Why Inclusive Leadership Is Essential For Tech Companies

A primer on diversity and inclusion — and why it’s necessary for tech leaders to make it a priority.
Sunny Betz
July 24, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021
Sunny Betz
July 24, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021

Early in her career, Tori Armendariz worked a job based in Tennessee. While she did have coworkers who were respectful and supportive, there were also people who were much more narrow-minded. 

“I was talking to a supportive co-worker about my girlfriend, and the manager of that location took me aside and said that I couldn’t speak about things like that,” she said. It was made clear that the manager wasn’t accepting of Armendariz’s girlfriend and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Now a technical people operations generalist at Trainual, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based onboarding and training platform, she’s in a much better work environment. But that experience in Tennessee was a turning point for Armendariz. She wanted to make sure no one else would have to feel like an outcast at work just because of who they are. 

Examples of Inclusive Leadership

  • Broaden your recruiting channels
  • Listen attentively to your employees
  • Re-evaluate your company policies
  • Make sure benefits are distributed equitably
  • Create safe spaces for discussion

Thankfully those negative experiences didn’t push her out of tech. Instead it inspired her to create a more inclusive workplace, by establishing ERGs and advancing diversity training as a part of Trainual’s HR department.

Of course, the tech industry is a place that fosters innovative thinking and pioneering ideas. But unfortunately, the tech industry’s track record on diversity and inclusion is abysmal. The percentage of black and Hispanic employees at top tech companies is low, and according to a 2020 report, 67 percent of tech companies say less than a quarter of their executive teams include people of color. About half of women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work, too. Because of the lack of diversity, it can be hard for those who don’t fit the mold to carve out a path in an industry. 

“Many companies have been exposed for paying women less than men, BIPOC less than white people, for the same job and responsibility. Clearly this does not demonstrate an interest in inclusivity and is one of the driving forces for many underrepresented people to leave the industry,” said Everett Harper, CEO and co-founder of Truss, a San Francisco-based enterprise software company.

Companies can become inclusive if leaders make it a priority. When tech companies build diverse teams that accurately reflect the outside world, everyone benefits. 

 

A Lack of Diversity Damages Workplace Culture

Sometimes managers and leadership are uninformed and unintentionally end up creating a hostile workplace. It’s on leaders to be vigilant when it comes to inclusivity and create a culture that’s welcoming. 

Companies that use gendered, heteronormative language in onboarding packets or host all-male panels are contributing to the problem. What might seem like a small change, can go a very long way in making all employees feel like they fit in.

When a design team doesn’t welcome diversity of thought or experience, it’s much easier for biases to be written into their code.

“When the people on your team don’t feel like they actually belong on your team, they’re either going to stop their full selves from showing up at work each day, or they’re going to find somewhere else where they are included as a part of their team,” said Armendariz. 

But having a lack of diversity isn’t just a culture issue. It can affect the product and in turn create a poor experience for clients, too. For example, a 2019 study showed that, out of the top million websites, only one percent met baseline accessibility standards. Another study from the same year showed that many healthcare algorithm tools assigned Black patients with health risk scores that inaccurately reflected their actual health conditions. When a design team doesn’t welcome diversity of thought or experience, it’s much easier for biases to be written into their code.

“Products shape people’s lives, and change the way they function,” Armendariz said. “If there is no one like them on the team making the products and bringing a perspective similar to their own into the room, it’s catastrophic.”

More DEI Reading16 Unconscious Bias Examples and How to Avoid Them in the Workplace

 

Diversity and Success Go Hand in Hand

Investing in a diverse workplace means employees feel connected and supported to do their best work.

“A diverse workforce that is fully contributing leads to holistically stronger performance,” said Lauren Sato, CEO at Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle-based software bootcamp for underrepresented students. “Products are better aligned to consumers, financial results are better, and there are higher rates of innovation and resilience.”

"A diverse workforce that is fully contributing leads to holistically stronger performance."

As diversity becomes a hot topic in tech, companies like Twitter have made plans to rework their workplace language and engineering terms to become more inclusive. This is a great start, but true inclusivity isn’t built by words alone — employees want to see leaders walk the walk. 

“Talented people have options, and emerging data suggest that people want a diverse company,” said Harper. “If they witness leaders paying lip service to the idea but not backing it up, they’ll leave.”

