Hello to whoever’s still out there reading this! This last year has been a whirlwind, but I’m out of blog hibernation to announce an important project for Ada’s List, the global community for women in technology I co-founded 3 years ago. We’re an online community where women who work in tech:
Talk off the record about professional, tech and science-related topics
Find amazing women to speak on panels and talented ladies to write about
Find support if you’re a co-founder, entrepreneur, freelancer, corporate innovator
Get mentoring, and so much more.
Whatever we’ve achieved so far has happened on a shoestring with the blood, sweat and tears of volunteers who care about making the tech sector a better place for us all.
We know that in an ideal world Ada’s List wouldn’t exist, because there would be no need to fight for gender equality in STEM. But, the truth is the sector is dominated by men. There are not enough women in STEM positions, or on boards of companies. This all adds up to creating a macho-culture which not only impacts what women can sometimes achieve but also influences the end-product built by a company – and things are better when they’re created by a diverse group of people.
A quick summary of some of the things we’ve done:
Launched our agenda, committing ourselves to increasing diversity and promoting women into leadership across the tech sector
We are growing at 5-10% every month
Our UK General Election survey last year was covered in the mainstream press, and we were featured in publications like Fortune and the London Evening Standard.
We’ve established a strong management team supported by committed volunteers and an advisory board.
But we are even more proud of how active our membership has become. It’s not just a talking shop – members are supporting each other daily, by mentoring, sharing jobs and organising or participating in regular meetups and events keeping women in tech engaged in the industry.
Last week, during London Technology Week, Ada’s List was proud to organise a panel discussion on a topic close to our hearts: how to increase the number of people of colour (especially women) in the technology industry. We state our ambition on this matter very clearly in our Agenda: the technology industry needs diversity of people and thought to make the products and services that emerge as successful as possible.
Over the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of groups and individuals talking about gender diversity. We decided it was time to focus on diversity of background in addition to this. We assembled a very talented (and yes, diverse) panel: Ade Adewunmi (Head of Data Infrastructure at Government Digital Service), Ade Oshineye (Developer Advocate at Google) and Arfah Farooq (co-founder of the Muslamic Makers meetup and Head of Marketing at Makers Academy), moderated by Ada’s List’s Kajal Odedra (Senior Campaigns Advisor at change.org).
Being a person of colour in tech
The panel started by discussing their experiences of being a person of colour in tech. On the positive side, it is easy for people to remember them because they are such a rarity. On the negative, there’s a lack of role models because there aren’t enough people of colour in the first place. Also sometimes, finding a safe space to be yourself at work is hard; for example, if you’re a practicing Muslim then you need a space to pray during the day. As a person of colour who uniquely experiences certain issues, they often have to decide whether to make a big deal of something or let it pass; as one of the panelists said, that is often exhausting.
With many companies committing to diversity in hiring these days, it is not unusual to think of ‘diverse’ hires as token hires, made simply to fill that quota. On the one hand, no one wants to be seen as a token hire, but on the other, that may be the only way to enter that company in the first place, from where you are in a position to change the status quo and get more people of colour on board. There is an assumption that the status quo is absolutely fair and there is no need for quotas, as one of our panelists said, but that is not the case – so quotas are not a bad thing. As she eloquently put it:
‘when you’ve never had to share, equity feels like oppression’.
On diversity in large vs. smaller companies
Lack of diversity is very often a structural problem – i.e a cultural problem, not a pipeline one. Humans have only so much empathy and sometimes they cannot see why a specific issue is a problem, especially if as a white male you’ve never experienced them. However, being a structural problem, structural solutions need to be put in place to tackle it as a matter of importance – otherwise no one does anything about it in a concerted manner. No doubt, for larger organisations it’s often easier to care because they have the resources to throw at the problem – also in today’s world they have to (witness how Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter all got called out when their diversity statistics were discovered recently). For smaller organisations, the key is in the founding team: if they are not empathetic, then cultural problems will pervade no matter what you do. It is important to remember, however, that having a diverse founding team does not automatically guarantee diversity of workforce: sometimes diverse founders are not very inclusive at all (and this is often seen in the media when senior people from different ethnicities in the tech industry say they believe in ‘hiring only on talent’ – whoever said that hiring a diverse workforce would mean you need to compromise on that?!).
