Here's what most companies get wrong about diversity

Atlassian Global Head of Diversity and Belonging, Aubrey Blanche. Picture: Peter Farquhar.

  • Atlassian’s Head of Global Diversity says diversity is not about representation
  • Diversity comes in many different forms, including life experience and situation
  • Even spending time in prison could give a potential employee a unique skill set

Let’s say you’ve been tasked with putting together a team of 10 for a crucial project that could make or break your company.

You get a couple of hundred applicants, and you don’t know know where they come from, how old they are, whether they’re married, male, female, gay or transgender, because the applications have had all trace of identifiers removed.

All you know is the top 10 and their skillsets really stand out. Clearly the team that will save the company.

So you invite them all in for their first face to faces, and nine of them look like, well, like me – middle-aged, male, white. Most likely wearing jeans and the kind of T-shirt they should have swapped for a sensible collar 10 years ago.

Does your heart sink a little?

Putting that poser to Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity and Belonging, I expected her to say at least “maybe, a little”. Or perhaps ask if we could move on because statistically, it would never happen.

“Not really,” Blanche tells me, which turns out to be a far better answer.

But hang on.

In the tech world right now, diversity, diversity, diversity is the new developers, developers, developers.

At Atlassian Summit 18 in Barcelona, the message that everyone belongs here is impossible to miss. Many attendees took this same photo:

Sign outside the toilets at Atlassian Summit 18. Picture: Peter Farquhar

The gender neutral acceptance extended to the badges:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

You couldn’t turn your head without seeing support for women in tech:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

And strong messages about the importance of diversity in teams made up the bulk of the hour-long Welcome Keynote, with author Shane Snow and Blanche giving some perfect examples of why it should be at the top of every company’s list of priorities.

First, and really the only reason you need, you ensure proper diversity in your workforce because it’s the right thing to do.

A little ironically, Blanche can actually thank poor diversity practices for putting her on the path to heading up the diversity programme at one of the world’s most lauded exponents of it.

The Mexican American started work as a Bay Area tech company after studying international security, but very early on started wondering why she was something of an anomaly in the tech industry.

She started asking questions, and the answers were very unsatisfactory. Mostly along the lines of “Oh, we have a really high bar for hiring.”

‘Even if you have 10 white men on a team, there’s going to be cognitive diversity.’

“And I was like, ‘That’s mathematically untrue. The math just doesn’t suggest that’s possible.'”

So she started to “mess around” with things in that company’s HR department and by running a few experiments, she was able to help increase the representation of Mexican Americans in the team.

Blanche is willing to dismiss the idea that the cause for under-representation is as simple as discrimination.

“It’s driven by errors of judgment,” she says. “They’re trying to do their best, they’re trying to evaluate well, but unconscious bias is a thing.”

A little over three years ago, Atlassian caught wind of what Blanche was up to and asked her if she might like to bring her work over. And yes, 2015 sounds like it’s kind of recent for a company to be thinking that maybe a diverse workforce is a good thing.

But Blanche says be that as it may, it gave Atlassian a chance to pursue a more effective ideal of what diversity actually is.

The thing is – and it’s where the “perfect team” poser falls down – diversity is not about making sure you have as many black employees as white employees.

Genuine diversity, Blanche says, is about doing everything you can as a workplace to make everyone feel safe.

Safe enough to say what they really feel, safe enough to be who they really want to be.

“We know that diversity is much broader than (gender),” she says. “In Silicon Valley, really the programming has focused on straight white cisgender economically privileged women, and helping them make progress. Which is important, but it’s meant that women who have other minority identities or people who aren’t women, have been really left out of that conversation.

“We’ve tried really hard at Atlassian to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Saving you from yourself

Caitlyn Jenner. Nobody should feel afraid to be who they are. Picture: Getty Images

One of main goals is to break down any “us versus them” dynamic.

“Everyone needs to come along together,” Blanche says, “and it’s about how do you approach someone who is different from you with curiosity and see that that is valuable.”

Blanche has several excellent reasons why it’s also the smart, and obvious, thing to do.

Obvious, because it’s highly likely your customers, or audience, are diverse. And how are you going to entice them properly with products and services built by people who have no idea what their customers’ lives are like?

And it’s smart to be diverse, because inevitably the message gets out and incredible talent that’s previously been too self-conscious to speak up or knock on doors suddenly starts knocking on yours.

When those people settle in and feel safe, they bring a whole new set of unique solutions, perspectives and approaches to your workplace.

Blanche shared a story of several years ago, about how not hosting a place where a transgender worker felt safe left a serious problem unresolved at Atlassian.

Atlassian product BitBucket is a space for teams to collaborate on software. You might work as a team on one aspect of a project, but you might work personally on smaller projects, then share them with the team at a later date.

If the two projects overlapped, BitBucket would automatically merge accounts together, without asking. When one customer noticed and queried it, a transgender employee took Blanche aside and said she knew about the issue “two years ago”.

She hadn’t ever raised it because if she did, “she was afraid that people would figure out that she was transgender”.

Trans folks, Blanche said, often used their legal name at work, and if they hadn’t transitioned, might use a different name in a private repository. Because she didn’t feel safe at work, Atlassian was for at least two years unaware of a major problem with one of its most popular products.

“In the worst case scenario, it could have outed someone to their employer,” Blanche says. Even someone in a Witness Protection scheme.

“It was a technical issue that she was aware of because of her identity and you think about how many problems there are like that and you don’t even know that you haven’t solved it,” Blanche said.

