A company dominated by men hiring women from similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds is not diversity in a meaningful sense.
Maybe it’s all the recent data about the sad state of equitable pay and glass ceilings. Or the millions of women leaning in without a sea change in senior-level representation. Or the waves of thinly disguised to blatant sexism that surfaced during the recent presidential election. Or the fact many of us are women ourselves.
More likely, it’s a combination of many things that contribute to the workplace diversity zeitgeist being focused primarily on achieving gender parity.
The problem is when diversity programs focus on “women” as a whole, they often fall into the trap of prioritizing the majority: White women. This is an issue I know intimately well, having been tasked with designing diversity programs for leading tech companies that go beyond “just (white) women.”
Take me, for instance. I’m not only female but also Latina and queer, both of which color my experience and the obstacles I’ve faced in the workplace. To make progress for all women, we need to acknowledge that women are also black, senior, immigrants, LGBT* and so forth — and often many other things at once. Each of these identities faces unique biases and challenges that must be accounted for if we want to get closer to true gender parity. After all, a company dominated by men hiring women from similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds is not diversity in a meaningful sense, it’s one small step away from homogeneity. Fighting for all women is even more important now, with outright discrimination increasing rapidly after the election.
Mind you, fighting for all women is not as easy as it may sound. Even Pinterest, which is one of the leading companies on diversity issues, recently updated its goals for what it could feasibly accomplish in a single year. However, it’s even more important for us to do so now with outright discrimination increasing rapidly after the election.
In designing companywide programs at Atlassian, I focus on expanding initiatives to address three crucial areas alongside gender: Race, age and geography.
When I joined Atlassian as the company’s first Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, it was clear to me that leadership understood the importance of diversity and was invested in creating and maintaining it. But the biggest question was “how?” and where to start. Race quickly jumped to the top of the list for a simple reason: People of color — and specifically women of color — often have more difficulty entering and staying in the technology industry than their white counterparts.
To address this first piece of the puzzle, we partnered with Galvanize to create a high-touch scholarship program specifically for black, Latina and Indigenous women. Because tech workers are significantly more likely to be white or Asian, women of color are less likely to have close friends or family who have worked in technology, smaller professional networks and more difficulty accessing their first jobs. Our program is designed to address each of these specific challenges: Recipients are paired with a current Atlassian employee who acts as their mentor and personal cheerleader (to get through those moments of doubt), and are invited to our company events to grow their network. They also work with a member of our recruiting team for feedback on their resume and to explore internship opportunities at Atlassian. Our first recipient is already working with our HipChat team in Austin, Texas.
Ageism is the elephant in the room in many industries. Older workers are often seen as out of touch or less capable, despite often being highly qualified for the roles they apply for. Some 64 percent of older workers have experienced ageism in the workplace. In industries like technology, the average age of a worker is often well below 30, fostering an environment where anything but “young and hungry” (read: able to stay at the office until 10 pm) is seen as abnormal and a disruption to workplace culture. Age discrimination is notoriously worse for women too, thanks to a culture where a woman’s worth is intrinsically tied to her physical appearance.
One of the first steps to combat ageism is to actually track the age of your workforce, something many companies have been hesitant to do. At Atlassian, we included age in our annual diversity report as a way of holding ourselves publicly accountable. It’s also critical to consider how to market company culture and the work environment (and how you live up to that branding). For Atlassian, this means ensuring that our Careers page doesn’t solely focus on perks like ping pong and beer on tap. Instead we promote benefits like comprehensive health coverage, flexible work policies, and even backup child care offerings. This helps us attract candidates at multiple stages of their life, and sets them up to be successful once they join us.
Diversity programs are often built from a local viewpoint, but what diversity means may vary drastically based on where you are in the nation or world. For example, while the conversation in the United States is often centered around gender and race, those concepts don’t always resonate in the same way beyond U.S. borders. In Atlassian’s Sydney headquarters, women’s cultural backgrounds and Indigenous identities are more salient. In Manila, womens’ religious identities are a key driver of the diversity discussion. In Europe, issues of national origin and immigrant status are more resonant.
As businesses become more global, diversity programs must be globally cohesive but locally relevant, and take into account the unique makeup of talent in each location and how (and with whom) people conduct their work. For example, while developing Atlassian’s unconscious bias (UB) training I quickly realized that some nuances wouldn’t translate for certain offices. Talk to people who live in the Philippines about unconscious biases against black people created by a history of oppression and slavery, and you’ll have a hard time helping them understand how these biases can affect their teams, for example. I quickly changed our approach, moving to develop versions specific to each region in which we operate to make the content relevant and actionable for every Atlassian.
While we teach the same core concepts in each location, we now vary the terminology (tailored to local English), the research we cite (biasing toward research conducted locally), and even the level of activity versus lecture for participants (based on local feedback and customs). Because there are different types of unconscious biases often held against women from different backgrounds, customizing our training materials by geography meant that we could address those biases more effectively and benefit all women across the organization.
Diversity is one of the most important issues in modern business, and it’s more important that we fight harder for it than ever. Working to increase the representation of a group that makes up 51 percent of the world population seems like the logical first step to maximize impact. But to get closer to achieving true gender equality, we need to start by taking into account the multiple components that make up women’s identities. Only then will we be able to build better, more inclusive programs that benefit everyone, and accomplish our goal of building companies made up of truly diverse teams.
Aubrey Blanche is Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian, a team collaboration software company that provides project tracking, content creation and sharing, real-time communication and service management products to help teams work better together and deliver quality results on time. Blanche works with teams across the business to enhance access to technical education, recruiting, retention and career mobility for all employees. She serves as an advisor to SheStarts, and previously served as communications director for Open Source Day at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Follow her on Twitter at @adblanche.