In this episode, we’re talking about how as an industry, tech should strive for equitable design, and how you can harness your privilege to help create diversity, with Aubrey Blanche, director of global head of equitable design and impact at Culture Amp, and Founder and CEO of The Mathpath. Aubrey talks about how the term “diversity and inclusion” might not be as actionable as you might think, how “culture fit” may not be the thing you actually want, and how we should all be using our individual privileges to help other marginalized groups.
- Culture Amp
- The MathPath
- Python (programming language)
- R (programming language)
- Diversity and Inclusion (DNI)
- Atlassian: How to start a learning circle with your colleagues
- Culture fit
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
- Diversity in tech too often means ‘hiring white women.’ We need to move beyond that.
- How white women in tech can harness their privilege to help create diversity
- The Diana Initiative
- Culture Amp: Diversity & Inclusion Survey
- The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host Saron, and today we’re talking about how we should strive for equitable design and how to harness your privilege to help create diversity with Aubrey Blanche, Director of Global Head of Equitable Design and Impact at Culture Amp and Founder and CEO of The Mathpath.
[00:00:27] AB: People were saying. “Oh, well, we’re a meritocracy,” Or, “We only hire the best.” And as a trained social science, my first thought was, “Wow, that’s a racist thing to say. And second, that’s mathematically impossible.”
[00:00:39] SY: Aubrey talks about how the term diversity and inclusion might not be as actionable as you might think. How culture fit may not be the thing you actually want and how we should all be using our individual privileges to help other marginalized groups after this.
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[00:02:57] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:02:58] AB: Thank you for having me.
[00:02:59] SY: So Aubrey, you’ve been in the tech space for quite a long time under a variety of different roles, especially within diversity and inclusion, but you also have a coding background. Is that right?
[00:03:09] AB: A little bit, yeah. I’ve been in a diversity, equity and inclusion roles for quite a while at this point, always in the tech industry, and I’ve been in the tech industry even longer. When I say I have a coding background, I think mine is both considered nontraditional, but I think actually is a lot more normal and common than you’d think. So as a kid, if you would ask me like, “Was I one of the tech kids?” I would have said, “Absolutely not.” But I had books on HTML that I used to play around with on my parents’ computer. I took all of the math classes that were offered at my school. I took all of the technology classes that were offered. I was the managing editor of a digital publication. Once I got to grad school, I started object-oriented programming using a little bit of Python and R because I was a political scientist. And so I was doing data analysis.
[00:04:03] SY: You definitely sound like one of the tech kids.
[00:04:06] AB: Right?
[00:04:06] SY: I don’t know what you think a tech kid is if it’s not you.
[00:04:10] AB: Well, I think it gets back to this problem that we’re all really passionate about, right, which is that there’s this very narrow view of who is a tech kid and who is a coder. And I promise you that the queer Latina, like little girl like did not match that stereotype. And so even though I was into those things, I never identified that way or saw myself as being a technical person, even though it feels inevitable at this point that I’ve ended up in tech because it’s something I’ve always loved.
[00:04:39] SY: So you got into data visualization, which is fascinating. It’s one of those things that I swear at one point I will learn because I think it’s just so cool. What languages did you learn or what tools, technologies did you level up on to be able to do that?
[00:04:53] AB: Yeah. So a lot of the work that I did, it was both sort of data analysis and then learning how to visualize that and it was first really in an academic context. So I was using R and LaTeX, right, to take huge datasets. I focused on international relations and then turned that into high-quality research and presented my findings. So that was really the beginning of my coding journey was this very sort of speaking to other academics. But I ended up leaving grad school and going out and I was working in business development at a technology company called Palantir. And there I was working on business development writing. So what felt like very nontechnical work, but a lot of my work actually involved describing the architecture and functionality of software to potential customers. I think sometimes we overweight the importance of coding as a part of the overall work that is technical, if that makes sense.
[00:05:48] SY: Interesting.
[00:05:48] AB: So coding is awesome in a core skill, but there’s a lot of other things that people bring to the table that I think sometimes get ignored or devalued.
[00:05:55] SY: What are those other things?
