All employers and employees must take responsibility for creating a safe and inclusive environment, instead of placing the task of calling out culturally destructive behavior on the shoulders of minorities.
Shortly after I started working for a small, early-stage data science startup in Seattle, I was invited to a companywide happy hour. While chatting with my new co-workers, they began lamenting about how the company had just laid off two-thirds of its workforce.
“You were the diversity hire,” one of the only other female employees told me as she sipped on a glass of chardonnay.
“Are you implying I’m not qualified for the job?” I asked, shocked and humiliated.
The others with us immediately raised their glasses to their lips, avoiding my question.
“They got rid of what little diversity we had, so you’re sort of like a two for one — black and female,” she said smirking. She clearly didn’t think I was qualified.
Looking around the bar, I became more aware of the white, mostly male faces. I suddenly felt like an unwanted outsider. I was appalled that nobody stood up for me.
I’ve heard a lot of recruiters talk about how to improve diversity, but not enough about how to prevent those of us who bring diversity from leaving.
According to a 2015 McKinsey and Co. report, companies that are ethnically diverse are likely to outperform their non-diverse competitors by 35 percent. Conversely, the Kapor Center for Social Impact reported people of color experience stereotyping at twice the rate of whites, and Asians, and that workplace culture was a driving force behind their decision to leave.
Companies that intentionally foster a culture of inclusion allow for a rich diversity of ideas that wouldn’t be possible in a homogeneous environment. While not all white men think alike, the risk of misunderstanding your audience is greater if your workforce entails only a demographic that makes up 31 percent of the U.S. population.
Tech companies could learn from the mistakes Unilever made this year with its ad for Dove soap, which asked the public if it was ready for a Dove shower and depicted a black woman removing a dark brown T-shirt to reveal a white woman. It’s hard to imagine a company would intentionally put out such a racist ad. More likely, no one thought to question what the ad might convey about the cleanliness of black women.
According to Google’s diversity report in 2017, 2 percent of its employees were black and 4 percent were Hispanic. Black engineers make up only 1 percent of its technical workforce. Black and Hispanic students make up 14 percent of computer science and engineering graduates with bachelor’s or advanced degrees. Either tech companies aren’t trying hard enough to hire minorities or they aren’t doing enough to keep them.
The first tech company I worked for was a Silicon Valley-based big-data firm, known for its luxurious benefits. The kitchen had long tables, encouraging community style dining, which often resulted in interesting conversations.
Like many others, it was also predominantly made up of white men.
Several of us were discussing the merits of diversity recruiting when one of my male co-workers admitted, “It’s easier to work in a less diverse environment. There’s less friction.”
As he took a bite of his taco, I waited for the punch line of what I assumed was a joke. But he was dead serious. He said he was worried that an increase in minorities would create a culture shift that would make him uncomfortable.
The world outside of this tech bubble isn’t full of white men, and our customers weren’t just the swath of the population that he was comfortable with. If the majority of my colleagues shielded themselves from people who were different, how would we sell our product to a diverse base of customers?
I never recovered from that happy hour with the Seattle-based startup. The group’s complicity in my female colleague’s attacks was an early indicator of a toxic work environment. I left the company seven months later.
Some might argue why more minorities don’t just deal with these situations and be thankful for high-tech salaries. But put yourself in my shoes. What is the value of a nonhostile, harassment-free work environment to you? For me, the amount of money I made wasn’t worth the unfettered abuse I faced as an unwelcome outsider. Everyone has the right to dignity in the workplace.
I understand that creating an inclusive culture needs to be worked at, and change doesn’t happen overnight. But companies must demand respect for all employees, regardless of color. While it is impossible to control everyone’s behavior, I would have felt included had just one person spoken up on my behalf at that happy hour.
In order to improve diversity numbers, companies should focus on inclusion. It won’t matter how many minorities accept the job if they leave due to mistreatment. Calling out culturally destructive behavior should not always be on the shoulders of minorities. Both employers and employees have a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive environment. Good culture is intentional.