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Diversity in tech: a Q&A with Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

Diversity in tech

In the first season of Conversations With Quuu, B2B SaaS Consultant Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré joined me to discuss their career path, startup growth, customer success, and entrepreneurship. However, what really stayed with me from our conversation was Nichole’s passion for diversity in tech, and the way they use their voice to speak up against injustice. So I was delighted when Nichole asked if we could collaborate on another podcast episode to dive into this topic some more.

Obviously, when it comes to such a large scale issue, we could only scratch the surface of the problems the tech industry (and the world!) faces, and how to solve them. True to form, though, Nichole did a fantastically thorough job of illustrating the current state of diversity in tech, as well as compiling a wide variety of perspectives and ideas to help us improve it. What follows is a condensed transcript of our conversation – which I hope will start many more.

Before we begin, a caveat from Nichole:

I’m non-binary trans. I run a local LGBTQ community. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, so I reached out on social to get expert quotes from others.

What are some of the most shocking stats about the state of diversity in tech? What key issues do they illustrate?

One of my go-to intersection of stats is that:

Investors are still failing to back founders from diverse backgrounds:

According to TechCrunch, in 2017, VC investment reached $84.24 billion with the following percentages for for 9,874 co-founders:

 

Diversity in tech

Source: TechCrunch

This is despite, according to Fortune and other sources, Black women being “the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the US”.

This is also despite the fact that “Black women [are] now the most educated group in the U.S.”, according to The Root and other sources.

According to Carolyn Galvante at Walt & Co: 4.4% of PR specialists identify as Asian Americans, while 8.78% identify as Black/African American, and 81.5% identify as white (via Data USA) – she’s Filipina, and therefore falls into that 4.4%.

According to Chris Bolman at Brightest.io, less than 2% of tech startups have a dedicated team or leadership position focused on diversity.

According to Jessica Higgins at cultured-group.com, the most shocking diversity statistic in tech right now is that over 50% of startup entrepreneurs in the US are first generation Americans. If our economy is being created by immigrants, why are we politically trying to keep them out?

According to Sabrina, CEO of Valued.co, who is a Filipina, first generation immigrant, there are more CEOs in America with the first name “John” than there are women CEOs in America.

What can organisations do to create more inclusive working environments?

In general:

  • Be aware of intersectionality and the role it plays in which people fall under multiple forms of marginalization. For example, according to statistics, a black woman makes less than white women. Simply focusing on the earnings of women does not offer the whole picture.
  • Don’t obligate your marginalized staff to help train employees who aren’t marginalized (it’s not their job!) – but, be open to their input. Being open to input could have helped Starbucks avoid the above.

For LGBTQ:

  • Train staff on the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, including the LGBTQ vocabulary, so everyone knows the correct terms.
  • Provide sensitivity training that is up to date, and not just about racism and sexism.
  • Offer equal benefits packages for everyone. Some health insurance providers don’t provide benefits that LGBTQ employees need.
  • Don’t ever deadname your staff.

For people of color (for reference, I consulted with Marianny de Leon, a bi-racial Latina for these tips):

  • Make sure your employees of color are not tokenized and they aren’t in charge of educating others on their backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. They are not responsible for the emotional labor.
  • Ensure that there are more women CEOs of color.
  • Make sure that there are enough people of color working in your company so that not any one person of color is treated as the spokesperson for their race.
  • Make sure you have enough people of color that they are there to relieve the POC that is treated as the spokesperson for their race.
  • In the healthcare industry, acknowledge the humanity of people of color – white people don’t think that POC can experience pain.
  • Allow room for POC to come in with diverse experiences and also with the ability to fail. Everyone learns, but if you’re a marginalized person, you’re expected to do twice the work.
  • Relieve people of color from the burden from being a superhero, everyone’s mother, everyone’s caretaker, or providing the Black opinion, or Asian opinion, for example.
  • Foster an environment where women of color can express emotions without it being coded racially – such as the “angry black woman” or the “sassy” Latina woman.
  • Train employees on microaggressions.
  • Make sure the employees know that POC aren’t responsible for comforting others if microaggressions do occur and POC point them out.
    • Examples of microaggressions:
      • “No, but where are you really from?”
      • “You don’t act like a normal Black person.”
      • “I don’t see color.”
      • “You don’t speak Spanish?”
      • “No, you’re white.”
      • Playing with Black women’s hair
      • “You’re really pretty for a dark skin woman.”
      • “Why do you sound white?”