It’s vital to have diversity throughout the company — a leadership team with varied backgrounds and experiences signals to employees and potential talent that there’s a place for them. It’s also good for the bottom line. Companies with greater representation have a better chance of outperforming than their less-diverse counterparts, according to a 2020 report from McKinsey. 

 

Refresh Recruiting Strategies

Tech recruiters want to hire top talent and usually look first at graduates of prestigious colleges and bootcamps. With a limited search like that, it could mean a lot of talented candidates are getting overlooked.

“Liberal arts computer science degree programs and software development bootcamps are essentially the only two pathways into tech,” said Sato. “As a society writ large we have made massive investments into these two pathways, both of which, unfortunately, drive down diversity.”

“The benefits of being able to train a new developer can more than offset the investment to do so.”

Be open to candidates who are self-taught or come from unconventional backgrounds. A good first step is encouraging diverse candidates to apply, but direct outreach to passive candidates is necessary too. Remote work has opened up a larger pool of candidates, so now companies can more easily broaden their geographical diversity as well.

“It is foolish to expect that the same sourcing paths will magically reveal new candidates,” said Harper. “Instead, encourage recruiting teams to expand the pool of universities, affinity groups, and conferences, and then contribute to those networks.”

It’s also worth looking at the balance of senior and junior employees. While it might make sense to hire more experienced engineers in the short term, not having enough young talent and training opportunities is a disadvantage. Making space for new perspectives and talent of varying experience levels produces a well-rounded team.

“I can tell you from direct experience that the benefits of being able to train a new developer can more than offset the investment to do so,” said Sato. “When a company chooses to invest in growing a junior dev into a senior, they see much higher retention of those devs than those that enter the organization at a higher level.”

More Leadership AdviceAre You Unwittingly Keeping Diversity Out of Your Pipeline?

 

Pay Attention and Listen

Diversity and inclusivity, while often spoken in the same breath, are two different things. You can have a company that features a diverse staff, but doesn’t make an effort to make sure those employees are included and heard.

“Ask yourself who is listened to in the room,” said Harper of the software company Truss. “Do managers unintentionally repeat all the men in the room, and ignore the women? Do men summarize women’s original ideas without giving them credit — and does the manager not recognize that?”

In order to get more honest feedback from employees, managers at Truss made the process more accessible. Rather than asking for feedback in a meeting and hearing from the same people who are comfortable speaking up, the managers and teams use a Google doc. Each team member adds three pieces of feedback and then managers will share them in the meeting. 

“According to research on group communication, this tactic enables introverts to contribute, and enables marginalized voices to have an equal platform,” Harper said.

Managers can lead by example — share your opinions and listen without judgement.

 

Take a Closer Look at Company Policies

Demographics are just one part of developing an inclusive workplace. Be aware of what support is available to employees. Survey compensation rates, benefits packages and DEI funding to see where improvements could be made. 

“The first thing you need to do is read through each and every company policy and make a list of who will benefit from those policies,” said Armendariz. “Not necessarily names of existing team members, but build profiles that make it easy to see specifically how equitable your policies are.”

Take stock of your team’s performance: Does anyone seem to be taking more time off than other people? Is anyone participating less in scrums? Instead of criticizing them, question what policies or tools you could implement to help them perform better. 

More Leadership TipsHow to Start Funding More Than Just White Guys

 

Create a Safe Space

Above all else, everyone should feel safe at work. A workplace where everyone is respected will put people in a position to do their best work. Cultivate an environment that welcomes all feedback and allows employees to be who they are at work.

“I think the single best thing that they can do is blameless retros,” said Harper. “The key is to focus on learning, not blame, so that everyone on the team can operate at a higher level.” Don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve made a leadership mistake — owning up to mistakes makes your team more confident that you’re willing to learn and grow.

“The key is to focus on learning, not blame, so that everyone on the team can operate at a higher level.”

At Ada Developers Academy, inclusivity depends on a constant practice of accountability, according to Sato. Regular self-reflection enables her organization to stay on top of issues — that constant evolution has turned it into a place where tech workers from all backgrounds have a strong voice. 

“We do our best to create safe and generative spaces for all employees and students and we know that we will get it wrong sometimes,” she said. “When we get it wrong we recognize and apologize for creating harm and we are resolved to do better as soon as we know better.”

 

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