versus-them conversation in diversity," Blanche said. "Straight white men tend to feel very left out from diversity programs. By counting in intersectionality, you can bring them into the conversation—maybe they grew up low income, or are Jewish, or have other aspects of their identity they can join the conversation in. It's more collaborative and likely to succeed."
2. Rethink your branding.
All companies have an Employee Value Proposition (EVP)—the unique set of benefits employees receive in return for the skills and experience they bring to a company.
"In tech, we tend to focus on particular aspects of office culture," Blanche said. Atlassian recently overhauled its Careers page, paying specific attention to what pictures are on the website, and how to communicate that everyone can belong and be successful there, especially women of color and older women.
The company also changed the way it presents employee benefits. "Not that beer and ping pong are inherently terrible, but a lot of people care more about 401k matching and child care," Blanche said. "We want to show that we provide perks and benefits for people at every stage of their careers."
3. Measure diversity on a team level.
Most tech company diversity reports provide corporate-level statistics. "At a fundamental level, that does not measure diversity, it measures representation," Blanche said. "It looks great if you've got 50% women, but if they are all in marketing, HR, and sales, instead of engineering, there's not actually diversity happening."
Analyzing each team is a better option because it measures the diversity people experience day to day, Blanche said. It also provides more actionable information. "At a corporate level, if I see I have an underrepresentation of women, that doesn't tell me about the core problem to solve," Blanche said.
For example, Atlassian's corporate diversity report last March showed that 13% of employees in technical roles were female. But among the company's 77 software teams, 66% have at least one women on them. "That tells me these women are distributed, and are not working with women as much as men day to day," she said.
To address that and prevent turnover, Atlassian invested in programs to create a sense of community and connection across teams. They also instituted a program called Coffee Date, for which interested women sign up and every other week get paired with another woman for coffee. "It's created organic social relationships that really matter," Blanche said. The company also has mentoring groups made up of women from different departments at the same office.
4. Create your own pipeline.
Atlassian found it did not have a robust pipeline of women of color applying to jobs. So the company partnered with Galvanize to offer a scholarship program for black, Latina, and Indigenous women to gain tech skills via a six month full stack bootcamp. In addition to tuition reimbursement, the women are paired with an Atlassian employee who serves as a mentor and conduit to meet others in the field, and with recruiters to help them with their resume. The first recipient is now a junior developer.
"Women of color are less likely to have family and friends working in tech," Blanche said. "It helps to have someone there telling you, 'You can do it.'"
5. Partner with others.
Reach out to experts who are connected to a more diverse network of talent, Blanche said. For example, Blavity hosts the AfroTech Conference and recruiting fairs. And a number of groups, like the National Society of Black Engineers, have job boards and events.
"Working with those organizations can make sure you're not building everything from scratch—you don't have to know everything," Blanche said.
6. Enlist allies.
You don't have to do this work alone. "White men are an incredibly important ally," Blanche said. "Functionally, they're the ones in power, and nothing will change if they don't get on the team."
Speaking out about equality is important. Take the message and ideas put forth by people in marginalized communities, and speak it to people who look like them. "Act as a megaphone for people who are speaking these words but not heard as much," Blanche said.
Ultimately, it takes more than hiring diversity and inclusion-focused staff to create change, Blanche said. "They will be enablers and experts, but it's the work of leaders and people every day making small decisions and learnings and applying it to their teams that will create the change and allow the industry to reach its potential."
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- Designing the future: Silicon Valley struggles with diversity and inclusivity (ZDNet)
- Can these tech tools fight gender bias and increase workplace diversity? (TechRepublic)
- Women in tech: Mind the gender gap (ZDNet)
- How Northeastern plans to reach equal male-female computer science enrollment by 2021 (TechRepublic)
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.