Behaviour Change Platform for D&I

How Atlassian creates inclusive spaces for their global employees - Crescendo Chats | Episode 5

Welcome to Crescendo Chats: Scaling Diversity & Inclusion. In this series, Crescendo co-founder Stefan Kollenberg hosts conversations with HR and diversity & inclusion practitioners, sharing valuable insights from their work. 

This conversation is with Aubrey Blanche, the Global Head of Diversity & Belonging at Atlassian.

Listen to the podcast or read below for the edited transcript. 

Stefan: Welcome to the podcast! To start, could you share a bit more about yourself, what you do, and what Atlassian does as a company? 

Aubrey: Yes! I’ll start with Atlassian, an Australia-based international maker of collaboration software. Think: the things we know and love like JIRA, Confluence, and Trello. Our mission as a company is to unleash the potential in every team. And I think that helps people understand why I work at Atlassian. 

You probably heard my job title and thought… what the hell does that mean? Which to me is the fun of it. It means whatever I want it to and whatever we as a company need in order to make ourselves a fair, more equitable company. 

I spend a big portion of my time working with our people team overhauling recruiting, how we retain, advance, and fulfill out employees. But also thinking about things like product accessibility or what the spaces are for our customer events. I get to work with cool people across the company to help make their work even more impactful and even more equitable. It was a good way to learn a ton, and I’m a knowledge vacuum if I can be. 

Stefan: What’s the biggest learning out of all those learnings that you had in the role so far?

Aubrey: I’ll give you two!

The general learning is don’t push forward past what people are ready for is number one. One of the things I found about this work is that it is, by definition, about creating change. Our world is unfair and inequitable and we have to get to the other side, which is fair and equitable. 

When I came to Atlassian, as I said they are an Australian company. I am a Latina woman in tech. Talk about feeling like a unicorn. So I came in with a very interesting point of view - not confusing diversity to equal women. When diversity equals “women,” diversity actually equals straight, white, cis-gender, economically privileged women. And not that those people don’t also face barriers that are inequitable, but they’re not necessarily the largest barriers or the most structural ones.  

Another really good lesson for me that I was taking my own perspective into the work and not incorporating the perspective of the people that I’m there to serve and advocate for as well. 

That’s something that’s changed over the last four years as we’ve rolled out a strategy specifically to support our Black Atlassians, for example. And we’ve increased the representation of Latino folks in technical roles. But I started with the endpoint and not with just bringing people in and helping them understand. I think I came from a little bit of my own overconfidence, so it’s humbling and a really useful experience that I think has helped me be more effective.


Stefan: What is a challenge you face or mistake you made early on - and how would you recommend someone else avoid that?

Aubrey: I think the thing early on that I didn’t understand was that we can’t think of failure as failure - we can’t personalize it. 

There have been many programs at Atlassian that I’ve tried that haven’t worked. And we just haven’t gotten to invest in them. A good example is we ran an Emerging Leaders Program for women in our headquarters. Women came out saying they were more confident and they felt great, but what we didn’t find was that it increased their promotional velocity. Our two key metrics of success were if participants loved it and it improved promotional velocity. And so my advice to anyone who cares and is trying to make the world better is that we put ourselves and our hearts into the work because that’s motivating. But we also have to understand that we should look at failures as opportunities to learn and refine our strategies, not as referendums on whether or not we’re legitimate change agents. 

Stefan: Absolutely. I’ve seen companies where people have tried something, it didn’t work, and people question if “the diversity thing” will work. 

Aubrey: I think that’s what you’re seeing in the industry at large. For folks who are listening, last year Atlassian put out what we call our 2018 State of Diversity Report, which you can get online at atlassian.com/diversity/survey. 

But one of the things we found that was really surprising between 2017 and 2018 was that there was a significant drop - 10 percentage points - in companies having formal D&I programs. Also we saw a 50 percent year over year drop in people engaging in individual inclusion-creating behaviours. 

So we’re seeing what we call diversity fatigue - the advocates are just tired of pushing for change and not seeing it. Detractors are tired of hearing about it. The people in the middle don’t know what to do. 

What I’m seeing though is companies tend to be investing in the performative aspects of inclusion. It’s great to hear you had a women’s event. It’s great that you overhauled your career site so it’s more attractive to a broad set of people. But companies haven’t seen real change because, in many cases, they haven’t invested in the structural changes that would allow that change to happen. 

