How to Navigate Conversations About Diversity and Inclusion in Tech
[Editor's note: In honor of International Women's Day, we're so excited to share this article and video from Femgineer's Poornima Vijayashanker—originally published on her blog.]
I’m sure you’re aware of the talk and debate around the topic of diversity and inclusion. Maybe it’s left you feeling frustrated, tired, or downright apathetic…
I get it.
Much of the emotional rollercoaster stems from the challenges of navigating conversations with your teammates and peers on top of your day-to-day responsibilities.
Plus you’re probably wondering: Are these programs actually working?
You know how much I love busting myths! So in today’s Build episode, we’re going to talk about the issues specific to tech and provide you with some strategies for navigating those tricky conversations with your teammates and your peers. We’ll also dive into what isn’t working and why.
If you’re curious about starting a diversity and inclusion initiative at your company or participating in another organization, then keep an eye out for the next episode where we’ll do a deeper dive into a number of best practices.
To help us out I’ve invited Melinda Epler and Wayne Sutton, who are the founders of Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion.
As you watch this episode, you’ll learn the following:
- Why we may shy away from talking about diversity and inclusion
- How shaming people and companies doesn’t help the cause
- Why awareness isn’t enough — how to shift to being more process oriented
- Why it’s hard to take action individually and how to get support
- How to know if diversity and inclusion are worth it
You can listen to this episode of Build on iTunes. And check out these additional resources on diversity and inclusion:
- Better Male Allies
- Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech
- How To Build A Pipeline Of Technical Talent
- The Future Of Tech Recruiting Includes: Building A Pipeline, Bootcamp Graduates, and Immigration Reform
- Industry Insights Around Diversity And Inclusion From The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing 2016
How To Navigate Conversations About Diversity And Inclusion in Tech Transcript
Poornima Vijayashanker: There’s been a lot of talk and debate around the topic of diversity and inclusion. And regardless of what side you are on, in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the issues pertaining to tech, as well as how to navigate conversations with your teammates and peers. So stay tuned.
Welcome to *Build*, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. In each episode of *Build*, innovators and I debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies, and your career in tech.
Now, as you can imagine, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions around diversity and inclusion. Conversations can be really hard to navigate. And that’s why in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the issues that pertain specifically to tech and help you navigate those conversations with teammates and peers. And if you’re curious about starting a diversity and inclusion initiative at your company or participating in another organization, then stick around for the next episode where we’ll do a deeper dive into those practices.
In today’s episode, I invited Melinda Epler and Wayne Sutton, who are the founders of Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion. Thanks you guys for joining us today.
Melinda Epler: Thanks. Thanks for having us.
Wayne Sutton: Thanks for having us.
What does diversity and inclusion mean?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So, let’s start by talking about what exactly is diversity and inclusion?
Melinda Epler: I’d like to say that diversity is about bringing diverse people to the table and inclusion is about inviting them to speak, encouraging them to lead, and supporting them in leadership. Diversity is really about the demographics and inclusion is about how people show up, how people thrive, and how people feel that they belong in their culture.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. And how do you think it pertains to tech?
Wayne Sutton: I like to say diversity includes everything, how it pertains to tech. Tech impacts the world, it impacts everything we do in our daily lives, from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. Tech creates wealth, tech creates innovation. You look at all the products. They got some of the products living on your shelf.
We’re thinking about the customers, we’re thinking about the followers, we’re thinking about the equity or the inequity and all the opportunities that is connected to tech. And without diversity, right, you see problems being built by a homogeneous culture. You see solutions not brought to the table because it’s being built by one or two mindsets.
You see a lot of disparity gaps in terms of access and wealth. So, without diversity, really, the tech industry is not as thriving as it should be or could be. And the impact is having, in a positive and a negative way, is not where it could be as a whole, as well.
Why diversity and inclusion are important
At the same time, if the tech industry were more inclusive, I could imagine more innovative products. I can imagine an industry that is really identifying or being held accountable to its actions as current culture, where we wouldn’t have issues that existed in the ‘60s, ‘70s, in terms of not having equal pay, not having women or other representative groups, African Americans in leadership positions, cultural and sexual harassment. If we had inclusion, these negative issues that is in the face of our society right now, in tech, wouldn’t exist.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So, let’s talk about what drew you to focus on diversity and inclusion, because you both had different backgrounds before you were working on this.
