Hiring Diversity 101

by Shaker tarian, a female engineer who has worked in places that cared about diversity, and places where she was the only female engineer for miles. She cares about diversity a lot.

[Content Note: Discussion of marginalization in the workplace.]

The contents of this 101 will be entirely familiar to most of Shakesville, but if you are like me, you have probably also had one biebillion arguments that start with a clue-deprived person saying: "We don't need affirmative action anymore / I'm not *ist, I just want to hire the best applicant for the job" and so forth. In which case I thought it'd be kind of nice to stack a bunch of the counterarguments and evidence in one place for handy reference purposes.

Why Would You Care About Workplace Diversity?

It'd be nice if we could halt this right here with "Because it's the right thing thing to do" and then we could all go wander off for tea and scones, but sadly, no.

So, for people who need a more compelling reason than decency...

You want a diverse workplace because we live in a diverse society. If you're making a product, you want to have people working on the product design who accurately represent and/or advocate for the needs of the entirety of your target audience. (And spoiler alert! People from marginalized population are more inclined to be aware of and advocate for their community's needs than people not from that population!) Creative teams comprised entirely of straight white able-bodied cis men tend to overlook, for instance, the needs of people with disabilities.

In the United States, for example: 8.8% of the population identifies themselves as having vision impairment/low vision needs. If you're building a technology for a universal audience, that's 8.8% of your target audience that you are automatically writing off if you fail to make that technology accessible for people with vision impairments.

Seems pretty silly to decide arbitrarily that you just don't want almost 9% of the possible money you could be making. If you're a global company, this obviously gets a lot more critical, as there are many more communities with disparate needs. Of course, not all members of a given marginalized group will have the exact same needs, which means that you do not want to solve this problem with tokenism: "Okay, we have our POC, our Woman, and our Gay; we're all set!"

Also, if your entire board of directors and the visible face of your company is made of straight white cis men, you are telling a whole bunch of potential employees that your company isn't going to be interested in them. This diminishes the quality of the talent pool you're working from, which has a measurable impact on company performance. Cornell's Glass Ceiling Commission report is a little dated, but, if anything, the situation has become more critical—both because demographics are shifting, and also because you're increasingly unlikely to be able to assume your audience is local.

How Do You Create a Diverse Set of Employees?

This tends to be the annoying whine part of the discussion, with a whole lot of hand-wringing over "But there just aren't any good nonwhite / female / disabled applicants! Women aren't as good at math / science / engineering because BIOLOGY!" et cetera ad nausaeum. What to do?

If you have no visible marginalized people in your company, then, no, you are probably not going to have very many marginalized applicants showing up at your door, because why would I want to work somewhere that doesn't want people like me? (Which is rarely recognized as a safety issue by people who don't give a shit about diversity, but is certainly a safety assessment that marginalized people make.) Or where, even if I get in, it looks suspiciously likely that my voice isn't going to be heard? This is where you go RECRUITING. Do you actually have marginalized employees, but they're not getting promoted into visible positions? Might wanna take a look at that. Actively seek out underrepresented voices (resources like Historically Black Colleges and Universities are all over the intertubes) and then go find the people and explain why, despite the current monolith, you plan to do better and ensure they're treated fairly and their input and time has value. (Oh, yeah, and then follow through with that. If you're not planning on offering competitive salary and benefits, GIVE UP AND GO AWAY.)

Speaking of benefits! Family medical leave and parental leave have demonstrable effects on employee retention. (See for example here and here and here.) Funnily enough, this also serves as a response to the aggravating "But if I hire women they'll get pregnant and then have to take time off work or quit" argument. Why, yes, if you successfully hire women and then treat them like shit, you will have problems keeping them!

Suppose that you've managed to fix enough of the above problems that you're now sitting with a stack of resumes that includes a diverse pool of applicants. This is usually where the "I just want to hire the best man for the job" garbage shows up; I find it amusing that it's even usually phrased that way, and then five seconds of blank stare and disgusted look later, sometimes you get a conciliatory "....or woman" tacked on there.

First off, even if your human resources department is entirely made of third-generation social justice activists, unconscious bias happens. Screen the resumes, and before having them evaluated for technical content, remove obvious identifying data. (Name, gender references, addresses.) This isn't perfect, because education history often unhides ethnic background, but it's far better than nothing. Luckily, this process contains its own effectiveness check. You can review the percentage of marginalized candidates that make it to a first interview before and after implementing this change, and then if you actually live in the magic unicorn pony fairyland where *ist biases have been eliminated, you'll just see no change! Neat!