It’s not a black and white issue

Back to our fantasy team of 9 out of 10, which I now realise was a simplistic view of “the problem”, but certainly not an uncommon one.

Most – but unfortunately, not all – companies recognise having a diverse workforce is the right thing to do on a people level. But there are also many wondering if it’s fair to exclude the best person for the job just because you’ve already maxxed out what MAML level the Twitter community decides is acceptable in your staff photo.

“I think – and this goes back to this idea of actual diversity – you could be a white man, but … you’re going to have a unique perspective,” Blanche says. “Even if you have 10 white men on a team, there’s going to be cognitive diversity.”

Think about it this way. The best person for the job is not always the one with the best numbers out of uni, or blazing career trail.

Diversity comes in more forms than what is popularly shopped around right now as the buzz grows. It can also encompass what you learnt at a school where the floor was bare earth.

Did your parents ever leave their farm? Do you build epic WarHammer battlescapes in your spare time? Are you left-handed?

Think about all the different ways a person’s life experience shapes how they react to and solve problems as they get older.

If you want a perfect team, wouldn’t that perfect team be one which has as many avenues toward working it out as possible?

Here’s a radical request for HR: “Do we have anyone on staff who’s done time?”

Not quite, but the sentiment is excellent. Picture: Marvel

There’s a tiny part of devil’s advocate in me when I ask if Atlassian’s diversity push would ever extend to scoping out the unique skillsets on offer in our prisons, but Blanche is a whole younger generation more open-minded than I am.

“That’s something we’ve talked about,” she says, not missing a beat. “Through our foundation in the US, we focus on education and creating access to opportunity and we’ve done some great work like volunteering trips looking at working with incarcerated individuals, helping them try to build businesses.

Blanche admits there must be a lot of talent locked away without the chance to do anything positive with it.

“Absolutely, and I think tech is really well suited to that… and I think at Atlassian we do a really good job of not just bringing in folks who have had great linear careers.

“We have a balance, which is what we like to talk about instead of diversity.”

Nothing to hide

That time the Buena Vista Social Club still had loads to offer. Picture: Getty Images

This could change everything. Imagine an AI that scans every aspect of their lives your staff are willing to hand over, looking for the perfect team for a task, and completely dismissing someone’s education and work history in favour of another’s life experience.

Are the days of anonymous CVs over before they really even began and should we instead throw the whole movement into reverse and starting filling them with details on everything that makes us unique?

Remember when all freaked out and hysterically started “cleaning up” and adding caveats to our social media profiles when stories about people getting sacked for dumb posts were headline news? There’s a good chance we’re hiding what could give us – or an employer – a unique edge.

Blanche says anonymous resumes are effective “in certain environments”, but Atlassian doesn’t use them.

“We’ve talked about it – but we’ve seen a huge increase in our hiring of under-represented people across a lot of groups without doing that.”

It was easier to just rebrand, Blanche says.

“Looking back, our careers page really didn’t show a balanced set of people. We talked a lot about the perks of being an Atlassian, we talked a lot about ‘Oh, there’s beer on tap, there’s a ping-pong table’.

“But we also offer in the US comprehensive health care, emergency backup childcare, all these benefits that would appeal to a broader set of folks, and we weren’t actually talking about them on our website.

“It felt like there was only a certain set of people that could imagine themselves at Atlassian, even though lots of other people would have thrived there.”

‘We know, for example, certain types of innovators peak at 67.’

Nothing a few photos reflecting more of those benefits and work culture couldn’t fix. And when it came to advertising for talent, Atlassian called on AI-backed writing platform Textio. You can use it, too.

“It helps us use high impact language, but it also removed subtle gender bias,” Blanche says.

“So as a small example, when you say ‘manage a team’, it’s a very male gender word. When you say ‘develop a team’, that’s very feminine, more women will (respond) to that. When you say ‘lead a team’, that’s gender neutral.”

That means Atlassian gets a broader set of candidates to choose from. It also shied away from the lateral thinking tests and teasers that make headlines out of the HR departments of tech giants such as Google.

“We moved to structured behavioural interviewing,” Blanche says. “It’s like ‘Tell me about a time when you did this’, because your past behaviour is your best predictor. As opposed to ‘How many golf balls fit in a 747?’

Atlassian also did away with the popular concept of “culture fit”. Or, as Blanche prefers to call it, “an intractable morass of unconscious bias”.

“I think is the worst concept that’s ever been invented,” Blanche says.

And, feel free to be older.

Here’s something refreshing – its new approach to hiring has also helped Atlassian increase its representation of staff over 40 years old, from around 12% of its employees to 20%, “honestly, just by talking about it”, Blanche says.

Here’s what an external diversity report from the first company to include age statistics looks like:

Image: Atlassian Diversity Report

“If you want to maximise your innovative potential, just purely rationally, you should be hiring people at various stages of their lives,” Blanche says. “We know, for example, certain types of innovators peak at 67.”

The short version of this story is that just by making sure everyone knows they’re welcome to bring their own kind of unique dog to the fight is a great start.

Atlassian is trying its best to make sure everyone can be their own person. And while they continue to walk that talk, they’ll continue to draw talent – like Aubrey Blanche – through the door without even asking for it.

“That’s what diversity is all about,” Blanche says. “It’s about when two people with different ways of solving problems with access to different information come together and they build better products, better solutions.”

“Just by saying we support people at all points in their life, we just found there are more people that want to work there because they’re getting the message that their experience is valued.”

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