When I was working at Shopify, I realized that the team had grown in a direction I wasn’t entirely happy with. Our last growth spurt had added a slew of like-candidates which created an off-balanced team.
Since I had been reading about the topic for a while, I thought it was a good opportunity to try to see if I could do something to make a change immediately and set up the team better long-term. After asking a few people, I found some resources and tried to apply new approaches to what our team was doing over six months.
Note: There were/are multiple people at the past company working on this. I wanted to take responsibility for change so I worked on the local team I could affect first. It’s also important to note I don’t work there anymore so things may have changed by now.
When trying to change the make-up on a team, you’re faced with some of the following obstacles (I don’t claim that this is close to a full list of the issues):
The faster your company is growing the harder it is to advocate for diversity initiatives because change, generally, takes more time. Since the problem is systemic it must be met on many levels by all. Changing how you’re approaching even one area, like hiring, takes time. This pressure is felt immensely when someone needs to fill a role: the insistence on a slower process makes you look like a inconvienant blocker.
While diversity research has been around for decades now, the general awareness and understanding level of the average employee is low. Typical topics which come up in conjunction with the phrase diversity and inclusion include: the meritocracy myth, the pipeline problem, lowering the standard, and quotas. Education, a large part of change management, takes an long time with inconsistent feedback loops.
People do better and feel more comfortable in companies in which they can see a least one or two in leadership that are like them. If there are no examples, the current leadership team has to groom someone showing promise early to pre-emptively fill the role when it’s required. To make matters more complicated, if the current leadership positions are already taken by the majority, it locks people in place.
If you’re in a company that doesn’t prioritize management (and with this, training), diversity initiatives will be quickly forgotten amongst the many other ‘more important’ issues. The sentence, ‘this company doesn’t have people managers,’ is the biggest sign of a resistant culture and not rare in a world where technical proficiency is preferred other over skill-sets.
The two areas I knew I could best effect was the hiring process for the members on my team and re-evaluating how we dealt with the Paula principle internally. Below is a list of things we re-evaluated.
I borrowed some initiatives from the diversity and inclusion team at Shopify and from work done by the organizations I linked in the ‘Resources’ section:
This is one of the easiest adjustments you can make: looking at how your company talks about roles that are available. Wording or image selection can discourage applicants from applying if they come across as heavily biased. If your team is attending events to actively recruit, prime them to use the same inclusion words. Attend a variety of events and pay attention to who you’re asking to represent your company.
This was a new initiative I tried for the intern program I worked on. Blinding portfolios or applications takes quite a while, but it helps when paired with pooling candidates. A neutral employee not involved in the hiring process can spend time putting boxes over any identifiers. This helps prevent any biases prior to the interview process.
Evaluating candidates within groups can help choose the most qualified person for the job. It protects teams from biases involving personal relationships and removes the easy default–hiring the first qualified person who comes along. This also helps even out the visibility problem PoC and minorities have.
Having a diverse team interview candidates helps different people feel more comfortable as it gives them more opportunities to represent their best selves depending on the environment. Consider different dimensions to better assess how they would work with different types of people.
Each interviewer should feel out their evaluation separately and privately first. Afterwards, have a group discussion with the interviewers comparing all the candidates. Keep the conversation as objective as possible and be on the look-out for phrases which are vague or unclear. Try to actively stem group-thinking with assumptions and keep people’s focus on their evaluations written prior to the group meeting.
To encourage your employees to refer beyond their friend circles, run diversity sprints encouraging people to add candidates evenly into the pool. PoC and miniorities tend to have less visibility, not less merit, so ask your employees to put in all types of candidates at an even rate (ex: for every man, try to find a woman to add into recruitment).
Candidates were more likely to respond if the person reaching out was a person like them of their own discipline. Those doing the reach-outs should represent a diverse team, to avoid biases in candidate selection and ensure that candidates feel comfortable. Like recruiting events, prime those who are reaching out with what you’re looking for and how to ask the right questions.
Lack of visibility is more obvious when hiring for a profession which depends on a portfolio. Through my own research, I found that I could find under-represented candidates but had a hard time locating their portfolios if they were employed. A little more effort into reaching them and asking for what I was looking for greatly increased my chances of success. Often times, it was not that thery weren’t qualified, but they feared giving off a sense of disloyalty and/or their projects were protected from being published online.
Hiring Designers can be difficult because of the subjective nature of judging the craft. Since Designers come with such varied skill-sets, those who are reaching out must be primed with who to look for. Many people judge (and misjudge) portfolios based on visual aesthetic but that is only one of the skill-sets of a well-functioning product team team. Providing a list of clear questions and things for recruiters to look for helps guide their search.
If your leadership team is filled with mostly one group, they’ve taken the space. This becomes a larger issue as senior ranks become more experienced and the company matures as recognition for work can become more important for retention. If space is taken, it is unlikely that an under-represented employee will be able to move upwards or see a future at the company. As employees tend to look to others like them for examples of success, this tends to have a double-negative effect.
When expectations aren’t clear for a role, managers and employees can fill a role via interpretation which isn’t an objective way to ensure the most qualified candidates are getting through the funnel. This is one of the reasons why teams can pull without intention in a specific direction. Defaults can be very powerful.