Melinda Epler: Yeah. My background actually started back in cultural anthropology and really looking at how individuals create change in societies, how culture changes. Then, I moved into the documentary filmmaking. I was a documentary filmmaker for about 10 years, became a consultant, and then, actually became an executive at an engineering firm. That experience of being a woman, and the only woman, in leadership in that engineering firm was what made me rethink what needs to change in society.
I was not thriving in that culture and it was because it wasn’t set up for me, it wasn’t set up for my success. And so, I actually left that job as an executive to go into diversity and inclusion. I started Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion programs, really addressing the inequities in our society. My whole life has been focused on creating social and environmental change.
And I believe, now, that if we don’t change leadership, if we don’t change who can be a leader and who is leading our countries, who’s leading our companies, who’s leading our technologies, our stories, then we can’t change what’s really happening in the world. I am here because I believe that this is the most important thing for me to be working on to create positive social change in the world.
Early attempts to foster diversity and inclusion in tech
Poornima Vijayashanker: What about yourself, Wayne? Your background is also from a different angle.
Wayne Sutton: Yeah, yeah. I started off doing design, graphic design—I’m showing my age some. Then, got into design UI/UX and computer graphic design. I did IT for about 8 years in North Carolina—Research Triangle Park—then became a tech founder. Had a startup back in 2007 or 8, and didn’t realize that in North Carolina that I was one of very few unrepresented tech founders, a black tech founder.
And then, experienced the challenges of growing and scaling a company. Then, fast-forward to 2011, the data from CB Insights said that 1% of the tech startups, that raise “angel” or VC are founded by African Americans and Latinos. They actually grouped that data together. So it really was less than 1% Black and Latino that received any angel or venture capital in 2011.
By that time, I knew various colleagues across the country that was also working on startups. I was basically like address the problem. What can we create a solution around? Some other colleagues and I, we decided to move to Mountain View and create the very first incubator and accelerator, focused on underrepresented tech founders. That led to a whole other window of opportunity.
Moved to Silicon Valley, then moved to San Francisco. And then went through a period where, after that, I realized that the tech industry did not want to talk about diversity and inclusion, did not want to talk about the disparities of access and inequality for founders to receive capital. The tech industry was priding itself on being a meritocracy. It was like: Anyone can create a tech company, anyone can create a product, it doesn’t matter.
That may be true.
How the “Pattern Of Action” created a period where people didn’t talk about diversity and inclusion
Poornima Vijayashanker: But it wasn’t happening.
Wayne Sutton: No. It was not happening. And the data already showed that everyone was not raising angel capital. It wasn’t because of lack of talent, it was not because the products were not as good. It was because what the VC industry would call “a pattern of action.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.
Wayne Sutton: And we went through a period where we’re not talking about diversity or inclusion at all. We’re not talking about a lack of funding for underrepresented entrepreneurs. And then the tech industry released a diversity report, that was in 2014.
And then email—and I want to say the phone, but more the email and Twitter DMs started come in. It was like, “Hey! We need to talk about diversity. I remember you used to talk about it in the day…”
And Dan Blenman and I started collaborating. We met and started collaborating on solutions. We got invited to so many roundtables, kind of private conversations, one-on-one meetings around what can we do to fix this diversity problem.
Melinda Epler: Yeah, those were from the White House, to the Small Business Administration, to the FTC, the FCC. And then local tech companies and local conversations as well all kind of talking about that.
Wayne Sutton: That was at the White House during the Obama Administration.
Melinda Epler: Yes, just so we’re clear…
Why there isn’t a single solution to improving diversity and inclusion
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes, yes, of course. Well, we know who was in the Administration in 2014. So you already touched upon some of them in your intro, but what were some of the problems specific to tech that you continue to see in this phase and maybe even today?
Wayne Sutton: I would say that the biggest problem is still that happened then that we see today is still the state of denial that there is an issue. There is also the problem that it’s going to be one technology solution or you do one thing that’s going to fix everything.
