Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Employees at Lever, a recruitment software start-up in San Francisco, vote weekly to award this giant stuffed panda to a co-worker who best exemplifies company values at work.

Data didn't change tech's frat-boy culture. Will storytelling?

Some high-tech firms are finding that storytelling and empathy create far more buy-in for diversity than reams of data about its boost to innovation and profits.

Rachael Stedman doesn’t just design and build product features for a living. She also collects stories.  

An engineer at Lever – a recruitment software startup in San Francisco – her role includes reaching out to co-workers about life in the tech industry. She gathers hiring stories, memories from other companies, and tales about experiences at Lever. Her thesis: Every story can lead to a better, diverse workplace.

“You listen to the story and you say, ‘OK, how can we make sure that this doesn’t happen for anybody else?’ And you take action on that one story,” says Ms. Stedman, who has seen storytelling transform her own company. 

It’s a high-touch, counterintuitive approach to diversity for a data-driven industry like tech. For years, proponents of inclusive workplaces have tried to sell tech firms on the idea with data about how it boosts innovation and profits. Yet Silicon Valley remains a bastion of white males. Now, firms like Lever are turning to anecdotes and personal exchanges as bases for developing empathy – and building inclusive cultures from the ground up.

The goal is to get buy-in for diversity from workers up and down the ladder by allowing an inclusive environment to evolve organically, experts say. Giving employees the chance to share their stories and be part of the process of creating a workplace they believe in goes much further than simply laying out the case for diversity, showing workers the policies, and expecting them to obey, the theory goes.  

“It closes the disconnect between people,” says Caroline Simard, senior director of research at the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership at Stanford University in California. “Stories create more empathy. People remember stories more than they remember statistics. That combination really is a very important part of moving people to do better.”

A persistent challenge

Over the past three years, discourse around diversity and inclusion has crested in Silicon Valley. The industry has poured millions into honing recruitment practices and developing pathways for women and minorities to advance to leadership positions. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest annually release diversity statistics in a bid for transparency. Conferences, training and consulting sessions, and employee resource groups abound.

But the needle has hardly moved. Tech still hires more white employees than the private sector as a whole, 69 percent compared with 64, according to a report released last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the top 75 firms in Silicon Valley, 70 percent of the workforce is male and nearly half the workforce is white. Forty-one percent is Asian-American, 6 percent is Hispanic, and 3 percent is black. That's skewed compared with the region's nontech firms, where half the workforce is female, 22 percent is Hispanic, and 8 percent is black.

“Despite rapid transformation in the field, the overwhelming dominance of white men in the industries and occupations associated with technology has remained,”  the EEOC report said.

Allegations of harassment and gender discrimination also continue to dog high-profile companies. Last month a Tesla engineer sued the company for “pervasive harassment,” charging that she was paid less than men for doing the same work and was passed over for promotion while less-qualified men were not. Uber, the ride-sharing company, says it will make public next month its internal investigation of sexual harassment following blog post by a former female engineer. 

Data suggest the problem is widespread: A survey of women in tech, mostly in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area and released in 2016, found that 60 percent reported unwanted sexual advances and 66 percent said they felt excluded from social and networking opportunities afforded to men.

The issues aren’t unique to the Valley. One Lever employee recalls that at her first job out of college – a marketing position at a tech startup in California’s Central Coast – everyone who was anyone was young and male. Team-building exercises resembled college parties, she says. She remembers a game where she and her colleagues were encouraged to vote for the hottest person in the building. 

“It was really fratty,” she says.

Worse than the “bro” atmosphere was the sense from leadership that it was their way or no way, says the employee, who asked that she remain anonymous because she still has relationships with people at that company. Once, she says, someone raised concerns about working too many 12-hour days; the company’s chief executive dismissed it, saying that was just what it took to succeed.

Another time, she wrote her supervisor a long email detailing suggestions for making meetings more efficient. “I like to have information ahead of time so I can process it, and then I like to write my opinions out,” she says. The supervisor responded by going up to her desk with no warning and listing the reasons why her ideas wouldn’t work.

“And I was like, ‘Wait. I get that that’s how you communicate, but I wasn’t prepared to have that conversation,’ ” she says. “ ‘Now I feel like it's off the table.’ ”

Over time, she says, she started to feel like she wasn’t cut out for work – any work. “I was such a good student,” she recalls. “I gave my commencement speech at college. I was so ready to just go into the workplace and do so well and be a great businesswoman. And then I got into the workplace and within two years I was just crushed.”

Acting on anecdotes

Lever’s offices along San Francisco’s Market Street look like a layman’s vision of a successful start-up. The walls are painted gray and white, and the sleek, modern furniture is softened with throw pillows that add splashes of color. On a Monday in March, people move between desks and workstations, clutching coffee mugs and discussing projects and ideas. In one of the conference rooms (all of which are named for teas), Stedman says stories like her coworker’s help inform the company’s inclusion efforts.

