Culture

Inclusion Done Right in a World of Rampant Sexism: An Engineer’s Perspective

28 Apr 2017 10:59am, by

“I can’t tell you what a joy it is to go to work and just do my job.” Christina Noren’s piercing words stopped me cold. What would that be like, I wondered? I was interviewing Noren, chief product officer at Interana along with Bobby Johnson, the company’s chief technology officer. Talk turned to Susan Fowler’s February blog post. As two women in tech for the past few decades, Noren and I commiserated and shared perspective on the rampant sexism in the industry.

By now you’ve likely seen or at least heard about Fowler’s post and Uber’s response, which has sparked a lot of overdue discussion about diversity and where the industry has failed. Tamara Reyda, a software engineer at Interana, captured the common thread. Fowler’s blog was “upsetting but not surprising.”

Reyda believes, as Noren and I do, that every woman who works in tech has experienced institutionalized sexism, whether in the form of subtle microaggressions like when a man talks over you in a meeting or dismisses your ideas — or “something so overt it’s almost unbelievable.”

But I was intrigued by Christina’s current work experience and I started wondering, is there anyone besides Interana getting it right? What was it like to work at one of those companies? Not just as a C-level or VP-level perch, but from an engineer’s perspective, which, at the end of the day is the most important one. And, most importantly, what were they doing those other companies could learn from?

The companies interviewed represent a cross-section of the industry. Atlassian has products that include JIRA, a management tool for Agile projects. PagerDuty provides digital operations management for visibility into the full stack. Interana, just out of stealth mode late last year, provides behavioral analytics for big data, npm, the package manager for JavaScript.

These are companies that have 20 to 1700+ employees, and range in age from 3 to 14 years old. They have both women and men in CEO roles. Some have departments devoted to diversity and others with just the guiding principles. They all have customers who are heavy-hitters in the industry. But the common thread is that they’ve figured out this diversity thing. Employees feel empowered. Sexism is not a fact of everyday life. They can just do their job.

Rachel Obstler, vice president of product at PagerDuty, said when she worked at a company not committed to diversity, she simply was not as happy as an employee. “There are barriers outside of regular working barriers that take my energy away from my job,” she explained.

Reyda said lots of tech companies like to talk about improving diversity and being more inclusive, but it’s not reflected in their actions or their culture. “When I first came to Interana, I met the female CEO and interviewed with a black engineer. Actions spoke louder than words.”

So how do they do it? What’s happening at those companies? And what is it like working there? Just what does inclusion look like when it’s done right?

The Difference Between Diversity and Inclusion

Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian, broke it down. “Diversity is getting an invite to the party, inclusion is being glad to be there.” A lot of initiatives focus on head counts, she said, but there is little focus on keeping people there.

“I don’t feel diverse,” said Obstler, “but I do feel included.” Diversity is a set of numbers, inclusion is making people feel that they belong. An inclusive culture means that your employee performance will be better, she explained. Because when employees don’t have to spend time and energy positioning themselves to be heard or validated, they can turn that energy to their job.

“I believe having the most diverse set of people, even as friends,” she said, “because it is much more interesting and more fun. The more diverse your team is, the more effective your team is as a company because you have more viewpoints.”

Ann Johnson, Interana CEO and co-founder also said that diversity is just numbers and ratios. “Inclusion isn’t specific to diversity but makes diversity productive.” Even if everyone is the same race and gender, she explained, inclusion is a requirement of productive teams. Any project with more than one person needs inclusion. “Diversity makes inclusion more difficult,” she said. But it’s worth the price.

Issac Schlueter, CEO and founder of npm, pointed out another aspect to diversity in tech that often gets missed. It’s the distribution of the numbers, he said.

“You can have a company with ample representation of various different demographic groups and identities, but if all the people at the executive level are white dudes, and they only promote white dudes. That’s diverse, but not inclusive.” Inclusivity, Schlueter said, is a matter of listening to and valuing those diverse voices.

What It Feels Like

I asked to speak to engineers, because C-suite execs can talk a good game, but what is it like on the ground?

Tamara Reyda shared her experience at Interana. “As a woman and a POC, working in a place not dedicated to inclusion is very stressful and draining. You’re constantly worried about things your white male colleagues might not even be aware of, let alone acknowledge. At Interana it’s not something I have to stress about in my everyday work life, and that’s a huge relief. I don’t have to fight in order for my ideas and contributions to be taken as seriously as my male coworkers.”

She gets to witness firsthand the positive impact of a female CEO/co-founder, a feminist male co-founder, and an upper management team where women are heavily represented. “As a female engineer,” Reyda said, “it’s been incredibly refreshing to have a white male CTO who is also a feminist,” she said, talking of Bobby Johnson. Having a strong ally in a position of power who isn’t afraid to speak up when he sees or hears something non-inclusive makes a world of difference.