One of the panelists made an interesting point on spreading awareness of your culture even if you are the only person of colour in your organization: though it is often tiring to have that burden, if you don’t do it no one will, and people often appreciate learning about new cultures. Another of our panelists added to that, and warned that if you get a reputation for being difficult, or worse, get fired, then you have no way of helping others in any way – that knowledge of how much to assert your point of view regarding diversity is a very delicate balance that you only learn to achieve with experience. It is also crucial to challenge senior people in companies who have clear prejudices, or make wrong comments. Sometimes the bias is unconscious, but it still needs to be called out, and again you can only have those conversations if you are at that senior level yourself and share a relationship with people at that level that will not put your career in jeopardy if you speak to them about these subjects.
Give unconscious bias training to all employees: People usually think of themselves as good people who are not biased. Making this training compulsory might help people see that they aren’t bad individuals, but they need to be aware of their inherent bias so they can tackle it. This is particularly important for managers who are in a hiring position. Facebook and Google both offer this training, and Facebook’s Managing Bias training course is available for free online.
Managers, push back on shortlists that are not 50-50 male-female: I am increasingly hearing positive stories of enlightened, informed managers in the tech industry who are pushing back at recruitment and HR teams if they are given candidate shortlists that are not equally split in male/female representation. Managers are in a very strong position to make a difference, and pushing back that bit can really help the diversity of teams and companies in the long run – even if you have to keep a position open for a little while longer than you’d like when your own manager is asking questions.
Get diverse experts in to talk to your teams: A lot of companies organise events for their employees or the wider industry. Instead of inviting white men to take the stage repeatedly, make sure you get people of colour and women on a regular basis so that becomes normal, not unusual. This will of course be difficult but it’s important to send the signal because, as one of our panelists experienced, there are men who sometimes do not see women as experts in coding (for example) because they have never known or worked with a senior female developer in the industry before, and are not used to taking instructions or lessons from them.
All in all, an important set of questions and very interesting answers that I personally was proud to be a part of on behalf of Ada’s List. Thanks to all our panellists for a great evening.
Ada’s List has been a really interesting journey for us 4 co-founders over the past 1 year and 8 months or so, but we haven’t really had the time to sit and digest what it means and where we should go next. This presentation provided me the opportunity to do a bit of a retrospective of our activity to date, and came at a time when the co-founders have started asking ourselves questions about what we want going ahead (more on that hopefully in the not-too-distant future).
I started the talk by talking about social movements, and how by virtue of being a community that works for change through collective action, Ada’s List is a social movement in itself. It came in at what I think was the right time – the women in tech discussion had just about started increasing in noise around 2013, and now it is a part of even mainstream media.
I mentioned MIT’s Building 20 and the way they collaborated across disciplines to create interesting work, which happens a lot with Ada’s List, being a group of people with roughly common interests but different backgrounds and expertise.
By dint of both circumstance and intent, we’ve spearheaded some thought-provoking debates around the workplace and work culture, government policy around women and technology and parenthood in the modern workplace, through the events we’ve organised. Our survey around the political leanings of our members in the run-up to the UK’s General Election this year was also a big project for us.
We’re going nowhere, and intend to go far with what Ada’s List calls Change at Scale: changing structures, political process, work culture…by doing what we do for women in tech, we want to change things for everyone.
A while ago, the Ada’s List team envisioned a survey to find out what our community of 1000+ women in tech (and the women in tech they know in turn) really think about government policies and priorities leading up to the UK general elections in May. The survey is finally ready, and it would be brilliant if you fill it in if you’re a female working in tech yourself, or pass it on to people you know who are. The survey is here.
To be clear, we welcome anyone who is 18+, identifies as female and is working in technology in the UK (or, for non-residents, have an affiliation with the UK/UK politics) to take this survey, even if they are not currently a member of Ada’s List. This means if you have women in tech networks or groups at your workplace or in your community, we would love to have them fill it in as well. Please share it with all of them – the more data we have, the more robust the output will be. They are all also welcome to join Ada’s List if they are not already a member, but it is by no means a pre-requisite to fill in the survey.
The responses will be completely anonymous – we will not have any information as to who is filling it in, so please be as honest as you want to be.
Those not based in the UK – if you could share the survey with any UK-based women in tech, we will really appreciate your assistance in getting the word out.
The last date for responses is Monday, March 30th. This will give us the time we need to collate output. We intend to share our findings with the wider world by the end of April.