It’s not that the money wasn’t useful. It’s that sponsoring a women in tech awards is not going to help women inside your organization be promoted and paid fairly. That’s what I worry about. But I’m also really proud of Atlassian because our leaders are willing to make those “non-shiny” investments, but things that have helped give our underrepresented workforce more confidence that they’re being treated fairly, that they’re being developed, and that they’re advancing. 

It’s also one of the reasons that we share a lot about what we’re building to balance equity in the organization and why we share so much data on what our progress is like.


Stefan: That’s a perfect segue because the purpose of today is to dig into sharing the data. Why did you shift away from using the term “diversity” and instead talk about balance?

Aubrey: We found in our 2018 State of Diversity Report that the word “diversity” is actually globally only associated with two groups - White women and Black Americans. And what’s interesting, even in Australia, our home country, we found that people were more likely to say that Black or African American folks were diverse than Indigenous Australians.

So we realized that word wasn’t actually describing our goals. It was also inhibiting us from having really crucial and important conversations for those groups. So we moved to this concept of balanced teams. 

I think that it’s helped people feel they have a stake in the business. But the thing that I think is very counterintuitive is that it’s actually helped us have much more direct and open conversations about anti-racism, which is the opposite of what everyone things. 

We had a co-listening session with our Black employees - we now have professional development. We’ve also had a lot of internal writing and discussion about what racism is and how you can take feedback about racist micro-aggressions in ways that, I think, felt less scary for folks from majority groups to engage in. This allowed them to get to the point where they were able to learn what is being asked of them as an ally.

We’re really trying to empower people to simply see what isn’t fair in their sphere of influence and saying… yeah, go fix it. Do that little thing. Because it’s not little to the people that it helps.

Stefan: Amazing. Taking a step back to look at your program as a whole. What do you see as the most important aspect of the foundation - and how do you get started? 

Aubrey: I think the most important aspect is looking at the underlying philosophies of the talent process. What I mean by that is that the beliefs that we have about human beings inform the processes we build. So if we believe, for example, that going to an elite university is a useful proxy for talent capability we are going to recruit at Stanford or MIT. 

If we look at data what we know is that going to an elite university, for example, is a function of your parents’ income. And that anyone with a growth mindset has incredible potential if you show support and develop them.

Stefan: I’m curious - what was the biggest learning you got from your recent survey that went out to Atlassian employees? 

Aubrey: One of the things that was really exciting to me was the engagement survey. We do it every year. And inside that survey there is an inclusion index, but there’s also a bunch of other factors I look at. It turned out that there are two qualities correlated with people staying at Atlassian. 

We found that, probably unsurprisingly, whether people feel like they’ve developed professionally in the last six months. The second is whether they answer positively to “I feel like I belong on my team.”


Stefan: There’s a lot of focus on topics like gender identity, autism, mental health, parental status, and personality differences - just even around introversion and extroversion. How does this dialogue come up? How can you drive conversations around areas that might not be seen as traditional?

Aubrey: My philosophy is that I want to create a space where employees feel safe to speak their truth. I’m not necessarily the person who should be educating on all aspects of identity because I don’t possess all of them. But internally, we have a space in our Confluence called Side by Side. The blog there is what we call By Atlassians, For Atlassians. So there’s no gateway - people can post anytime they want. Although people tend to write a draft and ask me for feedback first, which is also an option. 

But one of the things I encourage people to do is write about their life experience and how it impacts their work. At the end I ask if they can provide some instructions on how people can support people like them. Because I found one of the biggest blockers for allies is sometimes they’re aware enough of what’s broken but they can kind of freeze and don’t know what to do to help. 

Stefan: Cool! With these open conversations, were there challenges? If so, how did you approach that?

Aubrey: Totally. A good example is LGBT inclusion. We were the first company to declare support for marriage equality in Australia when they were having a vote on whether that should be a right. We lit up our headquarters building in rainbows to try to drive public discussion on it. Internally, we sent notes encouraging people to vote and set up boxes in the office. But we didn’t tell employees how to vote - that’s the line we drew. 

But there was definitely discussion on some of our Confluence pages. We have employees from all over the world, a lot of whom are from cultural backgrounds where that type of inclusion is not welcome. So we had public discussions about why we are supporting this and what it looks like. What we tried to do is have community guidelines. For example, don’t make negative comments about entire groups of people. But do have a discussion grounded in data about the dynamics in this. 

One employee, for example, said that in other offices he worked in no one talked about their spouses of their families and kids - so something like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is equity. But that person eventually realized how it’s not the same treatment. Maybe that person is not going to go out and paint themselves in a rainbow blog. But that person does have a deeper understanding of the concepts of equality and equity.