[00:05:57] AB: So thinking about being able to understand how systems work together, right? Because systems are systems are systems, the rules are slightly different, but also things like being able to take information from many different points of view, data points, stakeholders, and bring them together to find a common way to do something, right? And often, whether that's engineering, designing a system, the coding happens after that work has been done, and those two things hang off each other. And so I think it’s really important that when we think about the question of who is technical that there’s a big bucket of skills under technical and often we are more technical than we think we are. Maybe because we haven’t mastered one of those key skills, which is coding. I don’t know if you’re used to this, but I think a lot of people get intimidated by the concept of coding.
[00:06:44] SY: Yeah, absolutely. Especially for folks listening to this show. Their whole thing is learning how to code, leveling up, trying to get over the emotional hurdles of that coding journey. So it’s kind of good to know that it’s not just about coding that makes you technical. There are other aspects to it as well.
[00:07:00] AB: Yeah, and I think it’s sort of a stereotype or a myth that like good software engineers, right, good coders are born, they’re geniuses, they’re this, they’re that. I can tell you as someone who codes very inconsistently in my career at this point. It’s not a genius thing. You don’t have to be a super genius. It’s just time and experience and putting in the work, and that doesn’t mean you’re not going to hit hard parts where you need to ask for help, but I think it’s really important to remember that those people that are really, really great at software, at coding, or actually just those who have both practiced a lot and had the ability to reach out for help when they got stuck.
[00:07:43] SY: So we are here to dig into diversity in tech, which is a topic that is very near and dear to us here at the podcast. We’ve covered it a couple of times on the show over the years, and it’s something that we try and really advocate for and really push forward just in who we pick to be on the show, what topics we cover, that sort of thing. And you are clearly a big advocate for that. How did you get into that work and make it a career?
[00:08:06] AB: It was a little bit of an accident. So I consider myself an activist who happens to get paid for it, which is a blessing and still surprising. But really in my first tech job, I think going to Stanford, I was working on a PhD I didn’t finish, and I hit some pretty significant institutional barriers in terms of frankly sexism and racism that made me really feel like I couldn’t be successful there. So I decided to go into technology because it was the industry that was there. I didn’t know a lot about it at the time. I was quite naïve and I got there and I wasn’t aware that the tech industry had had such low standards for such a long time in terms of quality of hire and culture that has led to this severe imbalance. So I got there and I was working with some folks who I really loved working with. They were fantastic and I started asking around, “Why are there so few women here? Why are there so few people of color?” And the answers that I got were really unsatisfying. People were saying, “Oh, well, we’re a meritocracy,” or, “We only hire the best.” And as a trained social science, my first thought was, “Wow, that’s a racist thing to say.” And second, “That’s mathematically impossible.”
[00:09:15] SY: Tell me why it’s mathematically impossible.
[00:09:17] AB: So in order for a group that’s incredibly homogenous to be a meritocracy, there’s an underlying assumption. It must be true that people from that particular group, in this case, we’re at, we’re talking about the overrepresentation of white people in technology, that that group must have a better ability in technology, higher interest, higher capability, when in fact what we see mathematically speaking is that when you have a diverse environment or a balanced environment, representation of a lot of different types of people, that’s actually a good signal that your processes, that your environment are fair and meritocratic. So just the math. There’s some good math that does this with all male panels and like the likelihood that the amount of all male panels that happen are truly fair and meritocratic. It’s like the odds are like one, two, however many stars there are in the universe. Like it’s impossible that we’ve had the highest quality panels when they’re so homogenous.
[00:10:20] SY: That’s so interesting. I’ve never heard of the mathematical argument, intuitively it just kind of makes sense to me, but I never heard of it in terms of math. That’s very fascinating.
[00:10:29] AB: Right. Because you have to assume, for example, that like Latinx people just are too stupid to be executives, which is like emphatically not true. And so therefore, if it’s not this group, it’s disproportionate access to opportunity. It’s unfair and discriminatory hiring and promotion processes. That’s why you don’t see a balanced set of individuals in positions of power and authority. And to get to your original question, how I got into D&I was I just started asking those questions and I was lucky that there was leadership at the company that said, “Do you really think that’s a problem here? We really want to be fair. How would we figure it out?” And they empowered me to go run a bunch of studies to see what wasn’t working.
[00:11:11] SY: Oh, cool!
[00:11:13] AB: And then based on the results of those studies immediately said, “Go fix those systems. This isn’t a thing we want to do.” And so I ended up working as a program manager and a product manager to rebuild a lot of their internal people processes.
