Diversity & Inclusion: “It’s our responsibility” - A Candid Conversation with Jason Wong
Many tech start-ups can be measured by what they have accomplished and the routes they have taken towards success. They pride themselves on growth, visibility, and profitability, but the experiences and everyday realities of marginalized groups are often overlooked.
Issues like non-inclusion, pay inequities, lack of representation, marginalization, and problematic hiring practices have largely remained unaddressed in this rapidly growing ecosystem.
We explored these concepts with Jason Wong, who has made waves as an engineer and diversity and inclusion consultant. His extensive experience of over nineteen years in the industry boasts roles with Yahoo! Sports and Etsy, among others. He eventually made the move to becoming a diversity and inclusion consultant, with a focus on leadership development.
Through our enlightening conversation with Jason, we outline key tips about:
Inclusion strategies for start-ups
How management can recognize the experience of marginalized groups
Modifying team-building and management strategies as companies grow
Why D&I work is meant to be ongoing and transformative
The Importance of Recognizing the Need for Inclusion
Stefan: Tell us a bit more about yourself and your past experiences.
Jason: I started out working at a small IT shop for Columbia University and then spent four years at Yahoo! Sports where I got exposure to scaling web applications. After that, I was at Etsy for seven years. I started as an engineer but shifted to management after about a year.
At Etsy, I initially managed a team of three, but was eventually overseeing a team of 85+ engineers working on infrastructure initiatives for the company. I saw the company grow from 100 people when I joined, to over 1000 people in just a matter of years.
Stefan: Along the way, what challenges did you face with the company scaling that fast?
Jason: I think I had a lot of challenges scaling myself. When I became a manager I had a sense of how I wanted to show up in that role, but when I became a director lt I was really unfamiliar with how to fill that role, it was such a brand new experience for me and there was no job description.
I was suddenly responsible for a much wider set of work and had a host of new issues to consider that I wasn't familiar with. I found out pretty quickly that as the company and my organization grew, I had to modify my strategies and approach.
Stefan: When did diversity and inclusion become more of a priority?
Jason: When I started managing, my team of three had no women on it. Our VP of Engineering at the time, Marc Hedlund, made addressing this a big priority. At Etsy, something like 90-95% of the organization were men, which was almost the exact opposite ratio of our customer base.. We were having a hard time building the right product because we didn’t have the experiences and perspectives on the team that we needed.
Marc started by putting together a program with The Recurse Center and Etsy, funding a set of scholarships for the incoming class and hosting them in our office. Through that partnership we really got to know the participants and felt good about extending job offers to some of them. Soon, we increased the representation of women in our organization by almost 500%.
For the time, it was a fantastically successful effort. We patted ourselves on the back and hung our mission accomplished banner. But, over the course the following year or so, those numbers started to fall down. During that time time, the underrepresented folks in our organization were telling us that as management, we needed to pay attention to this problem.
We didn't do a good job of listening at the outset - It took us far longer than I’m comfortable admitting to finally take these concerns seriously…This resulted in a rethink and reassessment of how we were approaching diversity and inclusion. It became clear that people were having terrible experiences. They were being marginalized.
We had not necessarily done the work to clean up the behaviours and fix problematic work norms in a way that would result in successful engineers of all types. We began to focus on how to get better at changing our norms, and bringing about an environment where everyone can be successful and where everyone can be heard.
Stefan: As an engineering leader, how did you get others to pay attention, to care, and to go with you on this journey towards a more inclusive culture?
Jason: We had great dynamics at play. We had a leadership team that was willing to put a lot of time and money into the effort. For example, we put work into parental leave policies and anti-retaliation policies. We were talking about these things regularly.
Stefan: Was there anything else you did as part of the hiring process to remove bias?
Jason: One of the things that was apparent from early on was that we were recruiting the same way everyone else was, and, as a result, we were getting the same results as the rest of the industry. As a starting point, I invested time building lists of affinity groups and self-identifying groups. I partnered with our recruiters to start reaching out to those populations directly, because I wanted to ensure our job postings got out there. We also made sure we were very clear about our inclusive values, and candidates were made aware of this in our interviewing process.
“One of the things that was apparent from early on was that we were recruiting the same way everyone else was, and that’s why were were getting the same results as everyone else.”
According to Jason, the following are key in starting the process:
Management receptiveness towards the lived experiences of others
Recognizing the barriers and struggles that employees face within the company and in the field
Having an open dialogue with employees and within the management structure
Recognizing these issues early on
Ensuring that in the application process, the value of diverse experience is recognized
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Understanding Barriers and Working Together to Address Them
Stefan: In terms of what an organization can do to create a more inclusive workplace, what would your recommendations be?
Jason: I think everyone together can learn how to practice good allyship and can go on this journey of understanding privilege, understanding bias, and understanding how these things show up in a workplace. It’s important to understand these concepts not only abstractly, but how they are present in real life.
How do you create structures and processes that are more equitable and fair?
What does parental leave look like at your company?
What do anti-harassment benefits look like? These are good questions to think about.
As for the future, there are definitely policies to put into place that in today's world are not the norm. For example, do we pay people for emotional labour? We implicitly place the burden of equity creation on underrepresented minorities. When we have a question about the experiences of URMs, we ask them to educate us. When we want to demonstrate our diversity, we put URMs on every interview panel. And when they pass on that work, because it’s exhausting, we think poorly of them. How are we recognizing that underrepresented minorities are doing extra work? Those are issues we can explore as next frontiers; they involve changing the way we think about these things and recognizing value where we currently do not.
Stefan: When it comes to conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, was it easy to facilitate?
Jason: They are generally heavy conversations. They're specifically heavier on underrepresented minorities than they are on the majority group, who are often largely unaware. That's why allyship is very important.The general recommendation I have is to remind members of marginalized groups, it’s not your job to fix this. Those in positions of power, it's our responsibility. You need to find those who can use their privilege to set the tone in the workplace.
Part of Jason’s cutting-edge strategy relies on:
An appreciation of the complex nature of unconscious bias and how it manifests itself
Understanding that there are currently unorthodox but significant ways that contributions and lived experiences can be recognized
Placing responsibility on those in positions of privilege to set a standard of inclusion
Creating a Safe Space In Order to Facilitate Dialogue and Improvement
Stefan: Is there something you would want to say to someone in your position that wants to make the workplace more inclusive?
Jason: I would remind them that it is normal to feel uncomfortable during this process. We are changing the norms of the workplace. It’s going to feel different, it’s going to feel other, it’s going to feel uncertain and unsure.
Stefan: When it comes to power dynamics, have you found a good way to make people feel more comfortable coming to you to talk about these issues?
Jason: One tip that’s really important at the outset is believing - believing lived experiences of others - and defaulting to believing people. That is the best way forward. We live in this crazy world where two people can do the exact same thing and end up in complete opposite places. Getting into that mindset of being curious and believing their experience goes a long way to establishing trust and making people feel heard. The next part is, what do we do about it?
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