For companies to build teams and products reflective of the world we live in, we must get diversity and inclusion right. To do this, it’s imperative for companies to focus on and deeply invest in redesigning their organization’s culture. It’s an enormous challenge, and it’ll take time, but it’s the only way to tackle an issue that’s deeply ingrained in our society. How do we develop new unbiased hiring strategies to attract diverse talent? How do we then ensure we retain and develop that talent and enable our teams to thrive? Are current diversity and inclusion initiatives working? Is a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture within tech companies and among design teams even possible?

In this article, we asked three design leaders from our Design Circle to share their views on the importance of organizational culture to challenge the status quo. In each of their working lives, they’re confronting the obstacles we need to overcome to create a more equitable organizational culture that benefits both the teams and the products they design.

“We do not create for ourselves, but in the service of others,” said Timothy Bardlavens, product design manager at Facebook. He feels there is a strong ethical responsibility to reflect the world around us in our work. 

“How can we reflect the world and serve others if we are a homogenous industry? How can a person with the full spectrum of sight truly understand and create for a person with visual impairments? Having empathy for others, testing our work and getting perspectives from diverse populations are all important, but we will never know all of the questions to ask or experiences to consider. Many times we as creators are blinded by our own perspectives. It takes a diverse and inclusive organization to be truly innovative, to move beyond the ‘cool feature’ mentality to really create products and experiences for all people, not just the majority.”

What is organizational culture, anyway? 

Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals that bind people in an organization together and form our everyday work experiences. It is often built and structured to achieve specific outcomes, such as higher productivity or greater innovation. For Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures, it has an even bigger purpose: organizational culture that operationalizes the values of a business successfully results in consistent, observable patterns in the way the teams behave. These patterns are linked by a story, dictating a way of thinking and doing that is valued by the organization. Culture is also shaped by incentives: what does the organization prioritize, what do they hire for and what do they promote, and what are the organization’s ambitions?

A headshot of Irene Au.
Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures.

An organizational culture that is truly diverse and inclusive has a broad definition of what an ‘ideal’ candidate or employee looks like. “Instead of seeking to build a monoculture,” Au explained, “it’s about actively embracing building teams of people with complementary skills, backgrounds, and experiences.”

Diversity and inclusion as part of organizational culture

No one should always be “the only,” if you ask Cathy Pearl. She’s head of conversation design outreach at Google, and considers an organizational culture as being truly diverse and inclusive when no one has to claim this title — the only woman in the meeting, the only person of color, the only person with a visible disability. 

“In my first job out of college, I was the only female engineer on a team of 30 people,” Pearl revealed. “Since then I’ve had my share of meetings or teams where I’m the only woman. It can make you stand out when you don’t want to, as well as make you feel invisible. If you’re “the only,” you are also sometimes asked to speak on behalf of that whole group of people, which is an unfair position to be put in.”

Cathy Pearl speaks on stage at an event.
Cathy Pearl, head of conversation design outreach at Google.

Having worked on various large design teams, Pearl often sees a fair number of women at the lower or mid-levels. A lack of women becomes more apparent at high leadership levels, or in technical roles. Often companies justify this by saying it was harder to find candidates.

“But that’s partly because the folks at the lower level are not being given the opportunities needed to get them onto the path of promotions,” Pearl suggested. “Men are given ‘stretch goals’ based on their potential, while women are asked to do the same things they’ve already proven to be good at. Without stretch goals, your project may not reach the heights needed to be noticed.”

The business case for diversity

Successful companies need to be able to scale, which can be achieved best with diverse teams. “If you want your products to be adopted by a lot of people,” Au advised, “you need to understand the needs, behavioral patterns, and motivations of a wide range of people. Their varying perspectives also mean that diverse teams have more creative conflict and are more intellectually honest, which leads to better outcomes.”

Cathy Pearl thinks companies are already becoming more proactive in their commitment to diversity, and quotes Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who told CNBC in January that his investment bank will only help companies go public if they have at least one diverse board member.

It’s a reassuring sign, backed up by a push for strong legislation; depending on where your business is based, you may even be breaking the law if you don’t take diversity seriously. Cathy points out that last year, California became the first US state to enact a law saying all publicly-traded companies must have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of 2019, or pay a fine. 

