How to support inclusion and diversity in your team as an allyBy Stuart Davie on October 8, 2021 - 15 Minute Read
If you’ve been reading our Women in Data Science Week blog series, you might want to know how you can get involved in supporting inclusion and diversity in your own team when you yourself are not a woman.
While I encourage you to check out the great advice on building diverse teams and why diversity matters, I believe supporting diversity and inclusion as an ally can be mostly reduced to three key ingredients:
- Care about the people in your team and the issues they face. Consider what barriers to inclusion people might have. Look at what is happening in the wider industry
- Listen when people tell you how they feel, and when they talk about their experiences. Ask questions, and keep an open mind
- Help where you can. There is always more work to be done in this space, so get involved and do some of it!
And that really is it. If you sincerely care about the people in your team, genuinely listen to what they have to say and then do what is in your power to help them, you are already an ally – so thank you! The rest of this post will dive into these three topics a bit deeper in the context of supporting women, but note that they can also be applied more broadly, too.
“Do you really care?” can feel like a trivial question – if you are already reading this article you must, right?! But, in the spirit of being intentionally provocative – do you really care? To quote a quick Google search, to care is to “apply serious attention or consideration.” Skimming headlines and liking LinkedIn posts about diversity is OK, but if you have given serious attention to gender diversity in your team, do you roughly know what the proportional gender split is? And do you have an opinion on what the biggest changes your company could make to foster inclusivity are?
An interesting (albeit dated) piece of research from Glassdoor shows that the majority of respondents to a survey identified diversity as an important factor when evaluating employers. It also found that the majority also think their current companies should be doing more to increase diversity. So, on the surface at least, it seems like people do care!
However, the same survey found that the majority of candidates did not know of, or were unsure of, any diversity initiatives in place at their current companies. So, while most people care, they haven’t even looked at what is already being done at their current workplace. Personally, I don’t think this result is surprising – there is a strong moral argument for diversity and inclusion that is easy for most people to emotionally connect with. But caring about D&I in a business – without even finding out what policies are in place to support it – isn’t so different to caring about a football team without knowing any of the players’ names.
If you care, you should also be open to changing your opinion on topics as you learn more. As an example, I strongly dislike hierarchical work environments. So much so, in fact, that I can often lean towards being anti-hierarchy. Specific to the topic at hand, strongly hierarchical spaces can result in women and other groups being disadvantaged, as they are subject to layers of management who do not understand (or possibly do not respect) them.
In an extremely hierarchical space, layers of hierarchy will only have close interactions with their own level and the levels immediately above/below, meaning biases – even if unconscious – can result in sections of hierarchy becoming all but inaccessible to women (the glass ceiling). But, actually, an egalitarian approach to things doesn’t work when people are not treated as equals, or when people don’t act equally.
Skimming headlines and liking LinkedIn posts about diversity is OK, but if you have given serious attention to gender diversity in your team, do you roughly know what the proportional gender split is?
Director of Data Science, Peak
Imagine your best decision maker (regardless of gender) is extremely quiet, non-assertive, or introverted. Just because they technically have an equal voice to the rest of their team, they might not get the space they need to use it. Hierarchy can add structure that ensures the right people have the authority to get the right information and make the right decisions for the company when they need to.
While this example was non-malicious, imagine the challenges somebody who already does not feel included might go through. Hierarchy can let people ‘pull rank’ when required, and ensure they are heard when they need to be. Furthermore, humans are a social species, and informal hierarchies will inevitably arise in the absence of formal ones – but formal hierarchies are much easier to assess for inclusivity and fairness. I came to see this other side of hierarchy through listening to the lived experiences of female managers. So while I am still egalitarian at heart, listening to the experiences of others has helped me to understand and appreciate that there are both good and bad aspects to hierarchical structures that should be accounted for when trying to support inclusion and diversity.
Below I have listed several questions that you might want to think about. You don’t need to know the answer to all of these questions, but if you want to support gender diversity and inclusivity in your team, you should know some, and be interested in finding out more about some of the others.
- What is the proportional gender split in your industry?
- What is the proportional gender split in your team?
- What is the proportional gender split at each stage of your recruitment funnel?
- Does your company have diversity targets and, if so, what are they?
- Do you have women in leadership roles? If not, why not? Role models are important!
- How inclusive do you think your company’s culture is?
- What are the biggest things you think should be changed to make it more inclusive?
- What sorts of things does your company celebrate, and are they inclusive?
- How often do you hear a meeting moderator invite a non-assertive speaker to contribute to a meeting?
- Is there flexibility around office hours available for people with caring responsibilities?
- How good is your company’s maternity leave policy?
- How accessible is your office to pregnant women?