[00:11:27] SY: I’m so excited to dig into this a little bit more because I feel like so often when we talk about diversity inclusion, which we usually refer to as just D&I, we often rely on or at least it feels like the conversation is very anecdotal and it feels a lot like, “This is what happened to me.” And of course we believe these stories and we believe that there is a pattern kind of underlying them. But I feel like, at least for me, there are so few times when I get to hear about the math and like studies and kind of like that side of things. So when you talked about some of the early studies you did at Atlassian, can you maybe share one of those studies and what the methodology and the results were?
[00:12:07] AB: Oh yeah. So for a long time, D&I, DEI actually didn’t use a lot of metrics. It was just kind of a checkbox list to implement these programs. And the reason that was largely ineffective, frankly, besides the fact that many corporate leaders didn’t want them to be effective, was that they didn’t have a way to scope out what impact do we want this program to have and then answer the question, “And did it achieve that goal?” Companies couldn’t tell often whether they were trending in the right direction or for what reasons. So at Atlassian, we did a ton of work around this. One of the things that was really exciting to me was we employed a variety of strategies to reduce the rate of attrition for women in technical roles. So when we looked at the data by group, we found that it said that women who were in technical, when I joined, were leaving Atlassian at a significantly higher rate than their male peers. And when we dug into the data about why, we found out that there were a couple of drivers. So first for women at the mid-level, they were struggling to sort of make that next leap in their career. They weren’t sure what they were going to do. But when we looked at the data, we also saw that most women were likely to be the only woman on their team, meaning that it wasn’t about their capability or their career. They were just feeling isolated and a lack of belonging. So armed with that data and that information from those studies, we ran out three programs. So first we call it “coffee dates”. Coffee dates literally assigning women in Atlassian Sydney HQ to meet each other once every other week for coffee, for tea to go to a walk, just to build the informal social connections that male Atlassians were getting naturally through their work. The second was a peer based mentoring system called mentoring rings. For folks who are interested in this, if you go to the Atlassian Team Playbook and look up “learning circle”, we actually piloted these multiple times and took that research and turned it into a product that you all can use for free to try this, but the learning circles or the mentoring rings were really meant to help junior level women grow in their confidence to drive change, to be subject matter experts and then build them a community across the business. And then we also ran formal leadership development for mid-level women to help them advance in their careers. And what we saw was in running those programs, we’re actually able to reduce attrition for women in those technical roles by more than 70 percent over two years.
[00:14:35] SY: Wow!
[00:14:36] AB: So if you’re an HR executive, if you’re even a CEO, you know how expensive talent is and how expensive hiring is. And so this was huge because when attrition drops, what that means is people are happy, they’re fulfilled, they’re growing in their careers, and we’re able to use the data we had access to, to kind of experiment and intervene in what was happening. And it turns out we got those rates for women on par with men, which means people are having a fair experience.
[00:15:01] SY: So you mentioned that oftentimes these D&I and also DE&I, which Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion often feels like a checklist and that checklist that corporate people at the very top kind of want to just kind of move through. You mentioned in passing that people may not even want it to work, which is kind of surprising. I feel like being diverse and inclusive feels like a good thing that everybody wants to be, like what’s like the downside to being inclusive? Why would people at the top not want these things to work?
[00:15:35] AB: Well, I think the fundamental answer is that in order to create a diverse and inclusive environment, leaders basically have to stop doing almost everything that they’ve done that’s gotten them there in the first place. So one of the really important things that when I talk to leaders and coaches about this is you are responsible for the unfair practices in your business. Now I’m not saying that you intended for them to be unfair, but that we have to have some really hard conversations about what’s important and what’s prioritized at the company. If you really want diversity and inclusion, here’s what you need to invest in to get there. And it’s my experience. I’ve had the luck of working with incredible leaders who really are bought in, are really pushing for change, but there are a lot of leaders out there who feel great saying that they care about diversity and inclusion because it feels good for them, but are not willing to do any work to get to those outcomes. And so I think for me, it’s the reason I actually talk about equitable design instead of diversity and inclusion because it’s easy to talk about, “I care about diversity.” And my question is, “Your care equals your budget and your action,” because the people that you say that you care about are not helped by you saying that you care or not provided the opportunities they have earned and they deserve because you care. They are given the opportunities that they deserve and that they have earned because you have taken action to open the door to let their brilliance shine in the world and what an incredible role you have to play. What an honor to be able to do that. And so I think that’s it, is there are some people who are not yet ready for a lot of different reasons to do the work the way that they need to in order to align their words with the impact that they’re having in the world.
