How to create an environment where everyone can thrive and reach their full potential
If you look at the careers website of any technology company, there’s a good chance there will be a section about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Most companies will highlight that having a representative workforce is just “the right thing to do”. However, it certainly makes sense from a business perspective too. There are many studies which demonstrate that diverse teams produce better results — they are more creative and innovative, better at decision making and problem solving, and are less prone to groupthink. Additionally, it is an increasingly important part of making a company an attractive place to work for the very best millennial and Gen-Z talent, who place a high value on culture and fairness.
In terms of diversity… well, I’m a neurodivergent, LGBT+ woman of colour who grew up on a council estate in inner-city Birmingham, so I tick pretty much every box going. Throughout my career as a software engineer, I’ve often been the only woman or person of colour in the room, and I’m very motivated to change that and pave the way for talent from any background to thrive in the career I love.
Me being the only woman at the table, as per usual
One of the things I love about working at Beamery is all of the outreach work it does to encourage people from underrepresented communities to choose a career in technology, from hosting meetups like Triangirls, Women of MENA and Coding Black Females, to sponsoring events such as the Athena Hackathon. Through these events I’ve met so many inspiring young women and non-binary people who are eager and ready to take on the world of technology. However, I cannot help but feel worried for them, given all of the terrible experiences I had as a young woman in technology. Will they be lucky enough to rise through the ranks relatively unscathed, or will they have an experience so terrible that they will leave the industry, never to return?
But how bad can things really be in a modern, progressive industry in the 21st century? For me personally, my experiences ranged from classic microaggressions such as being told I’m not a “culture fit”, that I have an “attitude” problem and that I’m too “emotional”, to being outright bullied, victimised and sexually assaulted.
I’d love to tell you that the people responsible for the worst of this were fired and summarily ejected from the industry, but that’s simply not the case. One manager, who used to keep a nudie calendar on his wall and shout at me in front of my colleagues for being a “stupid little girl” who couldn’t think straight due to “being on the rag” is now the CTO of a FinTech company. The man who sexually assaulted me at a Christmas party is now working as a manager at another FinTech company which proudly promotes its DE&I credentials on its careers website.
Me working in FinTech with sleazy managers, an artist’s depiction
And me? Although I’m doing well in my career, I (and so many other people like me) have certainly been held back by people like this, and that isn’t just a loss to us as individuals, but to the technology industry as a whole. Each of these incidents impacted my self-esteem and mental health. I internalised the feeling that I was both a terrible developer and human being in general, and also the worst possible representative for all of the diverse characteristics that I represented. Of course, I realise now that it wasn’t me who was the failure. It was all of those companies I’d worked for who had mistakenly believed that it was simply enough to hire diverse talent, without taking the other steps to ensure that they are psychologically safe, and able to thrive and produce their best possible work for the company.
So, what else should organisations do to get the best out of their diverse workforce, after they’ve been hired and onboarded?
It’s important that your company has strong policies in place to provide a positive working environment for all of your employees, whether their protected characteristics are known to you or not. Naturally, this would include clear and strictly enforced policies on:
- Equal Opportunities/DE&I
- Grievance Procedures
These policies should be easy for employees to find, should clearly explain how they can report problems or concerns, and detail how they will be protected from issues such as victimisation.
There are also lots of other policies which can encourage people from diverse backgrounds to stay with your organisation, for example:
- Trans-specific policies, such as policies covering social/medical gender transitions
- Policies for all people with caring responsibilities, i.e. not just parents, but also people caring for disabled or elderly dependents.
Of course, once you have the policies in place, it is important that you actually enforce them. Moreover, the organisation should be transparent with all employees about serious infringements and how they have been handled. For example, rather than letting an openly sexist manager “retire early” or disappear with no explanation and letting rumours run rampant, the organisation could better handle the situation by being open (as much as possible) about what happened, how it was able to happen, what the company has done to address the issue, and what steps have been taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Golden-parachuting his way out of another scandal with wealth and reputation intact
No brilliant jerks
During my career, I have regularly come across “rockstar employees’’ who are excellent at their job, but constantly cause issues with other employees, especially those from underrepresented groups — perhaps they’re a bully with a violent temper, or they’re a notorious pervert, or they’ll casually drop the n-word and other slurs in conversation. Often these “brilliant jerks” will generate countless complaints from their colleagues; in the worst case scenario, these incidents could be leaked to the press or result in lawsuits, causing severe reputational damage to your organisation. However, time and time again we see no real action taken by companies involved because the employee in question is considered “indispensable”.
That absolutely needs to stop. People like this need to be held accountable. Even if they are absolutely exceptional at their job, if they aren’t a “culture-add” then they are actively harming your company. And if a company defends and makes excuses for people like this, then that is a huge red flag to both current and potential employees that their dignity and psychological safety isn’t as important as the company’s bottom line. If word gets around, that might be reason enough for the next genius who could have transformed your business to avoid your company like the plague.