Melinda Epler: One cheap thing.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.
Wayne Sutton: And then one problem is still thinking that companies and individuals can focus on one demographic or one category. I don’t want to say category. But one part of the conversation. And use it saying that it’s solving all the problems.
And I would probably say lastly, it’s another problem in that I was shocked at how many companies when they started talking about wanting to do work around solutions around diversity and inclusion, they will not even connecting it to their business. Or their customers. Or their direct culture.
They were just trying to say, “Hey, we’re working on this. Get off our backs! Here’s our solution. It’s hard.” And all those things combined is not really good for the goal we want to achieve.
Melinda Epler: I think there’s a few different reasons that this is happening. And this happened in tech differently than in other industries. It started back when Steve Jobs and some of the big, great tech CEOs became “the” story around tech. And the story revolved around that being the kind of…that is the tech founder: the white male CEO is the tech founder.
And when those white male tech founders built their companies, they hired their friends. They just didn’t think about it. They hired their friends and their friends hired their friends and the tech companies are still set up for referrals mostly.
When you have the same people referring their friends, then you’re going to have a homogeneous culture. And so the issue is, now that those companies are so big, it’s really hard to create change in them.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.
How success patterns have bred the current culture in tech
Wayne Sutton: That brings up another good point. Because the industry is manipulated by market trends and success patterns, right? So the VCs while they represent the founders, because they hadn’t seen any. Or there hadn’t been enough for them to say this is a good model, right?
But in the culture of the tech industry, you look at your Microsofts, your Intels, your HPs. That’s like one era of American business and society, how they grew and scaled companies.
Then the second wave is the Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitter, the Snaps, the Instagrams, the Salesforce. Those companies basically, like Melinda said, they hired their friends when they started. Larry and Sergei were Stanford grads. And then they got funding from Ron Conway and the network. And there was a lot of luck involved, a lot of sweat, a lot of hard work, they built innovative products, but then because those companies made a lot of money, everybody just replicated that same pattern.
I’m old enough to remember where it didn’t matter what school we went to. You can code, you can build, you can design—it mattered. Let’s get to work! Let’s build something!
But then because it became a new norm of like, “Let’s copy Google, let’s copy Facebook, let’s copy other companies.” Then that became the standard like, “We must do this.” And if we look at that demographic data…
How to measure diversity and inclusion in tech
Poornima Vijayashanker: So, obviously this isn’t the first time that people are having this conversation. Like I mentioned in the intro, there have been many, many years that we’ve been having this. I know even for myself, moving out here in 2004, there were some rumblings, but not a whole lot, to the level it’s at today.
But obviously people have tried to fix this problem once before, and where have they fallen short? Like, what didn’t work?
Melinda Epler: Part of it is not measuring. And that changed in 2014. That was a big shift for everyone, where they really could see these are the diversity…these are the actual demographics of our companies. “Oh! Whoa! Those are really bad! We need to figure out how to solve them.”
Why measuring and building awareness for diversity and inclusion isn’t enough
Melinda Epler: And then, once they said that, they kind of put those numbers out there. It hasn’t changed all that much, because the first year was just about measuring. And then starting to hire diversity and inclusion managers and directors, but not putting a lot of money and resources into really…you can’t hire one person to change a whole company with very little resources. That’s just not possible.
So, as those diversity and inclusion managers have gained traction in their own companies, they’re starting to get bigger budgets and things are starting to change a little bit faster in the companies. Now that does not discount the fact that people have been working on diversity and inclusion in some of the tech companies for quite some time.
One of the issues is that many of the initiatives around diversity and inclusion in the past have focused on employee resource groups, community groups, and really helping support underrepresented people in the companies. And I think, on the other hand, some work has been done on education and awareness building. And this happens in every kind of major culture shift.
It happened in the sustainability movement as well. There’s an expectation that if you tell somebody there’s something wrong, they’ll do something about it.
But the problem is, you actually have to help them change their behaviors. And really fundamentally think about how to shift culture. How to shift processes and systems that are ingrained and perpetuating the problem.
Why shaming people and companies doesn’t enact change
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, talk is cheap.