To counter-act the Paula principle, making choices like using open internal applications for new roles (especially in leadership) gives people an opportunity to express interest without depending solely on their manager. The extra transparency encourages candidates who haven’t approached the topic before to consider new career changes without pressure.
We had group discussions to calibrate and double-check decisions about promotions and hiring. When you’re in one of those conversations, listen to those around you to ensure that the way the conversation is framed isn’t to bias one group or the other. Ask clarifying questions and challenge possible assumptions being made.
If you’re in the position to be able to help out a report who has expressed interest in leadership, be transparent about your day-to-day and start early with training. If they show promise and interest, setting them up for success can be a great way to re-balance an unbalanced team. The under-represented tend to have less opportunities than their more visible counterparts and so keeping them top of mind for new ‘proving’ projects helps them move upwards.
Feeling unwelcome in their environment is one of the most cited reasons for employees leaving a company. When planning culture activities in the company or across teams, try to pick activities which are varied and more inclusive for everyone. Think about time of day, activity, food, and beverages served for a place to start.
When balancing creative roles which require both soft and technical skill-sets, be careful how these expectations are communicated and how projects are assigned. This is when things can get lopsided very quickly if it’s ignored (example: one group assigned to communication heavy work while others are given technical projects which further exacerbates promotional issues if the company already leans heavily towards technical expertise).
I’ve been talking about my work at Shopify around diversity a lot because it was a big learning curve for me. Since then, I’ve received questions about how someone can help move the needle. Below I’ve outlined a few ways someone can affect change at different levels:
A clear and consistent message must come from upper management or it won’t gain the traction it needs. Change management needs to happen both from a top-down perspective and a bottom-up perspective. Frequent company discussions about diversity and inclusion can help alleviate the education needs for individual managers. Mentioning it as a dimension the company is actively trying to improve and highlighting work on it helps further reinforce the idea.
Lastly, don’t make this work the sole responsibility of the under-represented.
Most managers participate in hiring, interviewing, and recognition activities. I found that I was much more effective the more I read about it as it was easier for me to navigate certain conversations about the topic. If I did it again, I would have spent more time asking for help to speed up my learning.
ICs tend to have a lot more power than they realize through peer influence. Educating those around you about the issues helps alleviate burdens for everyone. In group settings, be particularly mindful of who is speaking and taking space. When an opportunity comes up which may not help you, but would help someone else, consider suggesting them as the person on the project. Lastly, if you see someone doing well, praise your colleague and let their manager know.
I would be irresponsible to not point out that tech culture as a whole tends to have a lot of influence on a company as well. Again, education and open discussion about the topic helps others learn more about the problem you’re trying to solve. To help discourage active retaliation, be clear about what you will and will not tolerate in the community you’re apart of by being verbal, reinforcing and using conduct codes, and calling things out when things appear unfair.
Strategies on how to deal with social inequality vary but progress tends to be made only when the participation is active. Ignoring a social problem never makes it go away so we all have to do our part.
I worked on a few of these changes over the course of six months. While it felt slow and frustrating, we did make some progress across multiple areas. The dimension which changed the most was the binary gender dimension with small improvements in a couple of others. Admittedly, I wasn’t there long enough to gauge long-term success and can only speak to what happened within a small sub-set of employees.
My overall hope was that my actions would encourage others to participate in improving the overall numbers and help the initiatives at Shopify (of which there are many). It was the first time I tried to affect change at a larger scale like this and the approach I took could have used some tinkering. I fluffed more features than I think was necessary but it’s impossible to say what would have happened had I not fluffed.
There is likely more I haven’t covered here however I’ve included a list of resources below which may help start your research into the area too if you’re looking at this type of work in your company.
Here’s a start on things that can be helpful in navigating this time for you. Granted a lot of these things are women-focused as that was the first dimension I looked at:
↩︎  This is a good summary of why leadership should be active reinforcing this: Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman, “Women and Minorities Are Penalized for Promoting Diversity” ↗︎, 3/23/2016
↩︎  I have received criticism that I have been biased towards the bi-gender dimension in the past. This is my own bias. My gender was how I noticed that this system was off-balance so I spent a lot of time learning about that. I will be a better advocate for other under-represented groups in the future.
↩︎  In the interest of honesty: I don't believe major strides can be made in diversity unless it's heavily reinforced by the executive team. Tech culture is unhealthy and has too much influence over how individual workers act. While we did make progress and I was happy to have found a couple of true allies, I found that the biggest issues were laziness, apathy, and my own personal exhaustion. The biggest insight that I can take home from this experience is: you can always trust someone's actions. There's way too much lip service in the tech industry. This is critical and cynical but that's admittedly how the topic is sitting with me these days.
Out of all the advice I give I tend to give this one the most often. It’s old-school advice drilled...
It’s the small things that make big waves. I have two habits I’ve picked up over the years which I...
The biggest lessons I’ve ever learned were from periods of extended commitment. Our available choices now send us into paralysis...
Asking for solutions first is bad management advice. ‘Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions!’ teaches your team not to speak...