Recent initiatives by tech companies are indicative of a growing sense of urgency to address the lack of diversity in the industry’s workforce.
Companies have launched training and mentorship programs, networked with organizations such as Code2040, Code for Progress, and Girls Who Code, to name a few, that teach computer programming to members of underrepresented communities, and hired consulting firms to raise awareness about unconscious bias.
The line of thinking in Silicon Valley seems to be: Recruit “top talent” but make hiring pool more inclusive → Expand diverse workforce and train current workforces on diversity issues → Gradually move towards becoming a diverse workplace.
In some ways, yes. But can a “company” – a well-established entity, with a clearly set hiring policy, and a well-defined workplace culture – really ask fundamental questions related to diversity and power?
I think not.
You may disagree vehemently. What about Google that has time and again led the rest into adopting positive initiatives such as publishing transparency reports? Or Pandora and Indiegogo, with their impressive record of incorporating women in their workforce? Or Pinterest, where Tracy Chou, a female software engineer, had the courage to share her company’s workforce data that facilitated a broad discussion on diversity?
All these are commendable actions. The fact, though, is that these companies are positioned in such a way that their discussion around diversity almost always translates into some kind of policy or action – not introspection, and not to the degree that would challenge the personal and institutional bias endemic within their company.
There is too much to lose, probably.
This is where startups come in and by “startups” I mean those companies that have less than ten employees, are less than a couple of years old, and operate on a shoestring budget.
It may seem unlikely but I think that the evolving, nebulous structure of startups provides them with an opportunity to nurture diversity in a different way – to begin not with action but introspection.
As a founder/co-founder you have the benefit of just starting out and an opportunity to ask questions.
Here are some that you can ask yourself before articulating a hiring policy that is rooted in multiculturalism and respect for diversity:
What are the norms by which I operate?
Acknowledge your biases and then you can question them: This applies to your close-knit team of co-workers as well. It probably won’t be a very comfortable discussion nor perhaps one that some feel is necessary. But a policy on diversity cannot be made without people questioning their own prejudices.
What you may find helpful is this study that is required reading for Mozilla employees enrolled in an online class on recognizing unconscious bias.
It suggests is that it is counterproductive to label people as “good” or “bad” based on our perception that they may be biased, for the simple reason that it puts the latter on the defensive.
Rather, it advises a manager (in your case, the person leading the discussion) to approach that individual, assuming that their intent is most likely innocent. While I would hesitate to use the word “innocent”, the discussion could benefit from people being open – it may help others to acknowledge their prejudice and question it.
What do I mean when I say that I would like to have a “diverse workforce”?
When tech companies talk about increasing diversity in the workplace are they talking about hiring diverse people or embracing diverse practices and culture? Pandora’s CEO Tim Westergren published a blog soon after the data was released where he wrote: “When I think of all the different kinds of people who are listening to Pandora across the globe, our employees should look like them.”
But when tech companies, big or small, talk about employing more Asians or African Americans or Latinos, is that really going to make a difference if the overarching workplace culture favors and is reflective of only a specific group? All that it would do is to make more minorities and women adjust to the status quo and fit within the dominant culture.
How do I build a company that is going to welcome people from diverse backgrounds?
The current line of thinking within tech seems to be: “I, as a member of a dominant community, need to tackle this problem of prejudice that exists within my community.” So there are online classes, like the one mentioned above, that talk about how to recognize and tackle unconscious bias. It’s not that these are no needed, but if this is the key policy initiative, then all that this does is shift the focus, again, from underrepresented communities and their needs in a workplace back to the status quo.
The above question, articulated by my friend, Selina Musuta, a software engineer in a DC-based organization, asks us to challenge this frame of mind. Musuta points out that there are basic policies that companies could have in place that would not just encourage people to work for them, but stay with them. “If something happens at work to a person of color that they may not feel comfortable sharing with their boss or even know how to address, whom could they approach in a company?” she asks.
The urgency of seeking answers to these questions may be better understood, not by well-established trailblazers, but from startups we have never even heard of.