Also, according to Carolyn Galvante: Speak up when you notice that you’re the only WOC/POC on your team or in a meeting. Encourage (if you’re in upper management) conversations or participate in conversations that are already happening. It’s unnerving for some people – especially white people – to talk about and address these issues (of course, speaking from experience). I’ve had people be super defensive and I’ve had people who wanted to learn more and didn’t understand it’s an issue. It’s important that we have these conversations – whether they are hard or not.

For women:

  • Become aware of who does the “office housework” (ie. it’s usually women), and create a rotation system. Things like taking meeting minutes, cleaning up the break room, collecting money for a birthday gift.
  • Advocate with amplification. When a woman makes a good point or brings up a good idea in a meeting, often a man in the meeting will say the same thing (afterwards) and take the credit.

Meeting

Source: GIPHY

This happens a lot, especially in tech. So when a woman makes a good point, do like these White House staffers did and build on the idea so it keeps progressing and is properly attributed to its rightful source.

For disability:

  • Make sure that you have accommodations. Always! This is not “nice-to-have” it’s an absolute must.
  • Don’t create memes about disabled people. I see it all the time.

For hiring:

  • According to Denise Leaser, CEO, GreatBizTools: “The people I meet with, by and large, are against discrimination in any form. However, unconscious bias is a problem in hiring. Here’s where technology can help. Pre-hire assessments, like WebAssess, and AI-assisted interviews can eliminate or reduce bias by providing an objective screening process. Just seeing surnames and genders on resumes can influence decisions in the wrong way, even by well-meaning hiring professionals. And let’s not forget ageism and school degree bias are also areas of discrimination that prevent organizations from hiring the best candidates. Well-designed pre-hire assessments identify innate skills, abilities and personality traits in an objective, consistent way. They’re also legally defensible.”
  • According to Carolyn Galvante: HR needs to make sure that they present a  more diverse pool of candidates to teams. Teams will interview the folks HR puts in front of them – HR is the gatekeeper, they have the power to influence who is/is not a strong candidate and ultimately selected to be on a team.

According to Frances Dewing, CEO of Rubica:

At Rubica, we invest in retaining, developing and promoting diverse employees throughout all levels of the company as we grow.  We view DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) as a business strategy and an investment that leads to better business outcomes. A few things that we do at Rubica to create an inclusive environment:

  1. Provide multiple mediums and outlets for every person to have a voice.  Being loud or outgoing is not required to be heard and valued.  Allow each person in the room a chance to speak. For those who prefer putting their thoughts in writing, or one-on-one, allow for that as well.  Check-in regularly and proactively with employees to make sure they feel heard, rather than putting the onus on the employee to surface issues or concerns.  
  2. Train and evaluate all managers on their demonstrated advancement of diversity and inclusion.  Managers are responsible for fostering an inclusive environment where diverse opinions are valued and where people can come to work and contribute as their full self.  The opinions of their direct reports and peers are highly valued. Managers are held accountable to this by basing their evaluations (and raises) on how well they do this – not just on revenue or performance metrics.
  3. Be thoughtful about language. The language used in recruiting and in evaluations matters and can create unintended barriers. For example, is a college degree really “required” for that job description, or are there other ways to demonstrate the required skills and knowledge? The idea of “culture fit” is also problematic and leaves room for bias.  Avoid this generic term as a reason to eliminate someone from the hiring process. Instead, focus on articulating your company values and how a candidate could demonstrate those tangibly.

What can we all do on an individual level to tackle inequality and lack of diversity in tech?

Diversify your network by introducing yourself to people who don’t look like you. This action is on the micro/personal level, but it can have a big impact on who gets hired, recommended and promoted in tech.

According to Anil Dash in Network Inequality, most founders of tech startups in America are white, and the average white American has only one black friend. And 75% of white Americans don’t have any black friends. This means that when startup communities are created, and we invite our friends and family, we’re inviting…more white people to join and aren’t diversifying our startups and community from the get-go.

What’s the best way to deal with someone who is blatantly prejudiced?

Ensure that marginalized employees have the resources to face prejudiced employees head on, and if they do, also ensure that they have the resources to not deal with the repercussions of their fragility.

Make sure anyone in the company is able to address these issues. For example, if there’s bias against women, men should also speak up. And if women speak up, they should not be the ones to face repercussions. And that goes for any marginalized group.

According to Carolyn Galvante: This is a hard one – I’ve found myself in situations when someone said something so inappropriate (most times a director or exec – someone in a higher position than me) and I would just be shell-shocked. It’s tough because if you say something or stand up for something, they can potentially alienate you from future conversations, or they might even say that “you don’t have a sense of humor” – or worse, it can jeopardize your chances of getting a promotion or raise. The safest thing to do would be to document the incident and flag it to HR. Always document experiences like this.

