If Your Startup Has a Diversity Problem, It Probably Isn't Doing These 5 Things

“Diversity” is a hot buzzword in the tech space right now. As a #startupnovice I’m in “absorb all the info” mode, which means reading books, blogs, articles, talking with people, joining groups, networking, etc. Time and time again, I come across discussions about the need for, and efforts surrounded around increasing, “diversity” in the tech space. The problem is, with all the talk, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of action producing results. If you’re building a startup these next 5 tips are for you. After all, the best way to avoid a diversity problem is never to have one to begin with, right?

Sadly, I discovered these tips the hard way. I recently had a chance to make a difference here, and didn’t; which makes me equally mad and ashamed of myself. In my last position, I spent two and a half years running the client services division of a managed service provider here in Nashville. I managed 43 white men, 2 men of asian heritage, and a single white woman. That statement alone indicates that we had a race diversity issue and a gender diversity issue, but what it doesn’t display is that we may also have had a disability diversity issue and a LGTBQ diversity issue. I say “may” because it’s much harder to know who has a disability and what people’s sexual orientations are, so I’m not altogether sure how many people in those classes were represented on my team, nor was it something I was going to ask if they weren’t offering that information.

To make the situation worse, I had, on many instances, openly expressed it as a personal goal of mine to hire more women and minorities to my team. As though the mere act of proclaiming that goal was enough to make it happen. Perhaps I’m not the only leader in the tech space banking on the act of wishing to “make it so,” which is why we’ve seen so little progress in changing the status quo. Regardless, I can assure everyone of what the rest of you smart people already assumed. This “wish” method doesn’t work.

Since this personal “failure to act” of mine, I’ve put a lot of thought into what I could have done differently, and what others are already doing differently, to make a real difference in the diversity issues of the tech space.

These are my recommendations.

  1. Be open about why you want a diverse team. By this, I don’t mean publishing the statement “We at Company X are committed to hiring a diverse team” as part of your employee manual. That, as I explained above, is a cop out and it won’t work. I mean being conscious about WHY you’re aiming at having a diverse team and then making sure each and every member of your team understands and supports those reasons. It has to be tied back to the culture, which is the fabric that holds a company together.

One good reason, to get you started, is that it’s good for the business. As Bo Ren stated in her beautifully written article Diversity is a broken product in tech. FIX IT.:

Diverse teams build better products, better products yield more revenue, more revenue creates happy investors and shareholders. Diversity is a bottomline for every business.”

And she’s right. Diversity has been shown to drive innovation, increase creativity, make recruitment easier, lower turnover rates, and capture more of the market. If you’re wondering how diversity can help you capture more of the market, Katie Zhu wrote a wonderful piece on how Snapchat’s lack of diversity on their team is offending people and costing them users.

“And even for those filters that aren’t as overtly offensive, they subtly reinforce white superiority and reveal the lack of diversity in the product’s creators.”

2. Recruit differently. If you do the same thing you’ve always done, you’ll get the same results you’ve always gotten. If recruiting, like sales, is a funnel, somehow the current recruiting methods have been designed to mainly produce white males at the other end of it. If we want this to change, we have to change the design of the funnel.

Some examples of how to change your funnel:

  • Slack altered their recruiting process when they realized that the standard “white board exercise” was serving as a barrier to people of color.
  • Diversity HR experts recommend Passive Candidate Pipelining, which basically means you engage qualified candidates in conversation before they’re actively looking for a new position. Imagine if your pipeline included a large number of talented women and minorities to whom you’ve already expressed interest in. Given that you have a good reputation as a place people want to work, you’ll be their first call should they choose to look for a new opportunity.
  • Expand the media outlets you’re advertising jobs on. Are you just using Glassdoor, Angel List, F6S, etc. or are you also posting in places like Diversity.com, HireDiversity, and Hiretechladies.com?
  • Invest in increasing the global candidate pool. (This one is super important, but I’ve chosen not to go into much detail because so much has already been written on it, and so much attention given this single issue. I do recommend imlementing the suggestions listed in many other articles addressing this issue.)
  • Etc.

3. Implement policies that support diversity. Although women and minorities entered the professional workforce a really long time ago, policies have been slow to change to accommodate them. There seems to be this underlying opinion that there shouldn’t be a need to accomodate them. Almost a mentality of: “If you want to play in our space, you have to play by our rules.” And you know what, dammit, we fucking have.