Diversity is only the start

If you’re still struggling to convince stakeholders of the value of diversity, let the numbers speak for themselves. Various studies have demonstrated that building a diverse and inclusive culture has a direct result on the bottom line. 

Timothy Bardlavens points to a 2016 Dalberg Diversity Report that stated, “if the racial/ethnic diversity of tech companies’ workforces reflected that of the engineering talent pool, the sector could generate a 20 to 22 percent increase in revenue — an additional $300 to $370 billion each year.” The same study also revealed that a one percent rise in racial diversity would increase overall revenue by three percent. 

Timothy Bardlavens leads a workshop.
Timothy Bardlavens, product design manager at Facebook.

“This is simply good business, but diversity is only the start,” Bardlavens warned. “These results cannot be attained without equitable systems and inclusive teams. Studies, such as the Dalberg report, assume black, indigenous, and people of color are heard, valued, developed, and promoted equitably. Equity and inclusion are deeply connected to the overall organizational health — without them attrition skyrockets amongst these diverse populations.”

Cathy Pearl agrees and highlights research that has found improved financials when there are three or more women on the board of directors

“When we surround ourselves with people who are just like us, we’re unlikely to see flaws in our design thinking. It may be nice to always agree on things, but your product will ultimately suffer because you will leave out people whose experiences are different than yours.”

Evaluating current diversity initiatives

Various systems are currently in place within organizations that have the goal of achieving more inclusive teams. While the need for such initiatives is growing, they’re not perfect. Let’s explore a couple of them and how effective they are.

Chief diversity officers and D&I project managers

Larger companies now often have a chief diversity officer, who champions the value of diversity and inclusion and serves as an advocate for the cause in hiring, evaluation, promotion, and company culture efforts. 

“Some may be metrics-driven and deliver quarterly or annual reports on how ‘diverse’ each team is, as defined by whatever goals and priorities the company has,” Irene Au explained. “Many startups, however, do not have the resources to devote an entire role towards diversity and inclusion.”

While Bardlavens acknowledges the importance of having dedicated diversity and inclusion project managers, he has found that often they lack the power to make changes to hiring practices. 

“They can’t effectively address inclusion and equity problems within an organization and are typically not involved in these types of conversations. I have primarily seen these roles relegated to event planning and survey distribution. Even when companies have a chief diversity officer, which is largely seen as a stepping stone in HR to a C-level role, D&I PMs are disconnected from this org and leadership.”

The result, Bardlavens believes, is inconsistent efforts between teams (within large organizations) and a lack of transparency when it comes to issues such as diverse hires, diversity in leadership, or pay equity. 

Employee Resource Groups

Bardlavens points out that most companies have been leaning on Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) — also known as Affinity Groups or Networks — as ways to develop stronger cultures. 

“Companies attempt to diversify their recruiting efforts to seek out new-in-career individuals from historically black colleges and universities, hispanic serving institutions, or indigenous colleges and universities. But I’ve found that ERGs and the metric they use are fairly ineffective. Many times they are seen as tools for driving belonging when they’re actually driving a sense of community. Black affinity networks, for example, are great for finding ‘others like me,’ but they don’t effectively address my unique needs as an individual who has to sit at my desk on a day-to-day basis.”

Bardlavens recommends purposefully disambiguating a sense of “community” from “belonging”. Just focusing on establishing a sense of community within a company isn’t enough. Employees need to feel they belong — that they are valued, considered, and respected as individuals by their team, leadership and partners. 

“As with any community, when we depart, we may enter a space where we feel we do not belong, like our desk or a meeting,” Bardlavens cautions. 

Diverse organizational culture starts at the top

The largest failure of hiring and retaining diverse talent, Bardlavens believes, is directly tied to a lack of intentionality. 

“Recruiting may have guidelines for making the interview and hiring process more equitable,” he explained, “but many hiring managers are only focused on filling a gap on their team. A diverse hire is a bonus, but not an explicit goal. When diverse talent is hired, the organization has not established an actual culture of equity and inclusion, thus attrition is high. I believe the success of these efforts in many organizations are purely serendipitous, not actually tied to effective intentionality.”

Au agrees and says the biggest issue that hinders progress, whether it’s due to lack of awareness or failure to prioritize, is lack of executive support. 

