Diversity in tech: Why can’t the innovators solve this dilemma?

15 Sep 2017

Dr Anita Sands presents her keynote at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

With 23 years in male-dominated industries behind her, Dr Anita Sands has learned how ignoring micro-behaviours comes at the peril of a healthy, inclusive company culture.

A few months ago, I spoke about culture and micro-behaviours at a tech company’s conference in San Francisco. To illustrate what ‘micro-behaviours’ are and how they can cause a feeling of exclusion, I described the difficulty I often have as an Irish person – unschooled in American sports – contending with the baseball metaphors my colleagues use all the time.

As I relayed my frustration, the audience started to giggle. Since the group included plenty of non-Americans, I assumed I had touched on a common experience. However, as the laughter continued, I glanced over to the side of the stage and noticed the CEO blushing.

Unbeknownst to me, his big kick-off speech right before my session had been full of “hit it out of the park” and “swing for the fences” baseball sayings to rally his employees now that their company was “playing in the Major Leagues”.

Of course, there wasn’t a sliver of malice behind his remarks. In fact, you can’t find a more supportive CEO when it comes to diversity. Yet I could understand how some of his employees invariably would leave that room deflated, sensing they didn’t fully belong.

While the presence of diversity is necessary, it’s a long way from being sufficient if we want to create a culture that is truly inclusive. As the data clearly shows, what we don’t need are more top-down diversity initiatives. The only way to effect change is from the bottom up, starting with our day-to-day behaviours.

Not-so-brilliant jerks

On a much larger scale, the recent headlines from Silicon Valley have reignited the debate around diversity and the long-unaddressed malaise of gender discrimination in the tech industry. Like many women, I’m less shocked by the tales of egregious behaviour – such as those depicted in Susan Fowler’s blog about her time at Uber – than I am saddened by the all-too-familiar stories of unwanted advances and inadequate responses. Reading Ellen Pao’s essay earlier this month brought back jarring memories, many of which I’d shrugged off over the years. But now, with a baby daughter of my own, I can shrug no more.

‘I’ve encountered more than my fair share of off-putting behaviours that ranged from the uncomfortably embarrassing to the downright harassing’

For context, I have studied and worked in predominantly male environments for the past 23 years. I started in physics and wound up in technology after a decade-long detour into financial services. As such, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of off-putting behaviours that ranged from the uncomfortably embarrassing to the downright harassing.

Early examples include a university lab technician who warned us ladies to watch our bodily appendages lest we shock ourselves on the equipment, and a “isn’t she lovely” slap on the backside from a senior professor in front of classmates the week before he graded our year-end papers.

While I’d love to say this behaviour subsided as I advanced in my career, it hasn’t. Not too long ago, a well-known venture capitalist in Silicon Valley whispered in my ear at a dinner that he wondered how I managed to get so far “looking the way I do”. Not entirely sure how to answer that one, I gave him a puzzled look. Undeterred, he clarified: “I mean with all those curves.” With a demure smile, I replied: “Fortunately, the curves come with a hell of a great brain and an even better personality.”

Needless to say, we didn’t get to this escalated state in the tech industry without countless similar episodes along the way. Toxic cultures are not an overnight phenomenon. When the odd snide comment is ignored, it becomes the inappropriate joke that goes viral; when unwanted flirting is shrugged off, it becomes the overt sexual advance that is dismissed. Over time, these behaviours add up to an environment where people start to believe those actions are acceptable. We become subtly tolerant of “brilliant jerks”.

Broken windows

Much like the broken-windows theory in criminology (where a single broken window provides an opening to general incivility in a community that ultimately is linked to more systemic and serious crime over time), the smallest of indiscretions, when ignored, ends up leading to much bigger transgressions. Bad behaviours are our broken windows, indicative of a communal tolerance that ultimately becomes a standard-bearer for an organisation’s culture.

‘As leaders, we each have a responsibility to speak up and point out the broken windows’

As such, focusing on micro-behaviours may well prove to be a more effective method for addressing exclusionary and biased cultures. After all, cultures are all about collective behaviours. Those that are truly inclusive and empowering for everyone are made up of micro-behaviours that compound day by day and, in doing so, create enriching environments where everyone feels like they belong. In short: belonging is about behaviours.