Melinda Epler: Yeah, and it doesn’t really change anything. And the third component is really about shaming. There’s also a really deep and disturbing trend around shaming people into changing. That doesn’t really change people either!
So, there’s a new and growing movement and at least an understanding—I wouldn’t say movement yet—and understanding that it takes more. It takes a bigger effort to really look at your culture. How do you change your culture, how do you change individual behavior? How do you fundamentally look at your recruiting process?
And say, “Oh, wow!” From the very beginning. We need to change the way we’re doing things. There are biases in the system, but also there are some mismatched systemic problems in the process.
Change Catalyst’s approach to helping companies with diversity and inclusion
Poornima Vijayashanker: So let’s talk about Change Catalyst and how do you approach this differently?
Melinda Epler: We have a few different things that we do. We have events, our Tech Inclusion events. And when we were talking earlier about having those roundtable discussions back in 2014, we started getting pretty frustrated that those roundtable discussions kept talking about the same things over and over. We had the same conversations over and over again. And they were really problems focused, which is important…
Is a diversity and inclusion program worth it?
Poornima Vijayashanker: What’s an example of that?
Wayne Sutton: An example would be the question we get asked over and over again. “Who’s doing it well?” And the reason why everybody wanted to know…
Poornima Vijayashanker: Like they’re a benchmark.
Wayne Sutton: …No, no, not that! The reason everybody wanted to know who’s…everybody wanted to know what company was having any type of success around diversity and inclusion. Any type of success.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh! To see if it was worth it.
Wayne Sutton: They wanted to know if it was worth it, but also wanted to know if they could copy it. They wanted to replicate it. And that was really it. Because everybody wanted one moonshot idea to say, “We’re implementing change.” That they could say, “We’re working on it.” And that was a repetitive question across the board.
At times, really, there wasn’t a company that had all the answers or all the ideas or…
Poornima Vijayashanker: You guys all suck!
Melinda Epler: Exactly!
Poornima Vijayashanker: Or it’s not making an impact.
Melinda Epler: I’d say it’s still the case. There’s no one company that’s doing everything right.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I’d agree!
What diversity and inclusion training looks like
Melinda Epler: Largely because the diversity and inclusion programs are under resourced. But there are gems. There are some people that are doing some really great programs that we can point to.
I think also, in 2014, there was a lot of talk amongst underrepresented people that were feeling disenfranchised. Feeling like the opportunities weren’t there for them. Feeling, hearing over and over again that there are barriers, there are barriers, there are barriers. But less about solutions.
How do we break down those barriers? What do we do? How do we solve that problem?
So that was one. We really wanted to focus on solutions, and that’s what we have done. We’ve designed it to focus on solutions.
The second is we really with our Tech Inclusion Programs…it’s a systemic problem across the tech industry. So, it starts in education, and then there’s huge problems in terms of entrepreneurship. Lack of investing. Lack of investors who are underrepresented. And then also lack of investing in underrepresented founders.
And then of course, the workplace. At the time, it was really focused on recruiting. As we talked about, you also have to change the culture. You can’t just change recruiting, because you’re bringing underrepresented people into a culture that’s not creative for them. And they’re going to leave! Like I left my position, right?
So workplace, and then policymakers as well. Policy and government agencies, and their power and wealth, and ability to create change in the system. And now we also focus on storytelling, like you do as well, to really help raise the underrepresented voices and perspectives, and have more diverse perspectives out there.
So for our events, that what we really focus across the tech ecosystem, bringing everybody together to focus on solutions.
For our consulting, training, and toolkits, we’re also solutions focused. And focused on behavior and culture change, and really going beyond recruiting—recruiting is a part of that, but all the way through creating a culture of belonging.
Change comes from multiple sources
Wayne Sutton: Yeah, for us, it’s that how change comes is different. We’re not a “come in and look at one problem or one sector of the goal you want to accomplish around diversity and inclusion.” We want to really discover and look at your entire company from a culture and a systematic perspective to help identify opportunities to create real change.
What we’ve seen in the past is that a lot of companies contact us after taking unconscious bias training, and saying “We did that, now what? What do we do now? That has had some effectiveness, but we need more.”
