What A Real Diversity Strategy Looks Like

I’ve been doing diversity work for 10 years, and because I’m a woman, I felt that gave me a pass to make sweeping generalizations about diverse groups. I was so wrong.

A few years back I landed at a Silicon Valley unicorn company. It was a new darling of the Midwest Tech employment boom. Known for its quirky culture, oodles of LaCroix in the fridge, and dinosaurs in the elevators. It was supposed to be amazing. And it was. So much of it was great fun. But as a woman in tech—supporting the technical and product organizations internally—it lacked a certain something: other women.

For a company hiring thousands of people every year, I couldn’t understand how it was possible to not have more diversity. “It’s a pipeline problem. That’s why we don’t have more [insert women/people of color/ethnicity/background/sexual identityX/age] here. It’s Recruiting’s fault.” That was the end of most diversity conversations I had in my first six months. It was a “pipeline problem.” I’d heard this before at plenty of other companies, too, and I had one consistent response to this statement:

Face. Palm.

To me, an explicit diversity strategy for any company where over 70% of its customers were female seemed…totally logical. There were mountains of research that pointed toward diversity as the solution to address the customer satisfaction, innovative product, and internal business culture challenges we were facing.

At the organizational level, I was part of a small self-organized group that started our first Employee Resource Group, Women@. Over a dozen women from across the company came together and created what would eventually become a 200+ member collective. We drove diversity-inspired leadership programming, mentorship programs, and helped to promote professional development opportunities. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t addressing the challenges I was facing within tech.

I had a meeting with our CTO and said in my best “Fake It Till You Make It, Power Pose, Please See Me As A Leader” voice, “I can fill your recruiting bucket with great diverse talent all day long, but if we don’t support a culture that will allow for those individuals to flourish, they will not stay here. Let’s actually hold people accountable to a recruiting strategy that supports diversity. Let’s address our unconscious systemic barriers. Let’s take a look at our own manager trainings.” I easily could have been fired for being so blunt, but he supported me. He agreed we needed to do more as leaders in the organization. We needed to make some changes.

There is no silver bullet to a healthy inclusive culture and change takes time. You have to hit it from all angles to have long-lasting impact. We attacked from each of the attract/retain/advance perspectives. We began by addressing our recruiting process. We edited our job descriptions, helped hiring managers limit bias in resume reviews, and held in-depth interview trainings. We took male engineering leaders to the Grace Hopper Conference to show just how many thousands of candidates there were capable of filling the jobs they were hiring for. We did not have a pipeline problem. They could finally see that the problem was embedded in the culture and they had the power to change it. In the words of Field of Dreams, if we built it (our culture), they (awesome diverse candidates) would come.

With regards to retention and development, we empowered everyone in the community (not only leaders) to create Interest Leagues, which were self-organized, dynamic communities of practice that brought together people with common interests related to work but not necessarily related to delivery of an official project in order to build connection. We began addressing our neurodiversity challenges to help leaders focus on growing all of their teammates. Turns out, there already were women working on the teams who were simply being overlooked and under supported. We were improving our numbers in recruiting, retaining, and promoting women across the organization and within my own vertical.

Next, I wanted to tackle our support of returning women back into the organization after parental leave. Our policy and benefits package was not competitive in the industry at the time. Our mothers’ rooms were small, cramped closets with no sinks, no storage, not easily accessible, and had no technology in them to support working while attending to personal care needs. We surveyed our recently returned moms (including those who’d returned and promptly exited) and made immediate improvement to the rooms; storage, refrigeration, loaner laptops for flexible working needs. The new rooms were beautiful. Heck, I wanted to work in them!

And then I got pregnant.

And all of our work, done with the best of intentions and research and benchmarking, went out the window with a little thing called “perspective.”

I had a terrible pregnancy. I was high-risk, sick all day long, unable to travel (which had been an unspoken job requirement) and needed to exercise my FMLA benefits early. My boy, Sawyer, was born at 35 weeks. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no way to understand what happens to a woman’s body after giving birth. The hormones, the physical recovery of labor, the postpartum depression, the sheer exhaustion that consumes you. It is HARD. At eight weeks postpartum, the idea of going back to work made me throw up in my mouth a little. The idea of lugging my enormous hospital-grade double breast pump contraption to the office (literally everyone told me nursing was the best thing for my child), to have it sit out on my desk in our “open space” environment and then taking my laptop into a room to hook up like a cow to dial into a meeting? That made me angry.