Stefan: So is it about finding small educational opportunities?

Aubrey: Yeah, but it’s a constant balancing act. And that’s a lot of work - giving people new perspectives and information. Because people teach themselves when you let them marinate in that for a while.


Stefan: Jumping to another area - you increased representation of women in technical roles from 14.6 percent to 17 percent, which is a big jump at a 4,000 person company. How did you make that happen?

Aubrey: Since we released that data we’ve actually moved it to 20.1 percent. I’m really excited - our biggest single year gain ever. 

But there’s no silver bullet. I would say our talent acquisition team is full of complete incredible superhumans. So they’ve overhauled almost everything about the way we operationalize recruiting, starting from the top of the funnel. And we’ve done a lot more events and spent more time connecting with people from underrepresented communities. 

We even decided at our events that, instead of buying t-shirts, we’d donate our swag budget to charity. We chose Black Girls Code, Code 2040, and Women Who Code. So what we did was when we gave out stickers, there were two. One was for you, and one is for you to put the name of the organization you’d like us to donate your t-shirt money too. 

We found it was actually a great sorting mechanism for the kinds of people who would thrive at Atlassian. If you were pissed you didn’t get a t-shirt, this is probably not the right work environment for you. 

Stefan: So you were telling me about the team approach Atlassian takes. Can you go a bit more in-depth on how that works?

Aubrey: Absolutely. I think there’s a core problem with the way that companies think about achieving diversity, and it’s that they’re looking at the company level. And this has a lot of major drawbacks. 

The first is that showing statistics of the balance of your organization at a company level doesn’t actually measure whether people are working with each other different from them every day. It’s easy to say we’ve reached gender equity… and then you realize all your non-male employees work in marketing and HR. It allows you to hide things. 

I also think reporting at the company level, especially for large companies, is both demoralizing and not particularly helpful in showing progress. One percent of Google is very different than one percent of Atlassian or one percent of a smaller startup. 

Stefan: That makes a ton of sense. How can you do it? How can companies start measuring?

Aubrey: It’s often not intuitive on how to get there. But all companies have the data they need to do this. We actually, at Atlassian, built a tool for other companies to get this analysis and some guidance about the ways that we’ve built greater belonging, which followed onto retention and inclusion. It’s available in the Atlassian Team Playbook.


Stefan: And you mentioned a bit about the future - what do you see is the future vision for the balance and belonging project?

Aubrey: I think we’ll keep investing deeply in our programs for both hiring and community development. 

The business is taking ownership of a big portion of the inclusion and belonging. And I think we’ll keep growing and scaling. The big complexity for us is that we’ve added offices in Ankara and in Bangalore over the last couple years. So we’re now really embracing the global complexity of what we’re doing. 

Stefan: That’s great. I’ve talked to a few D&I leaders and one of the most challenging parts of the role is influencing others. I was wondering - how do you convince individuals and groups to come along the journey with you? 

Aubrey: The first things that I need to understand about someone in order to convince them is who they are and what motivates them. What actually matters to you? Let me connect this mission to something that’s intrinsic to you. 

Second, I usually need to know a story or a way that you’ve been excluded or you felt like you didn’t belong. And I think starting there is most important because, often, especially for folks from majority groups, the whole world has been constructed for them to feel included. So they often don’t understand how important and impactful being excluded is in terms of making your experience at work pretty shit.


Stefan: I love it. Now we’re going to hop into the lighting round. What’s your favourite quote? 

Aubrey: “Well behaved women seldom make history.”

Stefan: What motivates you in life?

Aubrey: I honestly just can’t stand the idea that the world’s not fair. My first thought is that’s lazy. Inequity and unfairness is a choice. 

Stefan: What’s a book or movie that changed the way you look at the world?

Aubrey: Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.

Stefan: What’s your favourite podcast?

Aubrey: Still Processing.

Stefan: What is the coolest tech product you’ve ever come across?

Aubrey: I’m a big fan of Google Maps because I have no sense of direction. But I’m really compelled by the use of AR and VS as ways to both deconstruct our biases and help us understand the experience of people from different parts of the world. 

Stefan: How can people connect with you or with opportunities at Atlassian?

Aubrey: Atlassian.com/careers for all of our open roles. If you want to get in touch with me, you can hit me up on Twitter @AdBlanche or hello@aubreyblanche.com

Stefan: Thank you! 

That wraps up this episode of our podcast, if you want to listen to audio version click below.

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Stefan Kollenberg