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[00:18:45] So you mentioned the work that you did at Atlassian to help the attrition rate of women in technical positions and you talked about doing the coffee dates and the mentorship program, and these sound like new additions, right? These are things that didn’t exist before that were created, but you also talked about some behaviors that we need to change that may have some unintended negative consequences, negative side effects. What are some of those behaviors that may feel innocent but that are actually leading to an inequitable environment?
[00:19:15] AB: Yeah. So I would say that this is a behavior or a practice. I’ll broaden it out a little bit. You see a lot of companies trying to hire for fit. So they’re looking, “Does this team fit?” I just have to say that culture fit is an intractable morass of unconscious bias and the best way to screw over your business I’ve ever heard.
[00:19:36] SY: Oh, wow! That is intense.
[00:19:38] AB: Right. I don’t mince my words. And the reason I say that is because people talk about culture fit and there’s a couple of problems with it. The first one is it’s often really, really poorly defined, which means that it tends to simply be biased based on do you have something in common with the interviewer, which given the current imbalance of our industry means that like if I as a queer Latina woman, I’m in an interview with like a white guy from New York, the likelihood that he feels an automatic affinity with me is just lower, right? Because we have less in common as humans potentially. And so all of a sudden I’m not a culture fit. So there’s that first piece. The second piece is that by even talking about fit in your interview, you’ve actually chosen to create an anti-diversity interview. So our brains are exquisitely sensitive to the language we use to describe things. And if you start saying, “I’m looking for something that fits,” your brain will immediately start rejecting things that are different or do not match the existing set. At Atlassian, we started talking about and redesigned the interview that focused on this to talk about values alignment. So it was a very carefully designed interview that got at behaviors like a willingness to constructively support someone when they’ve aired and ability to acknowledge where they’ve gotten something wrong, recover and learn or you can talk about culture add. So go into an interviewer, go into a selection process asking, “What newness can this person bring to my team? What new perspective or new skill can they bring that will make us stronger?” Because going back to why I think it’s a great way to tank your business is that when you select for fit, you’re basically saying, “I want to design a team that has a lot of blind spots and will get stuck in groupthink.” And I don’t think any executive I’ve ever heard would ever actually say that, but by saying that they care about culture fit, groupthink and blind spots are the natural and inevitable outcome of that.
[00:21:52] SY: So you mentioned that you are not actually a huge fan of diversity and inclusion, and instead you like to use the term equitable design. Can we dig into that a little bit more? Tell me about what equitable design is.
[00:22:05] AB: Yeah. So my title is Director of Equitable Design and Impact. And the reason that I love that language, and I believe it’s the right way to do this work, is because diversity and inclusion comes with no accountability. Right? There’s no action inherent in diversity and inclusion. Equitable design and impact actually couches what we need to be doing, which is we need to, when we’re building a recruiting process, when we’re building an HR process, we need to be designing to create equitable outcomes, and then we need to measure whether we have the intended impact. I think that what I call EDI, which is a little bit of a play on DEI, I believe that EDI actually comes with implicit responsibility for those in power, those architecting and erecting the systems that we’ve been in. And I think this is really powerful because so often a lot of a company’s D&I strategy has been basically, “Oh, hey. Let’s create some employee groups. Call them employee resource groups. Give them a small budget and then tell them to solve structural racism while we at the top do nothing to move out of the way.” And I don’t think that was the intent in that work. I think that the intent was good, but that was the practical outcome, is that a lot of the work of creating fair systems was put on the people who were hurt by unfair systems.
[00:23:30] SY: Interesting.
[00:23:31] AB: And so equitable design puts the responsibility back on the people in privileged positions and to do the work to create these systems. And when I say privilege, I mean that in every way imaginable, right? Those who have the power and access to do so, but my other hope is that that idea is empowering because not all of us are the CEO. Not all of us are huge investors and can just deploy capital, but each of us can design our work no matter what it is. In a way, that creates more equity. So if you’re a writer, you’re not just a writer. You’re someone who has the power to normalize inclusive and humanizing language. If you’re a benefits administrator, you can be thoughtful about making sure that gender affirmation surgery is available to employees at your company. If you are a product manager, you can make sure that the research that your team is doing with users is listening to a broad set of voices to make sure that technology doesn’t just benefit an individual group. If you’re a manager, you can demand that not only white candidates are considered for your roles, right? We each have little roles to play, and I think if that’s the spirit and the energy and the intention we bring to our work, suddenly diversity and inclusion doesn’t become a thing we talk about. Equitable design becomes a thing we do.
