How to solve your diversity problem

Originally published by Code Like a Girl.

Power to Fly is dedicated to elevating women’s careers, and posts jobs for $200/month.

The Muse’s readership is 65% women, and 77% of its candidates have graduate degrees.

Tech Ladies is a community of 15,000 women. They’ve matched candidates with places like Octane AI and the New York Times.

Lane by Women2.0 caters specifically to women in tech, posting vetted jobs for engineers, data scientists, and product managers.

Werk prioritizes workplace flexibility in its job posts, appealing to women who know that flexible workplaces increase their likelihood of success.

Jopwella Y combinator graduate, builds pipelines of ethnic minorities for companies looking to become more diverse.

Fairygodboss reaches a base of 500,000 professional women. They post jobs, too.

Why am I listing off job boards? Because I don’t believe in pipeline problems. The Grand Old Pipeline Deficiency has turned into an excuse for companies avoiding the hard work of building a widely representative team.

But let’s back up for a minute…

Every company I know says it’s committed to diversity. And I believe they want to be. But chances are, your team is still relatively homogenous.

Maybe you’re thinking that your employer tries to hire people of all backgrounds, but can’t find enough “qualified candidates” who aren’t white or male. Or that you hire women, but can’t retain them. Or that you don’t need to be given a lecture, because you already have a woman/person of color/[insert underrepresented population] on your leadership team, so what’s all the fuss?

Let’s be real. Diversity is hard work. It’s time-consuming. It requires active, ongoing participation from many people on many teams. And it’s not always clear how to move forward when you realize you’re not making progress.

The thing is, these are all solvable problems, and some of them aren’t actually problems at all. Here are some suggestions to kickstart an effective hiring and retention strategy:

1. Understand that hiring diverse candidates does not mean “lowering the bar.”

“We want to hire diversely, but we can’t compromise on quality.” It’s something I’ve heard over and over again, but I didn’t think critically about its implications until last year, when Laura Weidman Powers published this gem.

As Powers observes, this statement operates under the assumption that women and ethnic minorities are, as a whole, underqualified. Eligible women and people of color are portrayed as unicorns, constantly eluding the grasp of benevolent companies that want to find them, but only hire “the best people.”

If you’re thinking this is true, perhaps because you’ve read the resumes and given the interviews, and you just haven’t come across that many talented candidates who aren’t white or male, please consider some of the following explanations for your conclusions:

  • Unconscious Bias: Unconscious bias is more than likely impacting your evaluation of qualifications. Women are less likely than men to tout their accomplishments. And men with the same resumé as women are more likely to get called back. The same is true for resumés with stereotypically black-sounding vs. white-sounding names. In terms of interviews, a recent psychology study revealed that men with implicit stereotypes of women rate female candidates more harshly after interviews. 
    Tactical Solution: Start doing blind resume reviews.
     
  • Insular Recruiting Tactics: Many companies don’t get widely representative applications because they hire “in-network.” They ask their current (most likely white or male) employees to refer friends, who end up coming from very similar backgrounds. Instead, try posting on the job boards I listed above. If you’re looking for entry-level employees, you can reach out specifically to university groups like Black Students on Campus, LGBTQ rainbow alliances, and Women in Business.
    Tactical solution: Do a jobs board audit to expand your reach. 
     
  • Alienating Company Culture: What are women and people of color saying about your company? Are former employees discouraging others from applying because of bad experiences? Think about what you can do to signal your good intentions. (And then follow through, and act on them!) 
    Tactical solution: Read your Glassdoor and Fairygodboss reviews, and act on any surprising information.
how-to-improve-diversity-at-work

2. Realize that rude jokes and jabs aren’t minor offenses. This behavior pushes out 2 million professionals annually.

Many companies vocalize a commitment to equal opportunity, but don’t follow through when it comes time to hire, promote, and pay. In other words, they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

The basic signs of a commitment — photos on your company website that show employees of all backgrounds, a diversity mission statement — only carry a business so far.

Are you making the cultural shifts that help underrepresented employees feel welcome, at home, valued, and equal? Here are three small steps to get on the right track:

  • Hold employees accountable when they make rude jokes. These jabs are no minor offense. According to the Level the Playing Field Institute’s Corporate Leavers Survey:
“2 million professionals and managers in today’s increasingly diverse workforce leave their jobs, pushed out by cumulative small comments, whispered jokes and not-so-funny emails. This rigorous study, the first large scale review of this issue, shows that unfairness costs U.S. employers $64 billion on an annual basis.
  • Start keeping track of interruptions in meetings, and if you notice that women and people of color are getting cut off, step up and say something. (By the way, there’s an app for that.)
     
  • Think critically about your company’s standards of “professional appearance,” and consider adjusting your dress code. A lot of companies prioritize candidates who present themselves professionally. The problem? Many businesses have a concept of “professional appearance” that’s far more exclusive than they realize.

In February, I attended a panel hosted by the organization Ladies Get Paid. One of the panelists, a trans man, talked to the audience about dress codes. He explained that he had to stay away from job that required formal attire, because suits and business formal outfits weren’t made for the body of a trans man. Companies that aren’t paying attention are missing out on outstanding talent. It’s sad, for both sides of the equation.

Another story blew up last year, when a programmer was denied a job on an all-male team because she looked “like she was about to go clubbing” in her interview dress.

Sometimes, the alienation has less to do with dress code, and more to do with the limiting nature of what corporations consider “professional appearance.” One on-air news anchor was asked by her boss to straighten her afro. He told her this wasn’t optional if she wanted to keep her job. It was a massively insulting ask, and the employee was so offended that she quit.

I’ve seen this phenomenon play out in person. Once, I was in a candidate review meeting after interviews, where the main topic of debate was whether the applicant had fake eyelashes, and if this was “style-appropriate.” Fortunately, this didn’t impact the hiring decision — but it was still wildly inappropriate, for a discussion that’s supposed to center on skills and experience.

3. Use numbers to keep your company accountable, but not to let yourself off the hook.

Diversity initiatives aren’t a checklist. Rationalizing your lack of representation with logic like, “We already have a woman/person of color/[insert underrepresented identity] on our leadership team!” misses the point.

The real endgame is recognizing and investing in the vast pool of talented, skilled individuals too often overlooked because of their race and/or gender.

That said, keeping track of your company demographics can be a good thing. Numbers hold people accountable. Isn’t it telling that only 16 companies in the Fortune 500 make their full demographic data publicly available?

Businesses that truly value representation rely on numerical goals and share them publicly. The good news for fresh startups is that you can start early, which is the most effective way to build a diverse team.

Take the messaging company Assist. Its CEO Shane Mac acknowledged the company was 98% white males, and he committed to creating a more inclusive team. He documented his progress on Medium, and as of April 17, 2017, that number is down to 66%.

August is another young consulting firm that’s been vocal and data-driven about their diversity targets. They recognize that it’s not just about data, but about honest reporting on qualitative progress, too.

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Thoughts on how to improve diversity initiatives? I'd love to hear them! Comment below.