Sincere thanks are also due to Ada’s Lister Rebecca Martin, who has created the survey for us on Tickbox, a new platform to encourage engagement in politics, launching in April before the elections.
This morning we had Ann Friedman speak to a bunch of us at Ada’s List. Ann used to be the Executive Editor of GOOD, and is a freelance journalist who has written for NYmag.com, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Hairpin, and Columbia Journalism Review amongst others.
There’s a Storify of the morning here, but I also wanted to separately share the links Ann referred to as I think they are all worth knowing (or re-familiarising ourselves with):
Shine Theory, or how powerful women make the best friends by Ann Friedman in NYmag.com
Horizontal Loyalty, from a 2011 commencement speech by NPR’s Robert Krulwich at the University of California Berkeley
I often get asked what the main information sources I read are. While most of them are pretty standard for anyone working in media and technology in this part of the world, lately I’ve been feeling a gap in my own knowledge when it comes to information from other parts of the world in these areas, especially given my personal interests in that region.
Over the last year or so, a number of interesting sources of information have launched online: The Next Web’s Jon Russell has an Asia-focussed newsletter, Bill Bishop’s Sinocism newsletter paints a valuable multi-hued picture of China, Quartz now has an India edition (and their Daily Brief email focussing on the region), and Your Story publishes news stories from across Asia and South-East Asia, to name a few. Of course there are also the more mainstream outlets like the Economist, Time, Harvard Business Review and so on. But what I was looking for was something beyond just the big news stories of the startup and communications industry outside of the West – it was information on the lesser-known companies and projects, albeit rooted in tech, that are disrupting markets across the world (and outside of just India/Asia). And also, information on companies in those parts of the world not founded by men (refer to Ada’s List).
So a while ago I started creating a list of these companies. And then I figured that writing a weekly newsletter would not only help me keep track of the most interesting non-US/UK/EU projects across the world in a more memorable way, it might also be useful for some other people (five of you, maybe ten, I don’t know).
So if you’d like, pop in your email address and see if what I find is interesting to you. It won’t be more regular than weekly (I only wish I had the publishing proclivity of the brilliant Dan Hon or the detailed perspectives of Frederic Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassée, but you have to go with what you have eh) so you won’t have to worry about me spamming your inbox.
I figure short and sweet is a good way to start – so each Wednesday expect a list of no more than a handful of companies that are interesting to me, based in or focussed on areas outside of Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout – you know, those Other Valleys.
This evening Ada’s List got together with Undercurrent, visiting from New York, to stage a conversation about future-facing organisations. I will probably sound biased but whether or not I was part of the organizing team, it was one of the most inspiring evenings I have been to in a while. I have long paid attention to Undercurrent’s work in re-defining what businesses are and should be paying attention to in the digital age. But beyond this, I am also fascinated by how they have been using Holacracy and other tools to create an organization that is truly of the 21st century in the way precious few are today, as one of the attendees said.
On the responsive OS
Clay Parker Jones began by speaking about the responsive organization (well worth subscribing to their blog on the subject). Businesses today in any industry have more or less similar concerns and problems as their competitors, so it is important to think about how they can distinguish themselves in a fairly uniform scenario. All supermarkets have similar challenges for example, whether it’s Walmart, Wegman’s, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or Reliance Fresh. OK, so different market factors in each part of the world will push and pull those in the same market in slightly different ways, but by and large, supermarkets all struggle with standard things like selling more product, proving they care for the environment, making sure they take care of their employees and customers and so on. So how do they equip themselves with competitive advantage? By thinking unlike a supermarket, and paying attention to market shifting opportunities the way Uber or Airbnb did.
On inclusion health
The second thing, mentioned by Lucy Chung, also a Partner at Undercurrent, was how they pay attention to ‘inclusion health’ or how their work environment values diverse individuals and gives them an opportunity to thrive. Not only does this just make sense from a culture perspective, it makes them more valuable to clients by walking the talk of a responsive, open company themselves. This attention to the company’s culture is greatly aided by Holacracy, a platform which, for those not familiar with it, is about distributed teams that are given complete autonomy within each small group. Individuals from different business disciplines come together to work on issues concerning the business, such as, for example, talent acquisition, clients, reputation and so on. Make no mistake – this isn’t something that is easy for just anyone to do – it is extremely unlikely, as Clay said, that an organization bigger than 500 employees will be able to practice this right off the bat in a meaningful way. This is because in traditional companies, managers have been trained to think and act a certain way over many years, a mindset that is extremely difficult to get rid of in favour of a fairly new and very flexible way of work.