[00:24:54] SY: So one of the aspects you mentioned was the manager role and how you can demand to see people of color as candidates for a particular job. What about people who say, “Well, if I put my job posting in all the right places, I put it in the job boards, people of color job boards for women, and I’m just not getting candidates, people just aren’t interested in this role, how is it my fault? Like what am I supposed to do in that situation?” What advice do you have for people who are in that position.?
[00:25:24] AB: Well, I would say as a leader in a company, every outcome is your responsibility even if it’s not your fault.
[00:25:31] SY: Fair.
[00:25:32] AB: That’s a good place to start. But I would say my first question is, what language are you using to describe this job? Why would people in that community want to come to it? I think Textio, which is an augmented writing platform, has done a really good job to show that companies often use very aggressive and violent language in their job ads, which tends to actually drive away female job seekers. There’s research that shows that the more stringent the “requirements” are for your job, the wider maler and lower quality your overall talent pool is. So first, look at the language you’re using on your job ads. Is it actually appealing to a broad set of people? Like I said, tools like Textio can be really helpful. Second, I think you need to think really hard about what is a requirement for your job. Most of the time, I see hiring managers who are writing these lists about magical unicorns that never existed in the first place. For everyone listening, for my job at Atlassian where I spent five years and I was an executive, I met exactly 1.5 of the requirements written on the job ad.
[00:26:37] SY: Wow!
[00:26:37] AB: So most requirements are simply not real and hiring managers do well when they make requirements truly the minimum requirement and they also don’t make weird assumptions about them. So it’s good to know that one particular experience doesn’t mean someone has a skill. So requiring, for example, that someone’s come from a top tier tech company is a terrible hiring criteria, both because it makes your hiring pool much smaller and isn’t probably that great of a proxy for quality. So one, what language are you doing on your job ads? Two, are you actually making requirements or you’re making impossible to meet standards that only people with significant structural privilege could ever meet? And then three, what have you done to communicate to underrepresented communities that you would be a safe manager to work for?
[00:27:28] SY: Interesting. Okay. I have many follow-up questions. Okay. So my first question is, I’ve been on the hiring side of things. I’ve reviewed hundreds, maybe even thousands of resumes at this point, and one of the problems that I have as someone reviewing resumes is just that I’ll put what I believe to be reasonable requirements. Of course, we always think our requirements are reasonable, and I will get people who just fall very far below that threshold and that just don’t meet those requirements at all. And so I would be concerned that if I removed certain requirements that I would get even lower quality people applying who don’t even meet those requirements. You know what I mean? So like how do you write the job posting without this fear of getting an even lower standard of candidates in the door if you are removing requirements and removing things that you want out of your candidate?
[00:28:22] AB: Yeah. So there’s actually studies that show that the longer your list of requirements, the lower quality candidates you get because you’re mostly selecting for confidence, not competence. So everyone thinks, “Oh, let me up these ratings.” No, no, no. The longer your list gets, you’re just asking for confident people, which means you’re probably picking up a bigger scoop of the overconfident people.
[00:28:46] SY: Interesting.
[00:28:46] AB: So for example, do you have a degree requirement on a job? Why? Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a CS degree. Why does your software engineer have to have a degree? Or I’m a director of HR and I have a degree in journalism and political science. So even things like requiring degrees or requiring formal certifications that often are the product of economic privilege can keep underrepresented people from being qualified for jobs, when in fact they might have the skills, they just don’t have the fancy paper and the stamp.
[00:29:17] SY: You also talked about how people use violent language in job posting, and as someone who’s written many job postings, I don’t think I would consider any of my language to be violent. I don’t even know what violent language would look like. So can you maybe give me a couple examples of language that we might use that might be unintentionally violent?