And it’s been an opportunity and a challenge aspect is that smaller companies—and even larger companies—they really have to be committed to put their resources in to explore what real change looks like. Whether you implement a new tool to remove names from resumes—that’s just one thing. That’s just one task you can do to help affect your recruiting process.
But what about when you have your product team, your design team, your engineering team and there’s different negative and positive behaviors in that one team dynamic. A software tool is not necessarily going to fix that. One unconscious bias training is not going to fix that.
There needs to be a discovery and a real heart-to-heart conversation around employee behavior with accountability. And we come in and have those harder conversations, put together a report, talk with the executive team, and if they have a head of diversity officer, work with that individual to put together some strategies that can create change.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice! So what’s the impact that you’ve seen so far through your programs and your offerings?
Wayne Sutton: We see impact across the board. There’s impact from the consulting, has been from a company not having any strategy at all from everybody saying like, “Well, we care about this. We want to do something,” to now that there is a board level, and executive-level type solution with a plan in place that they can measure and track results over time with some accountability involved, where there’s an individual or team saying that, “This is the team that is working on creating inclusive culture.” That’s been in some of my trainings. A consultant impact.
The other impact we’ve seen around our conferences and events that we’ve done now mostly across the globe. We’ve been overseas. Across the globe, has been everything from gender-neutral bathrooms to new jobs created.
How to navigate conversations about diversity and inclusion
Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s a great segue into my next question. I know a lot of people—especially in our audience—care deeply about diversity and inclusion. But they may find it hard to navigate those conversations or to even initiate them with their teams, with their bosses. So how have you kind of facilitated that?
Melinda Epler: We start by asking everyone in the company, at least a broad set of people across the company, what diversity means to them. What inclusion means to them. Start to develop a company-wide definition of diversity and inclusion. And then, literally we talk to people across the company about the ideas that they have, the experiences that they’ve had, and really develop a strategy that includes all of those voices. I think you have to do that.
So that’s what we do at the kind of company-wide level, and including the executives all across the executive teams and the board as well. For an individual wanting to create individual change, who may not be an executive in a company, I think that there are some different resources for understanding the language around diversity and inclusion and there are some courses out there around allyship. And some information around allyship that I think can be really beneficial to really…there are so many different things that you can do.
Why it’s hard to take action as an individual leading diversity and inclusion initiatives
Poornima Vijayashanker: Before we dive into that, because I want to talk about that in a future episode, maybe we can talk about why it’s been hard for them to take action individually.
Wayne Sutton: We have been contacted about a lot of individuals saying that they care about diversity and inclusion and they want to implement change in their company. They need help, right? And ultimately we go back and have a one-on-one call or face-to-face, and we say, “Well what does this conversation allow with the company values? What has been done? Have they discovered what has been done in the past?”
And then question if they don’t feel confident to have a conversation with their manager or someone, a colleague or someone in an executive role around diversity and inclusion, they need to see if this is a place they want to work. Because it can be a difficult conversation.
I mean, an article just came out today where an individual, he quit a well-known company because his manager or executive said that, “Stop talking about diversity and inclusion!” Right? So this topic is sensitive to a lot of people. They’re afraid of it, they don’t want to talk about it. It creates a sense of fear and anger and frustration for others.
So whenever people come to us and say, “I want to talk about it,” a suggestion is approach it with a business case. That’s one. Approach it with an empathy case. Approach it with an idea versus, “Hey, I want to work on diversity and inclusion at my company.”
That’s how we get asked. It’s like “diversity and inclusion” is such a big umbrella word. So for your organization…
#1 reason that keeps people from taking action
Poornima Vijayashanker: Loaded
Wayne Sutton: Loaded, right? Well a lot of emotions with a lot of history. So if you are an individual and you say you work in product and you want to work on diversity and inclusion at your SaaS company, right? So a suggestion would be to identify that you’re going to talk to your manager. “I want to reach this audience that we haven’t been talking with or connecting with. With this lens, how can we make that happen?”
That’s gonna cost them a product. But from a cultural perspective, it could be “Have we measured?” Or “I noticed that I’m the only female or African American, Latino, LGBT. There are some issues to mean that are not being brought up.” Or, “How can we have a dialog about it?”