How was that supposed to successfully “on-ramp” me back into the organization?

We had been so wrong.

In our attempt to improve things for mothers, all we had done was taken research from data skewed by bias itself and allowed a group of individuals—none of whom had actually birthed a baby—to determine policies for people whose experiences we had no understanding of. We all thought we were doing the best work, and with the knowledge we held, we were. But we still made decisions that helped the business rather than helping support the health and happiness of our employees.

I’ve been doing diversity work for almost 10 years, and because I’m a woman, I felt that gave me a pass to make sweeping generalizations about diverse groups. As HR professionals, we can read a McKinsey report, send out an engagement survey, and hold focus groups. But real talk: If an industry is 93% male, your company is 84% male, and those males are also 21-35 years old, they probably don’t really care about maternity policies. So your lowest common denominator improvements to a previously non-existent policy aren’t ground-breaking; they’re shallow and privileged. This is the same weak infrastructure applied to any number of diversity and inclusion measures many companies take for minorities, LGBTQ, Veterans, socio-economically challenged, and senior categories. Great intentions and totally out-of-touch realities.

Only when I was on the floor crying into my own breast pump did I realize just how far off-base my diversity strategy was. So, what should we do to ensure this doesn’t happen with other benefits like intentional mentoring and sponsoring for marginalized groups, or development opportunities, or benefit policies for transgender health care?

Well, first, here’s what we should NOT do. We should not ask our one transgender Facebook friend about what they’d like in a benefit. We should not benchmark against a research data set that includes companies like Chick-Fil-A  for LGBTQ policies. And we should not tout successful maternity leave improvements by providing additional early parental leave all while knowing only 5% of women deliver on their insurance-stamped due date, meaning that the new policy will actually cost the company less money.

Here are five things that you SHOULD be doing as you begin your diversity journey:

  1. Understand why you have a diversity strategy in the first place. Talk to your leaders about the “why” behind the ask. Crystalize that and build a transparent communication plan that makes it clear to your entire organization why diversity and inclusion are important to the entire business. Commit as leaders that diversity is not a line item on an HR spreadsheet; it’s a company value and cultural pillar.
  2. A good diversity strategy is woven into the cultural fabric of your organization. It’s not part of a “rollout.” There is no “done.” Don’t stop at one unconscious bias training or annualize it. Inclusion work needs to become part of the company vernacular, so talk about it often at all levels as it pertains to recruiting the best person, developing unique talents on the teams, and coaching leaders to lead all of their people.
  3. Hold leaders accountable. The ethos of an organization is always a reflection of the character of its leaders. If your leaders don’t hold inclusivity as a core value and are not held accountable in fostering it in all aspects of their work, you won’t build an inclusive culture.
  4. Policy/guideline/benefit-makers must do their research. The person in charge of creating policies or guidelines or benefits should be doing extensive research with regards to the marginalized groups the policy/guideline/benefit may attempt to impact. Make sure your policy/guideline/benefits are aligned and looking toward the future as you consider diversity in your organizational culture. If your diversity strategy sets a goal that you employ a more gender-diverse work group in the next 18 months, you may want to consider how attractive your current policies are to someone who’s not looking for free beer and an annual company beach trip.
  5. Provide unconscious bias trainings to everyone in the organization, but don’t make it mandatory. Give people multiple opportunities to opt into your workshops/trainings. It can be a slow sell and that’s OK. Initially, bias can be scary for people to talk about, so have empathy for those who aren’t super comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. Once they see how others have responded positively and team happiness lifts, they will see the benefit and opt in. On the other hand, those people who don’t see diversity as valuable or who actively undermine it will inevitably be uncovered. Leadership then has a different challenge to work out (See #1 and #3). Are those people right for an organization that is devoted to inclusion? Maybe not. Let people opt in or opt out to your cultural commitment. And if they opt out? Show them the door.

Heather Corallo has played a part in the growth strategies of several of the largest startup success stories. Over the last dozen years she’s led talent strategies for international financial services, e-commerce and technology companies. She owns CTO2 a company that helps organizations do better at people and products.

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