[00:29:35] AB: Yeah. Don’t people love it when a team is crushing it? Right? Or this sort of like work hard, play hard, like that’s communicating that anyone who desires work life balance or has caring responsibilities shouldn’t apply. When you say that you want to crush it, that indicates the kind of culture that’s very aggressive and elbowy in a way that’s not going to appeal to a lot of underrepresented people most likely. The reason for that is because the world is an elbowy place for those of us that are marginalized, and we don’t want to go to environments often that perpetuate it and exacerbate that. So a good example, again, going back to Textio’s research, even slight changes in language. So even when you reel back from violent language and just go to sort of very gendered language, Textio showed that when you say that someone is managing a team, that attracts male applicants. When you say developing a team, it attracts female applicants. And when you say leading a team, it’s gender neutral, and I think all of us would agree that every leader does all three of those.
[00:30:40] SY: Very interesting.
[00:30:41] AB: So language has such an important role to play, but I want to loop back to this other point, which is, well, people aren’t applying. Well, I go back to the question, why would they? Why would they believe that you, unlike so many other places in the industry, why would they believe that your team was a safe, inclusive one for them?
[00:31:04] SY: Coming up next, Aubrey talks about her Vox piece titled, “How white women in tech can harness their privilege to help create diversity.” She also gets into what marginalized group companies should be focusing on if they want to achieve more fairness and equity in their diversity goals after this. Over nine million apps have been created and ran on Heroku’s cloud service. It scales and grows with you from free apps to enterprise apps, supporting things at enterprise scale. It also manages over two million data stores and makes over 175 add-on services available. Also, make sure to check out their podcast, Code[ish], which explores code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer. Find it at heroku.com/podcast.
[00:32:05] With DigitalOcean’s cloud infrastructure, you’ll be able to build faster and scale easier from predicting pricing, to flexible configurations, to world-class customer support. You’ll get access to all the infrastructure services you need to grow. Plus, DigitalOcean’s community provides over 2,000 tutorials to help you stay up to date with the latest open source software, languages and frameworks. Get started on DigitalOcean for free with the free $100 credit at DO.co/codenewbie. That’s DO.co/codenewbie. So you wrote a really thought-provoking article in Vox titled, “How white women in tech can harness their privilege to help create diversity.” What prompted you to start digging into this topic?
[00:32:54] AB: I think that one thing that we often see with feminist movements in general of which I think sort of the corporate D&I movement is one of them is that it tends to focus in benefit primarily straight, white, cisgender, economically privileged women. And I think that’s what you’ve seen in tech. So what we’ve seen since I would say the latest wave of focus is sort of 2013 to now has primarily benefited white women. So we have seen gender data go up. But The Diana Initiative, for example, showed that the representation of black women in technology during that time actually dropped by 13 percent. And so I really wrote the article because I realized that the way that this was being approached was corporate white feminism. It was confusing gender for the needs of all women and actually forgetting to think about the concept of intersectionality. So intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to specifically describe the challenges that black women face in dealing with the overlapping oppression of gender and race. But it also can mean the fact that we all have layers, which is relevant to why I decided to write the article. So I happen to be a queer Latina woman. I don’t need to play the tragedy Olympics, but that gives me a perspective on this because as I engaged with D&I programs before I ran them, I was like, “Well, I had to pick my identities,” right? I was like, “Oh, I can be a woman here, but I don’t want to be too brown and like, ‘Oh, I’m in this people of color group,’” But like these are straight issues. Well, like, where is the space for me? And so one of the things that I say is we should all use the privilege or the access that we have to share with others. And so as someone who is white passing, I’m a white Latina, I do get sunburns and have green eyes. It felt appropriate for me as someone who benefits from conditional white privilege to talk to women who do experience white privilege about what they can do to stop taking more than their fair share of the progress. And I wanted to do that in an empathetic and a direct way, but also in a way that said, “You do have some power and we are asking that you don’t step on our necks to get it.”
[00:35:03] SY: What does it look like to step on our necks? What does that mean?
[00:35:07] AB: I think what you tend to see is a women’s group that talks about women’s issues, but doesn’t ever even take a moment to center the women of color in that group. The challenges that they face, which are often different. They don’t actually perceive women of color as potential sources of innovation and potential for how to solve these issues. An example, something I loved to do at Atlassian, which was one of our women’s groups wanted to have an event on figuring out work life balance. As we were planning, I pointed out and I said, “And do you understand that that’s largely a white issue?” She said, “Well, what do you mean?” And I said, “Well, historically, women of color have not gotten to stay home or work. Women of color historically have had to actually perform both roles.” And so perhaps we could use the women of color at Atlassian to share their community wisdom with other folks so that they can benefit. So it’s not about saying white women don’t deserve support. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is there are ways to design for people who are intersectionally marginalized. That helps all of us, because when we don’t do that, we only help the majority groups within those subgroups, which isn’t real change and isn’t real equity and inclusion.