Melinda Epler: I mean, your question was “What keeps people from taking action?” I think, really. And the #1 thing is fear.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Losing their jobs.
Melinda Epler: Losing their jobs, but also just fear of making a mistake. It can be hard to navigate. There are definitely people who are good at shaming, publicly shaming. And that doesn’t make it easier to create change and to take action.
So I think that inherent in what Wayne is saying is that just take the first step. Take one step. Try something new. Talk to someone. Understand basic things. Understand what their experience is. Listen. Those can be really powerful first steps.
Wayne Sutton: It seems like the tech industry has forgotten that we are humans. We had a conversation as a team talking about…
Melinda Epler: Human first.
Wayne Sutton: …Human first. Right? And just because I’m different. Just because I’m a black male from the South doesn’t mean I can’t have an intellectual conversation around topics that are passionate to me. That could be black man, STEM products, that could be how can we look at different demographics or location. Why can’t we have a real conversation?
If we can talk about growth. We can talk about APR. We could talk about growth hack and design thinking. Why can’t we talk about working together as humans and expanding your mindset, opportunity, and behaviors for all humans? What’s the problem?
Why people are reluctant to talk about diversity and inclusion
Poornima Vijayashanker: So maybe you can touch upon that. What’s some of the resistance around the conversations?
Wayne Sutton: It goes back to what Melinda says: Fear! It’s fear. But it’s also fear because the tech industry traditionally has been a Type A, god-like mentality. Where everybody has all the answers and so if you go to someone and say—talking about diversity and inclusion—you want to have all the answers, so there’s it can create a sense of fear.
And/or the tech industry we know today, right, is in Silicon Valley, it’s in San Francisco, it’s in the East Bay some, and the data just in terms of population, in terms of African American in San Francisco is like 6 percent. And if we know the numbers that at Google and at tech roles is average 2 percent within the entire organization.
So the culture that these companies traditionally haven’t been diverse. So now you want to take an individual, who maybe the one only diverse individual—African American, Latino, women, or Latino or on the team—they want to talk about a cultural topic that is relevant to them, to someone who doesn’t have the same experiences, it could be sensing like fear and they don’t have all the answers and not understand why. And that right there creates tension.
Melinda Epler: There are also studies that show that if a company is talking about diversity, then people within the company think it’s changing. That is another aspect of this. That’s just psychology involved in all of this. When you start talking about diversity, people think that it’s changing.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Changing for the better? Or like…
Diversity and inclusion is not a zero sum game
Melinda Epler: Changing for the better. People think if you’re talking about it, it’s changing for the positive. And then there’s also on the fear side, though, there’s also a fear that if other people rise up, you’ll fall down.
Poornima Vijayashanker: A zero-sum game.
Melinda Epler: Exactly. But it’s not. This tech industry is growing rapidly. There aren’t enough people to fill all the tech jobs. That’s absolutely not the case. So we just need to change that perception
Poornima Vijayashanker: So, in the next episode we’re going to talk about best practices, but before we wrap up this one, I want to just address some of the objections that our audience may come across when trying to broach the topic.
They might have somebody say, “Oh, we’re not going to talk about it all, it’s not a priority. Like ship product.” Or, “Hey, we had lovely little meetup the other day, with some great female engineers. What’s the problem? We’re making incremental progress.” Or, “Hey, we’ve got to move really fast and whatever you do, how do I know it’s going to be a 10x impact?” Right?
And that can be overwhelming for the person on the receiving end. So how do we deal with some of those objections?
Wayne Sutton: Yeah.
First step is to measure your diversity and inclusion efforts
Melinda Epler: I think one of the things people in tech react really well to is data. So the first thing is measure. And find out that information.
Find out the demographics of the company. Find out—if you can—the engagement metrics as well, because you can start to look at engagement metrics as it relates to race and gender and ethnicity. And that can…and people with disabilities. And you can really see something is not right.
Once you look at the data, then you can say, “Oh, wait! We have a really high turnover rate among women. That’s a big…”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, everyone’s making babies!
