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As diversity progress in Silicon Valley stalls, advocates call for a new approach

As diversity progress in Silicon Valley stalls, advocates call for a new approach
Aubrey Blanche at the headquarters of Atlassian, where she is head of diversity and inclusion. She commissioned a study on "diversity fatigue," a phenomenon that many in tech are experiencing. (David Butow / For The Times)

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.

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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 comes 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, respondents 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, according to Joelle Emerson, chief executive of inclusivity and diversity consulting firm Paradigm, which has worked with companies such as Twitter, Zillow, Airbnb and Etsy, is that companies aren’t talking enough about what works, and instead get hung up on what doesn’t.

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

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.

Aubrey Blanche chats with colleagues Tanaz Ahmed and Mackenzie Keegan. Atlassian's diversity and inclusion team is working to combat "diversity fatigue."
Aubrey Blanche chats with colleagues Tanaz Ahmed and Mackenzie Keegan. Atlassian's diversity and inclusion team is working to combat "diversity fatigue." (David Butow / For The Times)

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, non-white 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.”

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While 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.

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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 would not only benefit women and minorities, who are more likely to be interrupted in meetings, but would also 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, according to Blanche, 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, chief executive 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 line.

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.”

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