Belonging isn’t a cerebral exercise; it’s a visceral feeling. Unless you feel like you truly belong on a team, in a group, on a board or in an organisation, you are unlikely to bring the full breadth of your thinking, capabilities and personality to your work – a point made by Pat Wadors, then head of talent at LinkedIn, in the Harvard Business Review: “Diversity and inclusion matter, but it’s how we help each other feel that we belong on the team, in our community and in the organisation that matters most.”

And it’s that full breadth of diverse backgrounds, educations, cultures, experiences and personalities that make up the cognitive diversity that all organisations and boards so desperately need. Great cultures are visceral in all the right ways, and that sense of belonging is ultimately where a company’s competitive advantage lies.

Shattering bad habits

My work on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley over the past 20 years leads me to believe wholeheartedly that most men and women do not set out to behave in an exclusionary way. We are simply creatures of context, comfort and conformity. It’s not often that discrimination stems from overt maliciousness (although we’ve certainly seen cases where it has); it’s more likely our unconscious bias and an unawareness of our own behaviour that dictates how we think, act and speak. We rely on behaviours and social norms that have built up over time, and those defaults are unlikely to change unless they are brought to our attention.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a paralysing level of political correctness or an oversensitivity that leaves people feeling more constrained than liberated. Instead, the nuanced and innocuous nature of this challenge calls for leaders to speak up when they observe unconscious micro-behaviours that otherwise go unchecked.

‘We often don’t realise how one simple sentence can frame an entire discussion’

Dr Anita Sands speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Dr Anita Sands speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

A few years back, I participated in a day-long talent review that impacted employees’ annual compensation and promotions. Our boss asked my male colleague about the career trajectory of a high-potential and talented female employee. My colleague, a very supportive and inclusive executive, answered: “Well, Tina just had her third baby …”

Needless to say, neither I nor anyone else can recall what was said after that.

The next day, I asked this colleague about an equally high-potential individual named Scott who had also recently welcomed a third baby. I informed him that Scott and his wife hadn’t benefited from a full night’s sleep in weeks because their baby had colic. I pointed out that he failed to mention this situation when discussing Scott, yet he led with family when discussing Tina.

Embarrassed, my colleague stopped dead in his tracks, leaned against the wall, apologised and asked what he could do to make things right.

As leaders, we each have a responsibility to speak up and point out the broken windows. For example, have you ever noticed how many times women get interrupted in meetings? Or how the dynamics of a room shift when someone starts thumping the table to emphasise a point? Or how often women water down their assertions or even apologise before they share an opinion? And I can’t count the number of times that all eyes turned to me – the lone female in the room – when someone asked who was taking minutes for a meeting.

These little habits and behaviours matter.

An answer as simple as A + B?

As leaders and colleagues, we can all become more aware of our behaviours and how, with only small changes, things can dramatically improve. As in the case of my colleague who noticed a third baby with the female but not the male employee, we often don’t realise how one simple sentence can frame an entire discussion.

By bringing to light micro-behaviours as they happen and increasing our collective awareness, we can create far more enriching and inclusive environments. We are all empowered to do that, which leaves me feeling optimistic that this dilemma can indeed be solved.

In her HBR article, Wadors concurs: “These moments of human connection, of belonging, are not that hard to create, and they don’t require an organisation-wide initiative or policy change. With a few minutes and some level of vulnerability, you can make a huge difference in someone’s life, have a positive impact on your company’s culture and change the diversity make-up.”

Each day, as colleagues and as leaders, we can move towards behaviours that contribute, bit by bit, to create places and spaces where everyone feels they can succeed and where everyone feels they belong.

If Silicon Valley can manage to do that – well, let’s just say it would be a home run.

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse following a keynote on the topic at Inspirefest 2017.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Ultra Early Bird Tickets for Inspirefest 2018 are on sale now!

Dr Anita Sands is a US-based board director, author and speaker. She has a background in the financial services and technology industries, and has served on the boards of companies such as Symantec, ServiceNow and Pure Storage.