Melinda Epler: That’s a problem! There are lots of data that shows…
Poornima Vijayashanker: I know…
Melinda Epler: An important part of society. But that is only one. Most of the women who leave tech just so we’re absolutely clear, most of the women that leave tech go to other industries and become leaders in those industries.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So we’re missing out on opportunities.
Melinda Epler: We’re missing out on opportunities. The cost of turnover is high in a company. You don’t want to lose people. That’s a huge cost.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So that’s just employment. What about with the product itself? Because you had been touching upon some of that.
Wayne Sutton: Yeah, I want to say that for individuals who want to create change or they’ve experienced some—they’re in a culture they want to make improvements in, you start with the data like Melinda articulated. But it’s also starting documenting examples, right? Like we worked with one company where the CEO had heard some stories but it was coming second and third hand.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s a challenge.
Document and show proof around the need for diversity and inclusion efforts
Wayne Sutton: So if you’re an individual, you work on your product team, your engineering team, or you could be a product manager. And you constantly see these examples, these situations happening. Take note that this happened on this day. This was the experience. And therefore you are able to have proof.
The opportunity to create change may come under the window or umbrella of diversity and inclusion, but it could be just how can we conduct an inclusive meeting? Just a better meeting? How could we make sure all the voices are heard?
If you’ve got a product team, like seven guys, three women, and the women hardly ever speak up or talk, you have a communication and culture problem where the women either don’t feel empowered or the men are being assholes. Or both, right?
And so, it’s like that is culture. So the change you want to make may not say…”I want to create diversity and inclusion strategies.” Or, “I want to increase #1 my product team.” Or, “I want to make sure the voices are heard.” Or, “I want to talk about how we can conduct a better meeting that benefits the company, and everyone.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: So start small. And that makes a big difference compounded over time.
Wayne Sutton: But track it! Because you’ve got to have real examples that’s relative to the change you want to make.
Melinda Epler: Yeah, it affects product design in a huge way. And I don’t think we talk about it enough. That if you want to grow your customer base, and if that customer base is diverse, your designers and developers need to reflect that customer base.
If you’re designing for the wrong customer base, you’re not going to have a success. And it has huge implications—I mean some really terrible ones out there. Even when the airbags were designed, for example, they were designed by men. And in the first rollout, several women died, children died, because they didn’t test it out on women and children. That’s just a really basic example.
Then we see that in the tech industry a lot now, where especially when AI is being developed and things come out on Google search where black people are mislabeled. That is a really dreadful outcome of not having diverse people design your programs.
Diversity and inclusion doesn’t just impact a single group or criteria
Wayne Sutton: I’ll probably say here another problem is that—or opportunity—is that when people are talking about diversity and inclusion. You got to remember that if you’re going to focus on inclusion, look at it from the perspective of everyone. Right? Think about diversity is beyond just a color of someone’s skin.
We were talking earlier about people who are hidden, invisible disabilities. Think about, accessibility, think about age, think about class. You have people with different heritage.
Melinda Epler: Veterans.
Wayne Sutton: Veterans. It’s not just black and white, it’s not just gender, it’s literally everyone. But the solution that may pertain to a company can be one thing—and that’s OK if you’re going to focus on, “OK, we’re going to focus on STEM youth, kids’ pipeline.” That’s OK.
But identify, communicate that this is what we’re doing as part of a solution, but not “the” solution. Or, “We’re going to focus on college students.” That’s OK. That’s good. We need to do that. But identify and be clear and authentic about where your solution is around college students affects your business and your culture.
Understand that if you’re a person in that culture, say my company’s all, “We’ve got a diversity and inclusion plan. We focus on college students.” Yay! Great! But if most of your employees want to focus on a different demographic, want to do something around veterans, then as a team, as a company, depending on what size, you’ve got to understand why. OK, there’s an opportunity and a need to focus on these areas as well.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, thank you both for joining us today. And now for all of you out there in the audience, let us know in the comments below this video if your organization has put in place any diversity and inclusion initiatives. What’s been the impact?
Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode, where we’ll dive a little bit deeper and share some of the best practices if you’re thinking about putting in place a diversity and inclusion initiative at your organization, or want to join another one.
Ciao for now!