On recruitment and ‘fit vs. add’
This led to a discussion on recruitment and how to hire the right kind of people. Lucy mentioned how they follow a 7-day hiring policy: they meet a candidate on Day 1, and progress them through meetings with other team members, at the end of which on Day 7 a definitive decision has to be made. A match in values is a key part of this. The host for the evening, Sue Siddall from Ideo, mentioned how they’ve moved from talking about ‘cultural fit’ to asking what ‘cultural add’ a potential employee would bring to the team. Audience members piped up with a viewpoint from the other side; that HR people in today’s big corporates have no idea what a good candidate is because they go purely by job spec and box-ticking, that’s what they are trained to do. Someone mentioned how long interview processes would result in getting ‘privileged candidates’ who could afford the luxury of multiple meetings for free, and how one approach was potentially paying people to be interviewed. Lucy said that that was exactly what they did by bringing in freelancers for paid work to assess fit for a permanent role.
Back to the responsive OS
The discussion then moved back to how Undercurrent works in a responsive way, paying attention to 6 key tenets:
– decentralizing activity, rather than concentrating decisions in the hands of a few (autonomous teams do not need to wait for management approval to do something as long as the whole team is in)
– simplifying work, as opposed to making it complex
– pushing for transparency, by allowing anyone to sit in on team meetings
– generating variety, to avoid stagnation and uniformity of thinking
– encouraging divergent thinking, rather than convergent
– replicating what works
The acronym they used, which they admitted was a work in progress, was ‘SLAM’: Self-organising, Lean, Autonomous, Multi-disciplinary.
On salary negotiation
Negotiation of salary was something a lot of people were naturally interested in. It’s been mentioned time and time again that women are bad negotiators and in general men are paid more for doing the same level of work. Undercurrent are working to eliminate this imbalance through a quarterly salary review process that involves each team member working through objectives and key results that they set with their mentor (who they pick) and getting some form of a salary increase commensurate with what they’ve achieved every single time. I loved what Lucy and Clay said: “we assume that the more you stay at UC, the better you’re getting – or else why are you still here?”. Pretty enlightened way of thinking I wish more companies took on board. This also helps to make sure that it isn’t only men who get the raises, just because they’re more likely to ask as a rule.
Women and diversity
The group also discussed how businesses needed to hire more women, especially at senior levels. An Ada’s Lister who said that her company had achieved the rare goal of having more women than men even at a senior level asked how they could move the discussion on from there. In response was another nice viewpoint: that all of us owe it to each other to look at how other types of diversity can be addressed so that at some point it becomes normal for everyone. Sue (Ideo) added another point of view: when they talked about maternity policies, they realized that they needed to also think of people who had other pressing life issues, such as having to care for elderly family.
‘Blend’ is the term UC prefer using to ‘balance’, but as Ada’s Lister Suki Fuller said, it’s all just life, there is no such thing as ‘work-life balance’, something I’ve heard pop up in a few places over the last couple of months. Another question was about how to encourage employees to pursue projects outside of work such that they stayed engaged with the company. Lucy mentioned some ways they do it at Undercurrent: investing in such side projects for one, or even, where it’s requested, allowing people to take a sabbatical to work on their project and then return.
Network reach vs. size
The reach of the network as opposed to just the size of the organization was something else Clay mentioned that stayed with me. Undercurrent have alumni, friends, partners and collaborators all over the world who they tap into for thoughts and ideas, which allows them to scale and be much more responsive than if they kept their ideas just to themselves; the point being that being a large organization isn’t much use today if you limit what you do with the resources you have.
There was a lot more food for thought over the span of close to two hours. It’s clear that this way of operating a business isn’t going to be common soon, but I really really hope it does. Also, it’s worth re-reading Undercurrent’s Responsive OS thinking and actions from the recent past: this post by Lucy, this one from Clay, and this one from Mike Arauz, as well as going through these short presentations:
A huge thanks to Clay and Lucy for opening up the UC world to us on this side of the pond. At Ada’s List we’re pretty sure there’ll be more to come out of it, so we’ll stay tuned.