What’s the best way to deal with someone who wouldn’t think of themselves as prejudiced, but is guilty or certain assumptions or microaggressions?

Educate them, but ensure that the burden of proof of microaggressions does not fall on people who are being micro-aggressed.

According to Carolyn Galvante: I’ll admit that I’ve been triggered by these types of people, but the best thing I think to do is approach them when you’re not triggered or emotional by what just happened and have an honest conversation with that person (IF you are COMFORTABLE and feel safe doing so with that person).

What’s the best way to deal with someone who questions the need to tackle diversity in tech in the first place?

According to Carolyn Galvante: Present them with data, articles, etc. and if you’re in a room with no WOC/POC, POINT. THAT. OUT.

According to Lisa Abbott of Wootric: One thing to point out is that everyone has bias — it is inescapable growing up in our culture. It is often unconscious too, because we are not taught about bias.  This can be the source of microaggression and other hurtful acts. A person in the dominant culture rarely intends to be hurtful, but there is impact just the same. Unconscious bias training can be helpful here.  (Studies have shown, for example, that doctors who are made aware of the fact that they under prescribe heart medication to men of color have changed their behavior once they know this). Once every one in the company/team has been made aware of unconscious bias and the ways it can create an unwelcoming, even hostile environment for POC, women, LGBTQ folks, etc. then there is a basis for a manager or coworker to have a chat with someone who may be exhibiting that behavior.

As for the bigots, every company should have a code of conduct and a discrimination & harassment policy that is conveyed as part of employee onboarding. Violations of the policy must be taken seriously by management and HR.  Hopefully, employees are comfortable reporting incidents to supervisors or HR, knowing they will be listened to and action will be taken. If not, the company risks losing valued staff and, at worst, leaves itself open to legal action.  

What should we all be doing to make the online space safer and more inclusive?

Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are particularly notorious for penalizing marginalized people for responding to hatred that has been directed towards them, and failing to penalize the person who directed the hatred.

What’s your advice for brands thinking of creating socially conscious marketing campaigns? Is it a good idea? Are there examples of brands who have done this with integrity and made a positive impact?

  • Fenty Beauty created an inclusive makeup line
  • Savage x Fenty created an inclusive lingerie line
  • Everyone has probably heard of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign
  • Starbucks has made mistakes in the past, it’s a learning process, but they are leading the way for LGBTQ people
  • Coca-Cola did a super bowl commercial they had people speaking in different languages

Fenty Beauty Campaign

Source: Leap

Advice for not making mistakes: Hire more than one marginalized person to review these campaigns.

You’re based in the US – how would you say Trump’s politics are impacting the way businesses are run right now?

Trump is ripping families apart. And that includes everyone’s families. Families at the border.

Marianny de Leon pointed out: Even if Trump wasn’t here, a lot of these issues would still be present and would still be salient. He’s just drawn more attention to things that have been going on. There is no “Make America Great Again” because it was founded on the backs of colonized and enslaved peoples.

Skyler Acevedo at frac.tl has been examining political talk on social media:

Social media can be full of promising opportunities, but it can also be your main source of stress. Her team surveyed over 1,000 people who use a social media account at least once a week on expressing their political views — let’s see who’s posting, who’s fed up, and everything in between.

Here’s what they found:

  • Nearly 3 in 5 people felt online political discussions were less respectful than they were before the 2016 election
  • 42% of people block political posts from others on social media and 44% have unfriended or unfollowed someone because of their political views (average of 4.6 people)
  • Facebook is the most used social media platform for political posts across all affiliations — Democrats are 47% more likely than Republicans to express their political views on Twitter
  • 64% of people said they were generally tolerant and open-minded toward political views that differed from their own, yet 48% interact with people on social media that share their views

Finally, what are some good resources, platforms or communities for meeting like-minded people and supporting the cause of diversity in tech?

 

You can listen to the full podcast interview here. Nichole is constantly advocating for diversity and inclusion in tech on their Twitter and on their website, so I highly recommend following them if you’re not already.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topics discussed above:

  • Have you come across any shocking (or even hopeful!) statistics on the state of diversity in tech?
  • What’s being done to create a more inclusive environment in your workplace?
  • Do you have any helpful strategies for dealing with prejudiced or inappropriate behaviour?
  • Can you help us build a list of inspiring people and resources to follow?

Chat to us in the comments or say hi on Twitter.

Lucia Powell

Lucia Powell

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