“When there is little executive interest, it’s nearly impossible to get the rest of the organization to focus on establishing equity and achieving more inclusive teams. The companies that really move the needle forward do so at the behest of the CEO, and it trickles down from there. When there is executive support, hiring managers make it a priority and actively work to solve the problem, and resources are allocated to support the efforts. These companies consciously increase the pipeline for diversity candidates and try to be more mindful of hidden biases when hiring.”

Practical tips to improve the hiring process

Once support from the top is established, teams need to take a close look at hiring practices and performance evaluation processes to avoid hidden biases. 

Irene Au led design and user experience at Google and remembers how, in the early days, interviewers would judge candidates based on how “Googley” they were. 

“This term allowed for unconscious biases to get in the way of fairly evaluating candidates. To ameliorate this, we created a vision for what the design organization wanted to accomplish and how it would work successfully with product development teams. From there, we more clearly articulated what kinds of skills, capabilities, experiences, and impact we wanted to see from candidates we interviewed. We also recalibrated interviewers and hiring committees to ensure they supported our efforts.”

Au recommends keeping the following tips in mind when examining hiring practices:

  • Job description: Ensure the wording has universal appeal. For example, not everyone relates to sports or rock star analogies.
  • Interview panel: Think actively about who you are putting in front of candidates. The panel should itself be diverse. If there isn’t enough diverse representation on your team, find people in other functions who can participate in your interview process. 
  • Interview questions: Get alignment on what interview questions are fair and unbiased and which ones to avoid. 

Example: A company used to ask engineering candidates about the largest software project they had ever worked on. This question is fraught with bias because men are more likely than women to work on open-source software projects.

  • Evaluation: Be clear about the criteria used to evaluate candidates. Avoid vague terminology that doesn’t capture the actual skills, experience, and impact you need and expect of candidates and employees. 

It’s also important to be aware that “diversity” doesn’t just include ethnicity and gender but also a wide range of skills and backgrounds. Rather than build an organization in which each person is a generic “full stack” contributor, Au therefore encourages companies to hire T-shaped people who have a broad base set of skills that are foundational plus specialization in an area that would enable them to contribute in a meaningful way. 

“The goal is to build teams of people who have complementary skills, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Au explained. “For example, as we hired writers, anthropologists, and visual designers on the Google design team to broaden our collective skill set, we were able to contribute to product development in a different way. To ensure that these changes endured, we championed case studies that demonstrated the value of successful, diverse teams through positive, measurable outcomes.”

To keep things in check, also take a look at who presents at meetings and all-hands. When the presenters are all men, and there are no people of color, it can send a message to the people in the audience that they don’t belong up there, Cathy Pearl suggests. 

“Making sure you rotate presenters is helpful, but beyond that, you may need to spend a bit more effort to recruit and encourage other people to speak. When asking people who may be in a minority, it’s especially helpful to let them know exactly why you think they would be a good person to present, because of their knowledge about a particular project, or their technical skills. Leaving it as an open call — ‘If you’re interested, sign up! ’— often means fewer women. Reach out.”

A culture built on openness and transparency 

So, having specific goals, backed up with actual numbers, is going to be a lot more effective than simply saying “we should hire a more diverse team.” For any strategy to retain diverse talent, while also ensuring seamless integration into the design culture for long term success, to be effective openness and transparency are critical. Timothy Bardlavens says it’s the core foundation for any strong culture. 

“There must be an openness to receiving feedback from others and a willingness to change,” he explained. “An organization’s strongest leaders are those who are transparent and have thrown away the antiquated views of communication and change management which dictate what’s ‘good for employees’ to know or what they can handle. These are base-level principles which help individuals feel safe and included within an organization.”

True inclusion isn’t merely having a seat at the table, but also the power to speak and have your perspective valued. To get there we must be willing to be uncomfortable and address the systems of inequity that exist in our society. For the future, Bardlavens foresees a series of stronger chain reactions, which are already occurring today. 

“Change will be driven by bad product decisions and customer outcry,” he predicted. “This outcry will lead to stronger diversity efforts, some successful, others not. This may lead to large growth in diversity as well as equally as large attrition. This attrition will drive conversations about culture, equity, and inclusion, which will eventually drive systemic change. Customers will drive organizational change.”