It’s all well and good having a diversity internship program, but if all of your diverse hires are languishing in entry level roles without opportunities to progress, then that’s a major problem. Likewise, if you hire experienced managers with diverse backgrounds into your leadership team without actually developing any diverse leaders yourself, then you are essentially assuming that discrimination doesn’t exist and every other company on earth is doing a perfect job of identifying and nurturing diverse talent into the leaders of tomorrow, which we know simply isn’t the case.
The fact is that if you want to create a genuinely diverse workforce then you need to ensure that the best and brightest are able to progress in their career at your organisation whatever their background. That means ensuring that your leadership team is able to evaluate employees fairly and objectively according to their potential rather than any unconscious biases they may have, and providing employees with fair access to the training and mentoring they’ll need to step up into leadership roles.
Wherever employees are evaluated, whether that’s at the hiring stage or during an annual performance appraisal, it’s a great idea to ensure that those involved have had unconscious bias training, and that the appraisals are reviewed and benchmarked by independent colleagues or by a diversity panel, to ensure that potential biases are flagged and questioned. For example, is there objective evidence that that black employee is really “aggressive”? Or that disabled employee is really “unreliable”?
The (white) plantation owner and his (black) slaves. Top tip: if this is your idea of a diverse team, you might need to think again.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
Not all unconscious biases are negative. There are many “positive” stereotypes out there too— for instance, not every woman is great at multitasking, not every autistic person is a savant, and not all East Asian people are good at maths. These perceptions can be just as harmful as negative biases. Sometimes, if someone doesn’t live up to the positive stereotypes, employers might judge them more harshly than they otherwise would have. Suddenly, an autistic employee with above average intelligence is seen as stupid because they aren’t a genius.
Similarly, sometimes employers with good intentions might make proactive accommodations in an attempt to be helpful and considerate to an employee, but unless they discuss these with employees first it can cause more harm than good.
For example, a manager might assume that all autistic people struggle with empathy and communication, and therefore arrange things to “help” an autistic employee avoid coaching, big presentations, or line management responsibilities. However, many autistic people are highly empathetic and have excellent non-social communication skills (e.g. public speaking, writing). By denying them the opportunity to take on these challenges, the manager is holding them back in their career.
Another example might be assuming that a working mother or someone with physical disabilities won’t be willing to travel for work, or assuming that a fasting Muslim employee won’t want to attend a networking event where food and alcohol will be served.
Before making accommodations based on your assumptions, it is essential that you have a discussion with your employee to ensure that they actually want the accommodation you are proposing. Otherwise, your good intentions might actually be the thing that is holding them back in their career.
Don’t wait for the exit interview
How many times have you handed in your notice, and all of a sudden the company is finally willing to listen to your concerns and do anything to persuade you to stay? Usually, of course, by that point it’s too late. Although it’s important for employers to seek feedback from exit interviews, it’s probably even more important for them to have “stay” interviews, where they regularly touch base with employees about their career plans and make the case for how the company can make it happen if they stay.
Top tech talent is in high demand, and that includes people from underrepresented groups too. If they are being underpaid relative to the market, or they aren’t able to progress towards their career goals, never assume they’ll stay at your company just because it has a great, diverse culture. At the end of the day, your diverse talent is made up of human beings with their own ambitions and personalities, and they’ll need a lot more than just “being treated with basic dignity and respect” to stick around. As a company, you need to constantly benchmark your employee value proposition against the industry and proactively make adjustments, rather than waiting until employee turnover goes up.
You should never assume that employees from underrepresented groups will want to be the face of [insert diverse characteristic] for your company, nor that they will need any special treatment or adjustments. Additionally, although some people are visibly different, there will be others who have hidden protected characteristics (such as people with hidden disabilities and LGBT+ people) who should also be catered for, regardless of whether they inform you of the characteristic or not.
People generally want to be valued for their work, treated fairly, and get on with their life. It is not their responsibility to put their hand up and fix diversity at your organisation — they probably already have enough on their plate as it is!
Employee Value Proposition: I receive 50% of your waking hours in labour + your image in perpetuity to use on our careers website to show how diverse we are. You receive below market rate salary + basic dignity.
I feel very fortunate to have found my way to Beamery, a company that not only actively embraces diversity, but also empowers other organisations to do the same across the entire talent lifecycle. I’m really excited to be using my skills as a software engineer to help unleash the potential of the next generation.
After everything I’ve been through in my early career, I dream of a future where I can chat to those young developers at community events just embarking on their careers and reassure them that the technology industry is for absolutely everybody, that it’s an industry that will allow them to reach their full potential and that will actively embrace them because of their diverse background rather than despite of it. We’re not quite there yet, but I definitely have plenty to be optimistic about.
At the Athena Hackathon with some of the inspiring young female developers of the future
For more information about Beamery’s progress and commitments to DEI, you can visit our Impact and Sustainability website
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