I didn’t mean to create another tech company comprised predominantly of men, but I did.
At first, building a startup means growing as fast as you can before running out of money. You hire whoever’s available right now who you can afford. If you do that in a male-dominated field without thinking about it, you wind up with a ton of men. Left unchecked, that can create the sorts of toxic conditions for women we’ve been hearing so much about lately; at best, it’s terrible for business, since your team should reflect your customer base. So maintaining the status quo isn’t an option.
Here’s what we’re doing to change things at my company, Vidyard. Disclaimer: some of these diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts will sound strikingly obvious, but in cases where you’re trying to undo bad habits, it’s often the issues right in front of your face that are easiest to miss.
Want Inclusive Policies? Ask More Diverse People
It sounds like common sense, right? I wish it had been a lot earlier. One side effect our all-male cast had early on was that the policies we came up with reflected our own needs and interests. Case in point: parental leave. It took a female engineer to point out how inadequate our policy was–we were basically doing the bare minimum.
We didn’t think enough about our parental leave policy at first because we’d wrongly assumed it was an issue that mainly affected women, and we didn’t have many women around. This, of course, was shortsighted on multiple fronts. We’ve since consulted with all our team members (not just women) as well as industry experts, and now offer a single leave policy, irrespective of gender, that’s more in line with best-in-industry standards.
To reduce this kind of oversight in the future, we’ve put together a diversity and inclusion committee we call MyYard, a group of employee volunteers who examine the company–everything from official policies to how we socialize–through a D&I lens. Groups like these can help you pinpoint the rules and unspoken traditions worth changing. One example was a weekly, after-work team-building event that revolved around video games, pizza, and beer. That was how my friends and I blew off steam; in hindsight, it was a living cliché of “brogrammer culture”–specifically, white brogrammer culture.
Having groups like MyYard, with an open-door policy and a rotating roster of volunteers, ensures there’s a safe place where everyone can discuss potentially sensitive issues like these. MyYard is also focusing on ways to improve the work experience for LGBTQ and non-binary team members as well–the goal simply being to make sure everyone can see themselves reflected in the culture. So these days when we kick back as a team, we break out the board games, crank up the music, and offer a variety of snacks and non-alcoholic drinks as well. Anyone who wants to crack a beer and crush an opponent on Team Fortress 2 can go for it, but it’s no longer the only option.
Building A Pipeline For The Long Term
It’s the oldest excuse in the book: “We want to hire women, we just can’t find them!” I was guilty of this kind of thinking in our early stages, but I now know it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lately I’ve been working closely with our VP of talent, Lisa Brown, to let her know what kinds of openings for senior roles we’ll have on the horizon so she can forge relationships with qualified women (whether in tech or not) ahead of time. We might not be hiring for those specific roles right now, but when we are, we want to be on these women’s radar. You can’t tap a network that you don’t have.
Meanwhile, we’ve also started hosting “fireside chats” with women leaders from inside the company so our employees can learn from those who’ve risen through the ranks in male-dominated fields. The reality is that we don’t currently have the female representation we’d like to see among our own upper ranks, so we’ve also been inviting inspiring women from outside the company to encourage our own female employees to think proactively about their own career development. This way, they can identify growth opportunities and we can swoop in with the support they need to rise through the ranks (rather than get frustrated and leave); we’ve started offering regular mentoring and executive coaching to women employees with leadership potential.
But we’re trying to help develop the next generation of female tech talent outside our own walls, too. Vidyard has hosted several coding workshops for women and girls at our headquarters in Kitchener-Waterloo. The benefit here goes beyond helping young women develop industry-relevant skills; I also hope that by welcoming them into our offices, they can start to see themselves one day working here.
And it’s okay if they don’t. Some will graduate from school and excel someplace else, just as some of my own team will eventually find opportunities at other companies–that’s the way it goes. The real goal is to create a stronger network for women across the entire tech ecosystem, so we can all benefit from a more diverse talent pool in the future.
Spotting Subtle Biases
Everything from the language used in job postings to images on your website can project biases, even when you’re working to avoid it. A 2011 study from the University of Waterloo found that job postings that use more traditionally masculine language, like “dominating the marketplace” rather than “achieving excellence in the market” net fewer female applicants. Although in most cases it’s unintentional, even the phrasing you use can send subtle signals to women that they don’t belong in that role or company.
As a next step, we’ll be running job postings and public communications through an app like Textio, which screens for bias in language. And our Diversity and Inclusion Council recently reviewed our website to make sure images and video reflect the diversity we do have, and would like to have more of. Becoming aware of your unconscious bias isn’t easy–that’s why it’s called unconscious–but it’s profoundly important.
Standing Up To Haters
In today’s climate, failure to express a progressive stance on diversity can make you a professional pariah–in public, anyhow. Behind closed doors, or in private communication, it can still be a very different story.
When I started writing about the need to bridge the gender gap, I faced a shocking amount of criticism from some of my peers. On multiple occasions I’ve been chided in private by tech leaders for becoming a “social justice warrior,” a pejorative term for progressive activism. Others have accused me of “virtue signaling,” or paying lip service to the issue just to get publicity.
At first I was taken aback, then legitimately concerned. But it proved useful, in one sense: It pushed me to think continuously about whether my efforts (and Vidyard’s as a whole) were having a real impact on our work culture and my team’s work experiences. And ultimately, those critics revealed themselves to be people I don’t want to work with. I’d rather stay true to my values and my team than curry favor with an old boys’ club.
Part of what makes tackling diversity and inclusion so difficult is that it hasn’t been “solved” before. There’s no playbook on how to reverse undesirable trends; as one D&I expert recently summed it up for Fast Company, “Although it would be more comforting to claim we now have ‘best practices,’ the reality is that we just have ‘better practices . . . we think.’” Often, there’s not even consensus within our own team about the right way forward. (There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not men should be included in those fireside chats with women leaders, for example–and I consider the fact that the debate is happening at all to be a sign we’re moving in the right direction.)
But I firmly believe that if we stay humble, responsive, and flexible, we’ll eventually find a way forward. So many tech companies out there, like my own, haven’t been built with diversity and inclusion in their DNA. My goal isn’t to call them out or shame them, but simply to say that we can always get better, in small ways and bigger ones. And it’s our responsibility to try.