“Every woman’s story in tech is different,” she says, and it can be difficult to parse whether one person’s anecdote is indicative of broader experiences. That’s why data is so important, Stedman says. “But,” she adds, “by the time an anecdote becomes a statistic, you’ve really lost out. So I think that one thing you have to do … is take action based on anecdotes.”

At one conference, Stedman recalls, a female employee brought up some trouble she had while pumping breast milk in the ladies’ room. It wasn’t a fun experience, the employee had said. She had noted that a maternity room might be something to consider in future conversations.

“That’s one small thing,” Stedman says. “But you get a ton of those little stories and that’s something that is completely concrete that you can take action on.”  

The ethic begins at recruitment. Job postings from the company highlight expected results over requirements. The firm runs an active blog, where employees are encouraged to share both success and horror stories about their experiences in and outside Lever. They also provide portals for anonymous feedback.

At the center of company philosophy is a set of five values, foremost of which is “cross-functional empathy,” or XFE – a willingness to “walk across the aisle” and go out of one’s way to work with others. At Monday meetings, a giant stuffed panda – the company mascot – is handed to an individual whom fellow employees feel has done an especially good job of exemplifying those values.

The point is to make employees feel like they can speak out without retaliation, and that by sharing their own experiences they can make a difference in company culture, says chief executive and co-founder Sarah Nahm.

“We weren’t going to start by hiring underrepresented minorities,” she says. “We were going to start by rethinking our culture, and making sure that it was a place that had equal access to opportunities and rewards – a place that was intentional about the things it reinforced and included or excluded.”

Ms. Nahm adds that many companies pursue diversity because they want to address a need being put upon them by outside forces: advocates, business consultants, the media.

“The thing that every single company should be doing is to figure out what are their internal reasons for doing it, and to actually know them, to state them, and to lead with them,” she says. “And one way to do that is through storytelling.”

As soft as Lever’s approach sounds, the company has something to show for it. Five years into its founding, Lever boasts a nearly even ratio of men and women across its workforce. More than half of management is female, and women make up 43 percent of technical roles. It’s still majority white, but leadership hopes to remedy that over time. All the while the company has grown from a core group of less than 10 to nearly 100 employees. 

“One argument that I hear is, ‘It’s either growth or all this touchy-feely stuff,’ ” says Jennifer Kim, who heads Lever’s employee experience team. But the bottom line is important, she says. “It’s about balance, right? None of it matters if we have to fold – ‘but boy, were we inclusive!’ ”

Different strokes

About a mile southwest of Lever headquarters are the offices of Outdoorsy, an online marketplace for buying, selling, and renting recreational vehicles – what one employee describes as AirBnB for RVs. Barely two years old, with a roster of about 20 people, the start-up has yet to develop a structure for inclusion as formalized as Lever’s.

But Outdoorsy philosophy is rooted in the idea that everyone, regardless of color, creed, or gender, deserves to have great travel experiences, says co-founder and chief marketing officer Jennifer Young. That’s meant developing an active feedback loop for both clients and employees, because what’s exciting for one person could be awful for another, she says.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Employees Meredith Arthur (left) and Jessica Grant commandeer a coworker's office at the San Francisco headquarters of Outdoorsy, an online RV marketplace, on March 6. Here "there's an inclusiveness that has not been at other startups I've been in," Ms. Grant says.

“We’re in the business of creating great memories and providing amazing vacations for people,” she says. “It serves this company well to have a lot of different types of people both in terms of what they think and what activities they enjoy, and who they are and what they represent.”

Other companies have taken a more organizational approach. At Zynga – the company behind online games like “Farmville” and “Words with Friends” – a women’s advisory board acts as representatives for the interests of female employees from a variety of departments. The idea is that female software engineers will have different concerns than, say, women in sales, says Stephanie Hess, Zynga’s vice president for communications.

The board develops programs and plans events that address those varying concerns, she says.

Such efforts suggest that the “soft” approach is beginning to take root in the tech industry, notes Dr. Simard at Stanford. More firms are beginning to make inclusion a part of their founding philosophies, she says, and those tend to be the places that make the most progress in advancing women and minorities.

“These companies bake it into their design. They have a commitment and accountability system,” she says. “They bake it into the day-to-day operations of the company, including how managers are incentivized and rewarded.”

Despite a growing recognition within tech that diversity is the future, the “soft” approach remains a hard sell.

“It’s hard to work with people who are different than you,” Simard says. “There’s will, but the hard work of creating an everyday culture where people can contribute is easy to resist.”

Back at Lever, Stedman, the engineer, welcomes the skepticism: “This is going to be an ongoing effort. I don't think that there’s any one milestone where we’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m done.’ I expect to work on this for my lifetime.”

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