[00:36:23] SY: So that’s interesting. The example you gave is really interesting because if I am a woman who hasn’t heard of the work life balance issue, not being representative of the experience of women of color, then I wouldn’t know to bring that up. if I didn’t know, then how do I know? So when you are in a position where you’re creating these women in tech panels, luncheons, conferences, whatever that is, how do you make sure that the topics you cover are representative of all women?
[00:36:55] AB: I think part of it is it’s my moral and ethical obligation to educate myself. For me, it becomes intentional. I myself do this work because as someone who does pass, I can pass as straight, I do pass as white, I do this work and speak to those people to educate them so that more marginalized people in my community don’t have to. But when I’m putting together those panels, it’s also not important just that the questions and the topics are relevant through a vast audience, but I’m very intentional to put together voices that often are not heard. Again, it’s not that we can all magically know, but I think the answer is if you’ve spent no time asking questions or learning, now is a good day to start, and Medium Twitter, it’s out there. I would encourage you. Education, don’t start by asking an underrepresented person to educate you about what you can Google or offer to pay them.
[00:37:50] SY: So one thing that I’m thinking about as I try to, in my mind, create my own D&I or my own equitable design strategy is kind of understanding that different groups probably have their own set of problems, have their own set of issues that they’re dealing with, and so probably need different programs, initiatives in order to help them be successful. And so one kind of possible strategy that might make sense is to say, “Well, I’m going to focus on gender first.” Once I get women in the door, no matter what those women look like, then I’m going to focus on people of color. And then once I fix those numbers, then I’m going to focus on the queer community and I’m going to just kind of take turns and really focus on one of these sections of my intersectionality, and that’s how I’m going to solve that problem. What are your thoughts on that strategy?
[00:38:39] AB: I guarantee you, if you start with gender, you will never get to race. I have never seen an example of that working. I’ll just be really flat out. So I understand the intuition there, and I think it’s what a lot of people think and feel. And what I say is, you’re right. Start with one group, focus. Start with black women. And the reason is really simple. So for folks who are familiar with the concept of universal design, I won’t get into it, but it’s really the idea that you try to design for the broadest set of people possible. Well, you can look at people who are further marginalized or sort of numerically more rare in one of two ways. You can look at them as an edge case that you don’t need to care about or design for, which is what you’re doing when you’re saying, “I’ll start with women,” because I guarantee you you’re going to run programs for straight, white, cisgender women, and they will improve and everybody else will still be left behind if not farther behind. But if instead you adopt this idea of a stress case, you actually get closer to universal design. So if you say, “We’re prioritizing the experience of black employees. We’re doing race first.” What’s actually going to happen, because black women face challenges because of both their gender and their race, the types of solutions that you build for black women often also benefit white women, but it doesn’t work the other way around. So if you want to build something that raises all boats, designed for the margin, it’ll bring everyone else on the way up. It’s the same way. We think about this like in the physical accessibility world. If we design a ramp, everybody can come in. If we design stairs, we’ve just designed out people who need mobility aids.
[00:40:22] SY: That makes a lot of sense. So what do you do about the privileges that are harder to see? Ageism is a huge issue in the tech industry specifically. So being a little bit younger in your 20s, 30s is probably a privilege, socioeconomic background is a privilege, being heterosexual is a privilege. How do you attack these problems if you can’t really see them?
[00:40:45] AB: So I think the first thing is you have to collect data. And this is my, I suppose they do pay me, but my call out to Culture Amp and the work they did and the reason I was so excited to join the team, which is you can’t fix what you don’t know is there. And so at Culture Amp, we really believe that listening to your employees allows you to act and sort of respond to what they need. And so Culture Amp has a free inclusion survey. Please go use that. But collect demographic data on your workforce, on your community, and then ask them how things are going. Look for differences in behavior.
[00:41:20] SY: So I want to talk about the role of marginalized people and helping other marginalized communities because that’s basically what we’re talking about when we talk about white women in tech saying that even though you are marginalized in one respect, you are privileged in another respect. But I’m wondering, is it fair of us to ask underprivileged people to fix problems that frankly they didn’t necessarily create? Is that fair or are there risks to asking them to do that?
