Di­ver­sity fa­tigue in the tech world

Progress has stalled in Sil­i­con Val­ley de­spite talk and train­ing. ‘We’re all ex­hausted.’

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracey Lien

Progress has stalled in Sil­i­con Val­ley de­spite train­ing.

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Five years ago it was all about the num­bers. Sil­i­con Val­ley tech com­pa­nies were pres­sured to share their work­force de­mo­graph­ics, con­firm­ing what di­ver­sity ad­vo­cates had sus­pected all along: The in­dus­try is over­whelm­ingly white and male.

Then came the prom­ises to do bet­ter. Tech execs penned mea culpa blog posts pledg­ing to de­vote more re­sources to di­ver­si­fy­ing their work­forces, heads of di­ver­sity were hired, em­ploy­ees were sent to un­con­scious bias train­ing.

Half a decade on, change has been slow. At­tri­tion of women re­mains high. And the num­ber of black and Latino tech work­ers has by some counts ac­tu­ally de­clined.

In a sur­vey of 1,900 tech work­ers across the coun­try, an­other down­side was ev­i­dent: di­ver­sity fa­tigue has set in.

“I’m call­ing it the Venn di­a­gram of ex­haus­tion,” said Aubrey Blanche, head of di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion at At­las­sian, the en­ter­prise soft­ware firm that com­mis­sioned the sur­vey. “Ev­ery­one is ex­hausted for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but we’re all ex­hausted.”

For those who ad­vo­cated for di­ver­sity within their com­pa­nies, the fa­tigue from push­ing for change for so many years and see­ing so lit­tle of it, Blanche said. And for those sup­port­ing, or even just watch­ing from the side­lines, “we’ve been talk­ing about di­ver­sity for so long, they’re ex­hausted hear­ing about it.”

It’s a re­cent phe­nom­e­non that high­lights the cost of in­ef­fec­tive di­ver­sity strate­gies, Blanche said. Aside from not work­ing, they’re also burn­ing peo­ple out.

In the At­las­sian re­port, which was com­mis­sioned for a sec­ond year in a row, re- spon­dents ap­peared to be tun­ing out of the di­ver­sity con­ver­sa­tion, with 35% say­ing that they had par­tic­i­pated in a dis­cus­sion about di­ver­sity in tech in 2017, com­pared with 42% a year ear­lier. Only 23% of re­spon­dents said they had en­gaged com­pany lead­ers on how to cre­ate a more in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment, down from 56% a year ear­lier.

Part of the prob­lem is that com­pa­nies aren’t talk­ing enough about what works, and in­stead get hung up on what doesn’t, said Jo­comes elle Emer­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of in­clu­siv­ity and di­ver­sity con­sult­ing firm Paradigm, which has worked with com­pa­nies such as Twit­ter, Zil­low, Airbnb and Etsy.

“We’re mostly hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about all the things go­ing wrong, which is im­por­tant,” Emer­son said, “but can feel par­a­lyz­ing for some peo­ple.”

When some of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s big­gest names re­lease an­nual em­ployee de­mo­graphic data, the num­bers tend to budge, at most, by

[Di­ver­sity, just 1 or 2 per­cent­age points. At Ap­ple, un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties rose to 23% of the work­force in 2017 from 22% in 2016. The per­cent­age of fe­male work­ers re­mained stag­nant at 32%. At Face­book, Latino staffers in­creased to 5% of the work­force in 2017 from 4% in 2016, while black em­ploy­ees moved to 3% from 2%.

See­ing this in­cre­men­tal change in per­cent­ages in­stead of raw num­bers can be de­mor­al­iz­ing for some em­ploy­ees and make it feel like progress has stalled.

Emer­son said she is work­ing with more com­pa­nies in 2018 than she was in 2017, which sug­gests that there is still an ap­petite for mak­ing work­places more in­clu­sive. But even she has no­ticed a grow­ing frus­tra­tion, or fa­tigue, among many tech­nol­ogy work­ers.

At an in­di­vid­ual level, many work­ers re­main pas­sion­ate about cre­at­ing in­clu­sive work­places. For­mer Snap Inc. em­ployee Shan­non Lu­betich ad­mon­ished col­leagues in Novem­ber in a de­part­ing note for not be­ing more ac­cept­ing of women, non­white peo­ple and any­one who didn’t fit the tech-bro stereo­type.

But in an ex­am­ple of an ad­vo­cate feel­ing burnt out from what she saw as a lack of change, Lu­betich ended her note with: “It is my deep­est hope that this com­pany can be a place that is kind, smart, and cre­ative. I’m just done fight­ing for it when very few other peo­ple seem to care.”

Although the At­las­sian re­port did not de­tail causes of the fa­tigue, ex­perts such as Emer­son and Blanche said that when com­pa­nies pay money or lip ser­vice to di­ver­sity ini­tia­tives but don’t track whether those ini­tia­tives work, peo­ple start to feel like their time is be­ing wasted.

“If you’ve rolled out a pro­gram for a par­tic­u­lar group of peo­ple, what is the goal of that pro­gram?” Emer­son said. “It’s con­cern­ing to me when a com­pany can’t an­swer that ques­tion.”

The jury is still out, for ex­am­ple, on the ef­fi­cacy of un­con­scious bias train­ing — work­shops that help man­agers and em­ploy­ees be more aware of their prej­u­dices. Yet some com­pa­nies still ex­pect it to be a sil­ver bul­let for cre­at­ing a more di­verse and in­clu­sive work­place. Train­ing can be one of many tools a com­pany can use to change its cul­ture, di­ver­sity ex­perts said, but im­ple­ment­ing any ini­tia­tive with­out first au­dit­ing one’s own cul­ture can leave em­ploy­ees dis­grun­tled and, worse, cre­ate even deeper di­vides.

