Diversity. Inclusion. Intersectionality. There are a lot of code words for having an open and welcoming culture, and we see them in headlines and speaker abstracts all over the tech world.
There’s ample evidence that more diverse and inclusive teams produce better results, but tech still struggles to recruit and retain diverse talent. A lot of that is chalked up to one frustratingly vague word: culture.
Speaking at a regional Hopper x 1 event celebrating women in computing Saturday, leaders from across the tech world worked to bring diversity into focus, drawing on personal stories, professional experience and even ideas from academia. The event is modeled after the national Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing.
We’ve compiled stories and tips from tech executives who spoke at the event, which took place at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash., below.
Intersectionality is a concept that comes straight from academia. Gail Giacobbe, the VP of product at GoDaddy, said she found it incredibly helpful as a manager in the tech world.
The idea is basically that people belong to a variety of different groups that influence who they are and how they experience the world.
When someone thinks about women in technology, say to assemble a panel for an event, they might default to thinking about white women. But, of course, women in tech can be white, Asian, straight, lesbian, mothers, single, married, and so on. Those differences shouldn’t be eclipsed by putting them in a box of “women.”
Bonnie Ross, the head of Microsoft’s Halo video-game studio, 343 Industries, said she’d had a lot of experience with that concept since the presidential election. “This year has been a huge learning experience for me on that particular topic,” she said.
One example: a woman on her team approached Ross and said she was having a hard time coping with things going on in the political realm.
“I naturally went to the, ‘Yeah, I’m a woman and I know what you’re going through,’” Ross said. But it turns out that wasn’t at all what the woman meant.
She had immigrated to the United States as a child after growing up in a war-torn area. The national discussion about banning immigrants from certain countries had revived painful parts of her past — and on top of that, she worked on a first-person shooter video game that portrays violence and war.
“I didn’t know that about her, and I just assumed we were one, because she looked like me,” Ross said.
At the same time, several white men on Ross’ team came to her and said they had been feeling uncomfortable expressing themselves at work because they had voted for President Trump, something not particularly common in the largely left-leaning Seattle area.
“Diversity and inclusion is a lot more complex than I thought,” Ross said, “and when we think about it, we need to think about all aspects to really foster an inclusive environment… we can’t always see diversity.”
Workplace harassment has been a national conversation for the past few months, starting with high-profile cases of harassment in Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But how can people work to prevent and call out harassment when it happens?
Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, a VP and general manager of Amazon’s S3 service, said it’s all about establishing boundaries.
“One thing I see sometimes is that you’ll be in a meeting, and it’s not outright harassment. It’s not. But it crosses a line,” she said. “The line is: what is the acceptable tone, what is the acceptable behavior and how did that just not happen?”
“I think harassment occurs in environments where it is either explicitly or implicitly allowed, and the way that we prevent that environment from happening — in our workplace, in our daily lives — is that we just understand where the boundaries are,” she said.
“I have been in meetings where I’ve heard something and I’ve said something at the moment, which is, ‘I think you just said that, and I don’t think that’s OK. Did I hear that right?’ ” she said. “Every time somebody crosses that boundary, that boundary will move, and it is up to you and every other person in that room to make sure that boundary doesn’t move.”
Elizabeth Hunter, VP of technology strategy implementation at T-Mobile, added: “It’s about finding allies within your organization, and they’re not always someone you expect, and they’re not always women.”
Bias can crop up in a lot of places in a company’s work, much of the time without those involved realizing what’s going on.
Giacobbe, GoDaddy’s VP of product, said one important place it can show up is in the hiring process. She recalled a situation where one candidate had all the skills and experience that was needed for a job.
“One of the people on the interview loop said, ‘I just don’t think she’s technical enough,’” Giacobbe recalled. Another agreed, and eventually, the group was saying the person might not be a good hire.
“As the hiring manager, I had the job description with me. And I said, hold on, let’s look at the job description and let’s look at the criteria that are actually the requirements for this job. I don’t see anything on this list that says the certain level of technical depth you’re alluding to is a requirement for this job,” she said.
The others agreed and they ended up hiring the candidate. Giacobbe said keeping those job criteria front-and-center is a good first step to keeping bias out of the hiring process.
“It’s a powerful tool that can stop bias from creeping in and surprising us,” she said.