Overcoming a Problem That Has Defied Tech’s ‘Fail Fast’ Mantra: Diversity

Paradigm co-founder Carissa Romero shares how organizations can avoid tech's monoculture trap.

Lorain, Ohio, is a long way from Silicon Valley. But the town on Lake Erie taught Carissa Romero a lesson about diversity that the technology companies she now consults for still struggle to grasp: Small gestures can signal major biases.

“Growing up in a diverse city and being part Puerto Rican, diversity is something I thought a lot about. I looked around and saw that my peers were getting messages that they weren't good enough, that they didn't belong in certain places," Romero recalls.

It sparked an interest that followed Romero to college and onto graduate school at Stanford University, where she received a Ph.D. in psychology. An expert in how fixed versus growth mindsets affect people and organizations, Romero is a co-founder and partner of the diversity consulting firm Paradigm, which analyzes companies' human-resources data, from the application process through the exit interview, to uncover biases. (Lyft, Spotify, Airbnb and The New York Times have all been clients.)

“Diversity isn't just about hiring people," Romero says. “It's about making sure you have a culture where people feel included, where you're able to leverage diverse perspectives and where people feel like they can bring their authentic self to work."

In a conversation with the Modern Software Factory, Romero discusses why even tech companies that espouse their commitment to diversity, learning from mistakes and "failing fast" still keep failing the people puzzle—and why their own HR data holds the fix.
 

If leaders are not comfortable talking about their mistakes—why they happened and what they learned—no one will feel comfortable doing it. That's a great way for leaders to communicate a growth-mindset culture—that the company is a place to learn versus a place where employees have to prove themselves.

— Carissa Romero, Co-Founder and Partner, Paradigm

MSF Hub: Tech companies commission reports on diversity. Executives talk about it at conferences and in the media. But it's still a huge problem. Why?

Carissa Romero: When companies decide that they want to improve diversity and inclusion, they often look around, realize they're not where they want to be, and try to copy their peers' ideas. But those ideas aren't always based on research, and they're not based on the company's specific challenges or data.

We saw an opportunity to take a more data-driven approach that would resonate in the tech industry because it's similar to the approach companies take to product development: Identify a problem, look at the data to figure out how to solve that problem, and then test out the strategy. If you try to reduce bias in your interview process, you don't wait two years to see whether the company looks different. You evaluate if you're hiring more people from underrepresented groups.

MSF Hub: What kinds of traps do tech companies keep falling into?

CR: One risk is a culture of brilliance, or genius. It's similar to something that we call a fixed mindset, which is essentially the belief that abilities, talent and intelligence are fixed. You either have it or you don't. It's different from a growth mindset, which is a belief that you can improve your talents and abilities—like a muscle.

In the tech industry, this culture of brilliance creates the idea that only certain types of people have a technical mind. That leads people—and organizations and even entire industries—to rely on stereotypes. This is a barrier to diversity.

In some ways, the tech industry wants to have a growth mindset—consider its focus on failing fast and learning from mistakes in other areas. That's necessary for innovation. But believing that only certain people can do things, or focusing on genius, is risky.

MSF Hub: Your research has analyzed small ways in which companies signal their biases. Could you elaborate?

CR: When companies use phrases like “the best" and “the brightest," versus phrases like “willingness to learn" [in job descriptions], people from underrepresented groups could pick up on those cues and be worried about being viewed through the lens of negative stereotypes.

Even words like “win" or “dominant," which tend to be more associated with a masculine stereotype, are problematic. When women, for example, read those types of words, they're less likely to apply to companies [that use that language]. It's not that women can't be dominant or don't like to win—it's just that those words tend to be associated with male stereotypes.

MSF Hub: How can small changes push companies toward a growth mindset?

CR: My favorite thing that we've worked on with clients, specifically C-suite leaders, is talking about mistakes publicly, whether in an all-hands meeting or via a companywide email. If leaders are not comfortable talking about their mistakes—why they happened and what they learned—no one will feel comfortable doing it. That's a great way for leaders to communicate a growth-mindset culture—that the company is a place to learn versus a place where employees have to prove themselves.

MSF Hub: The lack of diversity in tech has stark consequences for an industry that holds an outsize influence in our lives. Is it solvable?

CR: I am optimistic that companies that want to change can make progress. We've seen it. With a data-driven approach, companies know what's working (and what's not working), so they can make progress faster. It's really hard. It's a practice that you have to work at every day.

Everyone has a role to play, but it needs to come from the top for these efforts to be effective. Leaders need to be talking about why this is important and what they're personally going to do about it, not just what HR is going to do about it.

Derek Korte
By Derek Korte | October 23, 2018

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