Over at PagerDuty, inclusion is supported by the CEO, but bubbles up from the bottom, said Zayna Shahzad, a developer at the company. In previous jobs, they had diversity initiatives, but, she said, “it’s stuffed down your throat.” There were required diversity sessions on a monthly basis, but it was separate from her daily work life. “At PagerDuty,” she said, “it’s part of the culture.”

Recently, they had a town hall meeting where representatives from different departments stood up and talked about what diversity and inclusion meant to them. These are often held in response to external events, like the Fowler blog, she told me.

“People generally want to do the right thing,” Shahzad noted. Sure, PagerDuty has guidelines ad HR books, but “it’s the little things so it’s not an issue for us.”

A lot of it has to do with mindfulness. “In the small things in everything we do, we are mindful of other people.” This mindfulness expands to ordinary tasks, she explained. Like when she organized the internal conference, she made sure to order t-shirts for both women and men, and in all sizes.

This shows up at the corporate level. She said when traveled to a satellite office in Toronto after the U.S. travel ban was put in place, she was contacted with a “massive amount of resources” available to her explaining the new rules and what to do if she were detained. It was an example, she said of how the company is mindful of its employees by thinking in advance of what she might need.

PagerDuty’s internal slack channel “One Diverse Team” is used for conversations about diversity and inclusion in the industry that might apply to PagerDuty. Fowler’s blog was posted there, for example, as was news about the travel ban. But it also collects stories. Shahzad explained that the channel looks at some of the experiences of other engineers — about the mindfulness of what is happening in the industry and “a reminder to be more thoughtful in our interactions.” People post articles that talk about diversity or books, things that are important to the culture and spreading the knowledge.

Atlassian also uses stories to encourage dialog. They have a strong blogging culture, and they encourage employees to blog about their life experiences, said Dom Price, Head of R&D and Work Futurist.

People don’t talk directly about privilege on the blog, Price said, but tell stories about their life experiences and how they bring that to work. This ends up exposing privilege without making people defensive, he explained. And it leads to conversations about shared life experiences, and how things are different for others.

It only works, Price said because their leaders feel really strongly about behavioral modeling. After the US election, Atlassian CEO talked about how he recognized how those with marginalized identities were impacted. “I can’t know how you’re feeling, but I imagine it must be scary.” Bringing real-world issues into the workplace via conversation leads to discussion, Price explained.

The Benefits Are Not Just at Engineer Level

Back to Noren from Interana. “There’s a lot of scar tissue,” she told me. “You do it [put up with sexism] for survival, then it becomes what you accept.” But at Interana, it’s a different world.

“I get to be so open with both with what’s happening in our business and what I perceive in subtle shades of meaning.” If I need to, I can take Ann [Johnson, CEO and founder] or Bobby [Johnson, CTO and founder] aside and talk through some issue that I would have ignored in the past because it would have harmed me to talk about it. And being able to hold team meetings where I’m explicit about the elephant in the room on this front.”

“I don’t know if I could ever put the genie back in the bottle and go back to working ‘as if’ these were not real issues,” she said.

Rachel Obstler, who was hired last fall, hasn’t run into anything chauvinistic or non-inclusive as part of the culture at PagerDuty. She knows she is more productive because of it.

It’s one thing to talk about diversity, she said. “It’s another to put it in action.” The most important thing, according to Obstler is visible communication and commitment from the leadership. “Knowing and seeing sends a very strong message,” Obstler said. For example, when the travel ban came down, CEO Jennifer Tejada, sent a memo reaffirming commitment to diversity and safety of employees traveling.

Tejada said they’re starting to see the benefit of diversity being a regular part of the dialog at PagerDuty, “where it’s more interwoven into the fabric of the company.”

“I love seeing the change in someone when they achieve something they didn’t think they could do,” she said, “because they are focusing 100% of their authentic selves on the job performance.”

Issac Schlueter (npm), said “The only moral position as someone who is benefiting from privilege is to accept that there is a lot going on that you’re not seeing, and to do the best you can to see as much as you can and believe the people who are telling you how things are on the other side.”

Dom Price (Atlassian): “For me, a white male from the UK with a university education, now working in such a diverse environment with such different mindsets and thought processes and range of experiences, it’s definitely valuable. It’s the human reaction of working in a diverse team and how good it feels to be challenged by a different perspective.”

If you’re a person who doesn’t embrace and understand that, I’m not sure what the remedy is, but I’m glad I’m not that person.”

Tamara Reyda knew she found something special when she joined Interana but didn’t realize just how lucky she got. “I recognize the privilege I have to be able to work somewhere that champions diversity and actively solicits feedback on how to improve. I’m grateful for what is sadly a rare opportunity to work at a tech company where I am treated as an equal.”

PagerDuty is a sponsor of The New Stack.

Feature Image via Pixabay.


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