At least we're having a national conversation on racism and sexism in the workforce, even if way too much airspace gets taken up by the There Isn't Any, Neener Neener crowd. The same conversation for people with disabilities is a little thin on the ground, although some resources do exist. This should maybe get its whole own post, because I've seen this handled from Horrifically Awful to Well, You're Kind of Making an Effort to everything in between. Pretending people with disabilities don't exist seems to be a distressingly common non-answer. Some of the things I've seen done well: Making sure that your physical plant isn't itself a barrier to access, having a procedure in place for interviewing people with visual impairments (do you have screen reader software? does your hiring process normally require, say, describing a technical problem on a whiteboard? do you have an alternate if that's not going to work?), making sure that you have sign language interpreters or captioning systems available. What about people with mobility issues? Having a policy on hand for allowing people to interview and/or work from home, at least some of the time, dramatically improves the quality of life for your disabled employees, and opens up a whole other pool of potential recruits.

How Do You Keep Your Employees from Marginalized Populations? (Actually These Are Pretty Good Tips for Keeping All Your Employees)

So, you have a bright shiny newly diversified employee pool. Maintaining this happy state requires some additional work. Hopefully in the year of our lord Jesus Jones 2013, your workplace already has a strong written anti-harassment policy, with a reporting mechanism that does not require the person reporting to go to their direct supervisor and an enforcement strategy that's actually used. (*cough* Bob Filner *cough*). This should be the absolute bare minimum for basic human decency. Better: Hold regular anonymous surveys to document whether your space is as welcoming to all of your employees as it could be, or if you've got a missing stair somewhere. Keep data: Are your marginalized employees receiving raises and promotion reviews at different rates? If so, why?

What's important to your employees? (Hint: People are different, and so you actually have to ask instead of just assuming one size fits all.) Maybe someone would like more family medical leave instead of a raise. Maybe someone else really wants to get company sponsorship for something in zir community. Depending on your state of operation, not all employees are not going to be allowed to marry their partners, so not everyone will be in need of unmarried partner benefits. Oh, and naturally these things are going to change with time, so you'll want to keep asking, and listen to the answers you get.

I've been working in science and engineering for a little over two decades, and like most of us living in the good ol' boys club, I have a laundry list of Doin' It Rong examples. My first job out of grad school involved working with a whole lot of ex-Air Force Academy types. I do not think they were actively trying to make me feel unwelcome; they "just" weren't used to thinking about what their words and actions would look like to me, or to any other woman in the building. I started habitually going through grant proposals and other docs and doing a global search-and-replace for "man-hours" to "person-hours". ("Oh, we didn't mean anything by it, it's just accepted usage, why are you so hostile?" "Perhaps because your assumption that 'person' and 'man' are the same thing tells me that you do not want me working on this project?") Or giving a technical presentation at a conference and having one of the attendees ask me to go fetch coffee. Hi, the coffee pot is like RIGHT THERE. Or the classic: Presenting an idea at a meeting, where it gets ignored, until five minutes later when a white dood reiterates it, and suddenly it is the best idea evar. (I eventually caved on that one and just found a white male colleague willing to play megaphone to whom I could pass post-it notes during meetings so we could save time.)

And then there's one of my favorites, if only because I've been getting funny story mileage out of it for years and years: The facility we were in was located in an extremely warm climate, and the dress code for the engineering staff was fairly casual. During the hottest weeks of summer, "casual" tended to slowly degrade, and eventually my boss sent out a "dress code reminder" email banning open-toed shoes. So I responded to the email with a couple of pictures of my closed-toe shoe options and asked if he'd rather I wear the combat boots or the hiking boots with the sundress? So the policy got revised: apparently he was not trying to ban women's sandals, he was trying to ban "ugly men's feet."

Someone's forgotten the First Rule of Holes, and also, that's a pretty breathtaking display of forgetting that there are women in the building, and also? What was that again about feminists hating men?

There's a pretty obvious question about how, say, a POC would have fared in this particular environment, which I can't answer definitively as there weren't any. HMMMM.

Of course, even getting to the point of being alienated in an engineering workplace requires making it through the education process to get there. Which brings its own set of "challenges"; my building in grad school mysteriously lacked women's restrooms. What's that? That would be discriminatory? In their magnanimity one of the men's restrooms got relabeled "unisex". Yay? Except that it was not one of the ones with a locking door, and they left the urinals in place. AWKWARD.

Unisex restrooms are actually a good idea for being inclusive of genderqueer people, but implementing them as "here's the space for men, and here's the space for men where everybody else can come in, too," or "here's the space for men, and here's the space for not-men" is not the way to do it.

Being an inclusive environment that does not drive away members of marginalized communities starts at "don't harass people, and don't tolerate harassment you see," but there's a long distance between just not supporting active discrimination and making an environment welcoming. It starts with welcoming more people in the door, and then requires actively seeking their opinions, wants, needs, and then listening to them when they tell you. And maybe treating people like people instead of afterthoughts or window dressing. That would be good.

[Note: Please feel welcome to leave links to more pro-diversity educational materials and other resources in the comments, because the links herein are definitely not exhaustive!]

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