- Have you considered whether your job descriptions use language that women are less likely to engage with?
- What companies do gender diversity well, and what can you learn from them?
- Who are the experts in this domain, and what are they saying?
In contrast, here is a list of things to avoid if you care:
- Patting yourself on the back for slacktivism
- Turning other peoples’ struggles into a way to self-promote
- Not engaging with an issue because it doesn’t affect you personally
- Not engaging with an issue because it makes you uncomfortable
- Thinking of diversity issues as dehumanized ‘group’ issues, as opposed to issues that affect real individuals that you work with
After caring comes listening. You might be surprised at how many people care about gender diversity and inclusivity, and can quote all the stats, but don’t listen to the lived experiences of those around them. Listening should be easy – give people space to talk, and believe what they say. There is no need to be dismissive – every person and every company is different, so every set of experiences will be different.
Maybe a female coworker had a negative interaction and they think gender bias is the cause – whereas you think it was probably not gender-related at all. The truth is, from a diversity and inclusivity perspective, it doesn’t really matter what the cause was. For some reason, quite possibly related to a long history of broader social interactions that have had negatively-gendered undertones, your colleague doesn’t feel included. They are now more likely to leave your company, and the industry altogether. Everybody loses. Listen to what people say, how they feel, and support them as individuals. Don’t shut them down, or debate. You don’t need to be an expert about what every feminist issue is. Just listen with an open mind to the specific issues that the individual in front of you has experienced. Assume the amazing people you are working with know what they are talking about and are telling the truth.
Note that listening and supporting individuals and groups of individuals does not mean you need to agree with every broad topic! We often discuss recruitment diversity at Peak, and sometimes it gets raised that well-known statistics indicate unconscious biases against women that can affect them during recruitment. As a Decision Intelligence company, we monitor our conversion rates at each recruitment stage, disaggregated by gender (important!), and have found no evidence to suggest that –at Peak – women are disadvantaged. While it is true that general society might have an unconscious bias against women in tech roles, it is also possible that this bias doesn’t exist in certain individuals, or at certain companies. Given we have data, the existence and influence of unconscious bias is something that can be respectfully discussed and debated, and even disagreed on.
What can’t be debated? We have had female applicants comment that their candidature experience was all-male, and that this made them feel uncomfortable. That was their experience. For context, we have a three-round interview process in the Peak data science team, and over those three rounds a candidate might meet seven Peak-ers – an all-male process is rare and doesn’t reflect the diversity within the Peak team. But dismissing these people as unlucky and pointing to these stats doesn’t help our female candidates feel more included. Instead, we have put a couple of simple measures in place to ensure mixed panels, particularly for diverse candidates. It’s a simple fix that makes everybody happier and better reflects Peak to our candidates. All from listening.
Below I have prepared a shorter list of questions around listening that you might want to think about. Again, you don’t need to know all the answers – consider them a starting point for trying to listen more.
- When did you last ask a woman in your team about her experiences with inclusivity?
- What do the women in your team consider to be the top barriers to inclusivity at your company?
- What are the top things women in your company would like to change?
- Is there a committee or an internal group where people discuss issues and plan change?
And again, here is a list of things to avoid in order to listen better:
- Dismissing people’s personal experiences
- Debating people’s personal experiences
- Pointing out how other people might face similar challenges
- Using the conversation as a way to make people listen to you
With the above foundations in place, the most impactful thing you can do is help. Helping is the action that actually makes things better. Any help is better than none, and not everybody needs to help in the same way. In fact, it is usually better when people use their unique skills or positions to help in ways that others can’t. There are countless ways to directly help, and there are a lot of great resources with ideas for getting directly involved. To name a few, you can:
- Join a Diversity and Inclusion committee
- Review your recruitment processes
- Advocate for diversity OKRs
- Mentor or help people from different backgrounds to your own get into the industry
- Start a reading group
- Get involved in wider communities
There are other ways you can help, too, that you might not even realize. For example, the data science team at Peak have been working on a more detailed Part-time/Flexible Work Policy lately – did you know that publicly-available stats suggest that 38% of women work part-time compared to just 13% of men? Flexibility helps people with caring responsibilities, which are traditionally more likely to be taken on by women.
Coming up with a flexible work policy isn’t easy, though; we have several different roles in the team that are functionally different, and would need to support flexibility in different ways. We need to consider what sort of part-time work is feasible for each role, and how that would impact the business. We also need to consider if job sharing is a possibility. But, anybody can help with this. You don’t need to be a woman, or a carer, or even want to work part-time to help review a policy or come up with some ways to make it viable. It’s a curious observation that people will readily volunteer to help with tasks that ultimately do not affect them like debugging, testing some code, or even moving some boxes, but feel like it is inappropriate to help on a diversity initiative because it does not affect them.