Women, for example, started forsaking their desires to have children (as proven by the new average age of first time mothers of 26.3, up from 21.4 in the 70’s) to establish their careers first because our country refuses to recognize the importance of maternity leave and continues to “punish” women who take it. They started wearing god-awful suits with shoulder pads to LOOK like men (thank God that’s over), and they started working harder and longer than their male counterparts for less pay and fewer opportunities. Other minority groups are forced to make sacrifies such as abiding by dress codes that don’t allow for their culturally influenced clothing, or policies dictating how they can wear their hair, like this distasteful move of one workplace who told a woman: “wear a weave at work, your afro hair in unprofessional.” Shameful.

Image from Pinterest (no viable link to source)

What are some policies that help support diversity instead of hinder it?

  • Flex scheduling. This policy is helpful to both men and woman, and it buys some major goodwill with employees. Imagine not having to take off of work for a doctors appointment or a vet appointment, etc, and just knowing that you can make up the hours when you have a chance, even if that may be at 11pm at night after you’ve gotten the monsters (I mean kids) down to sleep.
  • Parental leave. The fact that we don’t have parental leave in the US is shameful, but I’m just going to address the hiring/retention side of this here. Fact: women will stay in a position that supports her family life, including her ability to HAVE a family. In a world where most companies don’t offer short term disability or paid maternity/family leave, those rare companies that provide it are like golden unicorns that we women spend large portions of our sleeping hours dreaming about before starting a family.
  • Inclusive dress codes. As I mentioned above, choose not to be offended by people’s ethnic garb. So what if they’re not wearing jeans and a t-shirt? So what if they’re wearing a full hijab while coding or leading a meeting. If we as a culture are not mature enough to work amongst those who dress differently than we do, we need to go sit in the corner and think about what we’ve done with the last 50 years. Does there have to be guidelines? Yes. But they don’t have to exclude clothing items that aren’t creating health code violations.
  • Transparent pay structure. Buffer has rocked this by creating a formula for each position, irregardless of gender or race. Good on them. Everyone should do this as it instantly gets rid of unconscious bias’s that exist.
  • Job requirements. Look at each and every job description and really take a look at the educational and experience requirements. Are any of them superfluous? Does that position really need a CS degree? My last position was managing a team of 45 highly skilled engineers and I am 100% non-technical. I had to google how to change the wireless network my personal printer was connected to, but I had no problems engaging and leading my team of technical talent.
  • Keep going. What other policies can you alter to be more attractive to diverse candidates?

4. Recognize that it’s taken your minority employees more effort and time to get where they are. Don’t make it harder for them to get where they’re going. It’s proven that men get promoted more often and more easily than comparably qualified women. Build a culture that admits that this bias exists and consciously works to promote based as much on measurable qualities as possible. Eliminate the “boys club” mentality.

Also, recognize that women and minorities have been dealing with a lifetime of getting shut down before even getting started. Support your women and minorities by developing them with continuing education opportunities and encouraging/developing mentorship programs with other successful women/minorities in the company.

5. Finally, set an example as a leader, every single day. I read a comment from a woman describing her tech company as “diverse” and described how the women “are outspoken and we call out male coworkers if/when needed.” This made me sad and proud at exactly the same time. Sad that they still have to call out male coworkers for displaying their, I’m assuming, subconscious sexism and proud that this woman works in an environment where she feels comfortable to (I’m again assuming) gently correct the behavior of her male counterparts. This last fact is the crucial element that MUST exist if we’re going to make progress in diversifying the tech industry. People have to feel comfortable enough to talk about the things that make it difficult as a miniority to work in a primarily white male environment.

How do you build a culture where it’s okay to have those conversations without hurting someone’s feelings? Simple. Weave into your culture, from day one, the mandate that everyone operates under the assumption that people are acting with the best of intentions. If you’re able to do that, then any corrective action is as simple as a conversation because people understand the “slights” that occur in the course of working with others, are unintentional. A “you might not know this, but saying/doing X is hurtful/inappropriate/ discouraging/etc.” is all that needs to be said. The response, a simple “I didn’t realize. Thank you for sharing that with me.” The offender doesn’t even need to apologize if they don’t feel right doing so! But they’ve recognized and validated their co-workers feelings, and have also been armed with the information that that comment/action/etc was perceived as hurtful and now know one more way to avoid a potentially damaging situation with that person in the future. No feelings hurt, everybody wins. How adult is that?!

In closing, implementing diversity in the tech industry starts with intentional, conscious and transparent actions by the company leaders to build a culture and a company that prioritizes diversity. It won’t happen by accident or just by wishing it so.

What other things can tech companies do to support diversity? Share in the comments!