[00:41:49] AB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, let me say full stop that the people at the top of the privilege pyramid should be doing disproportionately more work. It is on some level unfair to ask someone to dismantle their own oppression. But in order to create change, we have to create coalitions and we each have to use the privilege and access we have to help others. So if you look at from the frame contextually that white women have structural advantage over women of color, then we can also say that they have an ethical obligation to open doors for women of color so that women of color can get those benefits as well. By helping each other, we become interdependent in ways that help us all move forward. So I think there are risks, but I think that there’s also something really powerful about. People in the workplace are given social credit for advocating for others outside of their own group. So women are likely to actually receive backlash for advocating for women, but white women advocating for women of color actually might get some of those brownie points back because it’s not quite as obvious that you’re advocating for your own group. So I would argue that there’s a reasonable hypothesis that it’s a less risky proposition for white women to advocate for women of color than for them to advocate for other white women.
[00:43:04] SY: What do you say to white women who might be listening who feel attacked maybe by this conversation and by those who might be thinking, “Well, I have my own set of problems. I have my own set of difficulties and hardships. I’m having a hard time being taken seriously by the other men in my group, and I’m trying to get to that next level of my career. It’s not my fault,” and maybe unfairly feel like they are under scrutiny for their role in privilege and in creating an equitable society? What do you say to people who might be listening who might feel a little attacked by this part of the conversation?
[00:43:42] AB: Yeah. So I think that that’s a really natural feeling and I want to have compassion and hold space that that can be a lot of the gut reaction. But as someone who is perceived as white in many, many different ways in my life, what I want to say is there’s a difference between me saying to someone, “You were responsible for how we got here,” and saying, “You are responsible for helping us get somewhere else.” And so when I hear white women say, “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong.” No, I’m not saying you did anything wrong, but I am saying that you have had unfair advantages given to you because of the color of your skin and all I’m asking is that you make sure that other people are given their fair chances. It doesn’t mean that everything you’ve done is unearned. Certainly hard work and talent are there and deserve to be rewarded, but the probability that your hard work got rewarded more than if you were a black woman is really high. The second piece I want to acknowledge is around, they say, “Well, I have individual challenges,” and there’s actually research that shows this. And what I’m not saying is that straight white, cisgender, economically privileged women don’t have individual challenges that they face. We’re all human. We all suffer. But what I’m saying is that in addition to those individual challenges, they don’t also face impediments based on their race. They don’t also face impediments based on their sexual orientation. They don’t also face impediments on their socioeconomic status. So it’s not an either or. It’s a yes and question.
[00:45:19] SY: What are some specific things that you can do, especially if you’re not necessarily in a position of power, if you’re not the CEO, you’re not a manager? What are some day-to-day things that you might be able to do?
[00:45:31] AB: Yeah. So I think be thoughtful about the fact that your black female coworkers are often stereotyped or called angry or frustrated. Notice when women of color are confused for each other by management. Notice that they are even more likely to be interrupted while speaking. If someone’s interrupted in a meeting, could you say, “Hey, hold on a second, John. I really want to hear what you have to say, but I don’t think that Mia got to finish and I’d love to hear what she has to say.” Create space in a meeting for people or bring them in to say, “Hey, LeFon, I know that you have a lot of thoughts on this. Is there anything that you’d like to add to the discussion?” Just create a little bit of space. Maybe you want to attend. If there’s an employee resource group for employees of color. Why don’t you attend and just listen? Don’t try to participate, but just say, “Hey, I have an intention to become a better ally and I think the first part of that is educating myself and I’d love to be able to sit here and just learn from you.” Go out and read Minda Harts’ book called The Memo, which is the most amazing sort of first of its kind. It feels like a business advice book for women of color. Read that book and see how different the world is for your women of color colleagues, and then see what little things you can do, what you can come up with to open the door for them, because you know that you’re going to have a more interesting, better team. Right? And then the last thing I would say is try not to ask underrepresented people to educate you. Go find your own resources or offer to pay and also don’t assume that what works for one woman will work for another. Right? We’re all unique people. So I love the question and I would empower you, which is my intention is to support you explicitly in your career. What do you think might be useful to you that I could do?
[00:47:25] SY: Thank you again so much for joining us, Aubrey. This was great.
[00:47:27] AB: Thank you.
[00:47:35] SY: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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