Another example of a different way to help involves the maternity package at Peak. As a fast-growing startup, our team grew faster than some of our policies did. The Peak maternity package was one such example, and people would discuss it with concern from time to time, but with little progress. When one of the managers in the team (for whom a maternity package would not benefit) heard this, they reviewed what had been done so far, gave feedback on how to restructure the proposal, and helped bring urgency to the issue. The proposal was a success and now Peak has a policy in place that is competitive for a business our size. The manager in this example didn’t need to own the proposal, or write the proposal, or come up with any of the ideas – the impact they had came from listening to the concerns of the team, then using their experience and position to help remove some of the blockers.
A final simple example of helping in small ways is to encourage women around you to take the opportunities that you know they would be awesome at, and to encourage equal participation. It is known that men can feel more confident with less experience than women, which is something that we have seen in our own data. Also, studies have shown that women are less likely to consider themselves for jobs that men might, based on their perception of required experience. This can lead to women taking longer to move into senior roles, because they might not feel like they are ready to apply when the opportunity arises, and the position might go to a less-qualified person who is more confident in their own abilities. If you think a person is a superstar, or can handle more responsibility, tell them! Encourage them! And, if you are moderating a meeting and you see certain women might not be getting the space they need to contribute, call it out and give them that space.
It shouldn't be a trade off between being more successful in your career vs. being a martyr for the cause, but sometimes it can feel that way.
Head of Data Science Operations, Peak
So, you see – helping is something that anybody can do, regardless of their background. You just need to care and listen in order to understand how to help best. Only one question to round out the section this time…
- What was the last thing you did to help?
And a few what-not-to-do’s on helping:
- Don’t boast about the things you have helped with. Instead of “I am on the diversity committee and I led this project to success,” say: “The diversity committee has achieved this great success.” Celebrate the outcome, or the involvement of the people you are trying to help. Helping others shouldn’t be about you!
- Don’t think you have to ‘fix’ minorities. Every workplace has a default persona. Work on optimizing that default (and making it more inclusive), rather than trying to change people into something that, by the definition I have conveniently taken, is sub-optimal. A classic example of this relates to women’s confidence. If women in an organization have lower confidence in their skills than men, the ‘problem’ might actually be that the men are too rash or demonstrate a lack of self awareness. If women are less likely to contribute in a meeting, it might not have anything to do with confidence (or assertiveness) – I am sure we have all attended poorly-moderated meetings where a couple of over-talkative individuals prevent anybody else from contributing…then the last 20 minutes becomes a chat about rugby!
- Don’t feel cheated because you helped on something but nobody helped you back.
- Don’t expect minority groups to do all the hard work for you – Part 1. When the new maternity leave policy was released at Peak, a number of people asked when a new paternity policy would be released. To be fair, our People team did pick this up pretty quickly, but there was nothing stopping people who wanted a better paternity policy getting involved to help make that change themselves. At best it can feel inconsiderate – “what they have achieved is ok, but it would have been better if it benefited me more.” At worst, it can feel like a sense of entitlement – “it isn’t fair that I miss out, they should work hard to improve my situation next!” In fact, I have seen this “where’s mine?” attitude completely block great ideas in other workplaces. Don’t be like that!
- Don’t expect minority groups to do all the hard work for you – Part 2. When minority groups have to disproportionately work on company-wide initiatives to foster diversity and inclusivity, they have disproportionately less time to work on their actual work. Consider the earlier example about diverse interview panels; because the pool of female interviewers is smaller, it could be easy to end up in a situation where women spend a lot more of their working week (on average) in interviews than men. An important part of being an ally is taking some of that burden off of minority groups. To quote Amy, our Head of Data Science Operations, “it shouldn’t be a trade off between being more successful in your career vs. being a martyr for the cause, but sometimes it can feel that way.”
Allyship is incredibly important if we want to see real change in the industries within which we work. Implementing change is hard enough without having to drive it from a minority position, through a hierarchy that might not understand you, using processes and structures that were not designed for you, when you already don’t feel included.
Supporting diversity and inclusion as an ally shouldn’t be hard, though, and can be reduced to the three core ingredients of caring, listening and helping. While the focus of this piece has been on gender diversity, these principles can equally be applied to other demographics.
Thank you for reading this – if you have any questions or points to discuss, feel free to reach out.
As Director of Data Science at Peak, Stuart is responsible for the full Peak Data Science function, covering Operations, Insight, R&D and Data Engineering. With a PhD in simulation, Stuart joined Peak as data scientist number two, and is passionate about developing the team into the world's best, empowering people across all demographics to have successful careers in the industry.