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Why company culture should be treated like building a tech product

3 Feb 2021

Asana’s head of diversity and inclusion, Sonja Gittens Ottley, discusses her current role, her career journey and the continuous diversity work that companies need to do.

Throughout her career, Sonja Gittens Ottley has been passionate about diversity and inclusion. “I’ve always focused on creating systems that are fair and just for all,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

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Gittens Ottley started off as an attorney in the Caribbean. She then moved to the US, where she worked at Yahoo, first as a project manager for the international legal team and then as global policy counsel for the company’s business and human rights programme. She stayed at Yahoo for nine years before moving to Facebook to become a global diversity programme manager.

‘If you’re committed to building diverse, inclusive and therefore more successful teams, one action that you can take is actively leaning into allyship’
– SONJA GITTENS OTTLEY

She said Yahoo’s business and human rights programme was the first of its kind in the tech sector. “[It] worked to ensure that the company made responsible business decisions to protect and promote the principles of free expression and privacy and to actively engage in these important issues.”

After making a move from Facebook in 2015, Gittens Ottley now works as the head of diversity and inclusion at project management platform Asana. She said that diversity and inclusion roles are powerful ways to lean into her belief in an equitable society and to dismantle systems that impede access.

“During my time at Yahoo and Facebook, I realised that replicating the approach we use for building a tech product when building a diverse and inclusive culture is highly effective. This approach contributes to employee happiness and growth of the business and was something I took with me to Asana.”

Gittens Ottley said treating company culture like a product means constantly assessing and evolving through direct consultation with employees, analysing data and reviewing processes, policies and initiatives.

A headshot of Sonja Gittens Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at Asana.

Sonja Gittens Ottley. Image: Asana

In particular, global and local events in the past year have “highlighted pervasive racial injustice and inequity” around the world. She said the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude and many others have meant that companies have been “challenged to lead with action, not just words”.

“Being physically distant from each other as a result of the pandemic has only made us more acutely aware of the glaring inequities that afflict our society,” she said.

“For us, the spotlight on racial bias and inequity has cemented the need for us to become more focused on doing our part to combat racism and promote inclusion, and this is reflected in Asana Against Racism, a set of new and existing initiatives that reflect our prioritisation of an anti-racist culture.”

Reviewing policies as if they were products

While many companies now have diversity and inclusion policies in place, Gittens Ottley said it’s vital that these are constantly reviewed and adapted.

“Inclusion isn’t a check-box exercise,” she said. “The work does not end when these initiatives are started; much like a product, it requires review and iteration to ensure that it is successful.”

‘Search for an organisation that deeply cares about the issues that matter to its employees’
– SONJA GITTENS OTTLEY

In her own company, employees are trained and educated in the fundamentals to maintain an inclusive environment. “We facilitate robust, customised trainings for our managers on inclusive leadership, and all of our employees on bias and harassment [and] we host regular Real Talk events, a series of candid, open discussions on topics that range from identity to workplace discussions.”

She also said that companies must take practical steps that support intersectionality, focusing not just on gender but on the unique challenges faced by women of colour, for example.

“If you’re committed to building diverse, inclusive and therefore more successful teams, one action that you can take is actively leaning into allyship. Deeply learn about the issues that matter to the community, become aware of, and unlearn your own biases, take steps to uncover biases in your company’s processes, train your leaders to lead inclusively and encourage them – and yourself – to actively sponsor and develop your black female talent. That’s one way we can enact real change within the organisation.”

For those who are starting out in their careers, Gittens Ottley advised against settling for a company where you don’t feel supported or empowered. “Remember that you have a choice,” she said.

“The onus is on leaders to commit to building diverse and inclusive teams. This is more than just having external statements. What actions has the organisation taken? Ask those questions during the interview process.

“Search for an organisation that deeply cares about the issues that matter to its employees. One that actively unlearns company biases, teaches leaders to lead inclusively and encourages employees to actively sponsor and develop talent. A company that seeks to act on these values is one where you’ll find allyship, see great personal growth and ultimately be proud to work for.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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