Google learned this the hard way when a for­mer em­ployee, James Damore, penned a memo crit­i­ciz­ing the com­pany’s di­ver­sity pro­grams af­ter at­tend­ing its un­con­scious bias train­ing ses­sions.

The memo, in which Damore also made gen­er­al­iza­tions about gen­der and the kind of work bet­ter suited to men and women, led to his fir­ing from the com­pany. He is now su­ing Google for al­leged in­tol­er­ance to­ward con­ser­va­tives, ar­gu­ing that the com­pany’s ef­forts to in­crease the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women and mi­nori­ties is dis­crim­i­na­tion against the ma­jor­ity.

Damore’s case is an ex­treme ex­am­ple of the back­lash to Sil­i­con Val­ley’s di­ver­sity ef­forts. But in tech com­pa­nies around the coun­try, lead­ers with good in­ten­tions are adopt­ing prac­tices that are frus­trat­ing even the most ar­dent sup­port­ers of di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion.

Jori Ford, se­nior di­rec­tor of con­tent and search en­gine op­ti­miza­tion at G2 Crowd, a review site for busi­ness soft­ware and ser­vices, said that at a pre­vi­ous job, the CEO of the com­pany got up in front of a room of 200 em­ploy­ees par­tic­i­pat­ing in a lead­er­ship con­fer­ence and asked all the women in the room — of which there were only a few — to stand up. He then pro­claimed that in or­der for the com­pany to reach its di­ver­sity ra­tio goal, it needed more women.

In ad­di­tion to to­k­eniz­ing the women in the room, Ford said, it put the women on the spot and cre­ated a clear di­vide be­tween the ma­jor­ity and the mi­nor­ity — the op­po­site of fos­ter­ing a sense of in­clu­sion and be­long­ing.

“You could have seen the shock on peo­ple’s faces,” Ford said. “We knew it was well-in­ten­tioned, but the way it was com­mu­ni­cated was in­ef­fec­tive be­cause he just cre­ated a mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tion of lead­ers. It de­mor­al­izes you with­out try­ing to.”

Other com­mon mis­takes in­clude a lack of spe­cific goals, such as in­creas­ing pro­mo­tions among peo­ple from un­der­rep­re­sented groups ver­sus sim­ply hav­ing more women at a com­pany.

In­con­sis­tent mes­sag­ing, such as when a com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tives es­pouse the virtues of di­ver­sity but do noth­ing to drive change, can also lead to em­ploy­ees tun­ing out of the con­ver­sa­tion.

And many com­pa­nies con­tinue to fo­cus only on re­cruit­ment in­stead of re­ten­tion, which Blanche likened to see­ing that the ca­nary in the coal mine is hav­ing prob­lems and throw­ing in 50 more ca­naries as a so­lu­tion.

The cure to fa­tigue, then, re­quires com­pa­nies to hit re­set on their ini­tia­tives and fo­cus more on in­clu­sion, Blanche said.

Rather than adopt­ing plat­i­tudes such as “em­power women,” com­pa­nies should in­stead con­sider im­ple­ment­ing rules such as “no in­ter­rup­tions dur­ing meet­ings,” which she said not only would ben­e­fit women and mi­nori­ties, who are more likely to be in­ter­rupted in meet­ings, but also would ben­e­fit peo­ple who don’t fall into ei­ther cat­e­gory.

Blanche also rec­om­mends that com­pa­nies au­dit their com­pen­sa­tion pro­grams, how they mea­sure and re­ward em­ployee per­for­mance, and up­date hu­man re­sources poli­cies to make sure un­der­rep­re­sented groups aren’t at a dis­ad­van­tage.

She ar­gues it could also help if com­pa­nies stopped talk­ing about di­ver­sity com­pletely. The prob­lem, Blanche said, is that peo­ple from un­der­rep­re­sented back­grounds are of­ten re­ferred to as “di­verse,” so when a com­pany then says it is try­ing to build “di­verse teams” or a “di­verse com­pany,” it is in­ad­ver­tently com­mu­ni­cat­ing to the ma­jor­ity that “we’re try­ing to build a fu­ture with­out you.”

“Our lan­guage is get­ting in the way and cre­at­ing an us-ver­sus-them di­chotomy,” Blanche said. “We need to talk more about be­long­ing and less about di­ver­sity.”

Fi­nally, com­pa­nies need to be in­cen­tivized to pur­sue strate­gies that work. Brenda Dar­den Wilk­er­son, CEO of Ani­taB.org, a non­profit pro­mot­ing women in tech­nol­ogy, said com­pa­nies need to approach mak­ing their work­places more in­clu­sive with the se­ri­ous­ness they approach their bot­tom lines.

If a com­pany re­ports lit­tle progress on the di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion front, it may make news, but there are no real con­se­quences, Wilk­er­son said. But if a com­pany missed its earn­ings goals, it would be hounded by share­hold­ers de­mand­ing bet­ter. Which means tech em­ploy­ees — tired as they may be — need to keep call­ing out lead­ers and man­agers when they’re us­ing strate­gies that sim­ply don’t work.

“The re­al­ity is many of these com­pa­nies re­spond to pres­sure,” Wilk­er­son said. “We’re go­ing to need to see peo­ple be more ac­tive.”

David Bu­tow For The Times

“WE’VE BEEN talk­ing about di­ver­sity for so long, they’re ex­hausted hear­ing about it,” said Aubrey Blanche, head of di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion at At­las­sian. The firm com­mis­sioned a sur­vey of 1,900 tech work­ers in the U.S.

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