Getting a pulse of diversity and inclusion in an organization

Contribution — leading research strategy and activities (ethnographic research), facilitating participatory synthesis workshops, identifying priorities for the organization.
Context — November 2015 - August 2016, at 18F.

Project background

Within the first few months of 18F’s founding, groups of people organically formed affinity groups, or guilds, in our company Slack. Some guilds are focussed around a work-related practice, others are more broad ranging, each with its own set of goals, group norms and practices. A few that attract a wide range of 18F colleagues are: accessibility, diversity, frontend, agile, and content.

As a woman of color who also identifies as other minority groups, I joined the diversity guild to find my people. Much of the daily activity that happens within this Slack channel is discussion about personal experiences, societal challenges of the current day, or the unique particularities about life in government.

In 2016, 18F was growing from a startup within the government to a more mature organization. There was a need from the organization and the diversity guild to build an environment that ensures fairness and inclusivity for all employees. 

We're working from the assumption that diverse, highly qualified technologists are out there, and if they're not represented at 18F, it's because we're not doing enough to reach out to them, and to build a space where they feel welcome and respected. - 18F colleague

A small group of us in the diversity guild volunteered to address this sentiment in the form of conversations and research. 

Our approach for who and how to interview

We wanted to learn what it takes to design an inclusive and effective recruiting and outreach program, and to make sure we do all the things needed to support, retain, and train a talented and diverse group of people. We wanted to learn from folks from within 18F, outside of 18F, and from people who live and breath diversity and inclusion work.

Our research team was comprised entirely people of color (POC), and also identify in a variety of intersections along the lines of gender and sexuality. As the sole researcher and designer, I led the team through the process — spanning research strategy, planning, outreach, conducting interviews, and collaborative and remote synthesis.

We talked with a subset people who tend to be under-represented in tech organizations: people of color, LGBTQ folks, and white women in a span of 4 months. (If we hold additional conversations, we’ll seek to speak with people representing different physical abilities, ages, and geographic backgrounds.)

employees from private-sector technology firms, either for-profit or not-for-profit
employees from 18F, either Washington D.C.-based or remote
We also identified a set of principles to ground us as we held conversations and then later, analyze what we learned:
  • Safe spaceWhat it shared in these conversations should be used help the people and organizations we engage with, and will not affect future professional  or personal interactions with 18F or otherwise.
  • CommunityWe educate ourselves of the communities we enter. We strive to build an ongoing reciprocal relationship with the organizations and people we are learning from.
  • Transparency —  While maintaining the privacy of our conversation participants, the research will follow the organizational values in open source, transparency and iterative learning, meaning it will be documented and resulting insights will be shared often so that we engage others in our work and be open to any necessary adjustments.

Each interview was a 1 hour long, and we sent each participant a package of 18F resources as gratitude for their time. The overarching themes for the interviews are: 
  • hiring — the experience of applying and interviewing for a job. 
  • retention — what makes people stay at or leave a job, what helps people feel like they are growing professionally or not, and the factors that lead to people feeling like they can or cannot bring their full self to work.

Leading and coaching teammates through a flexible research analysis process

We would have loved to have a full week to dive into the interviews, to analyze the data, to spot emerging patterns, to put together what we learned in a way that could be  shareable with the rest of the organization. But there was limited time; all of us were needed in full-time 18F projects. We were, however, able to convince leadership that we needed at least 2 days to begin to dive into the data all together. I travelled out to DC for those 2 days. Knowing we didn’t have enough time to do a thorough synthesis process in person, we chose to analyze digitally in person, so that when we returned to our respective hometowns, we could continue and finish the process asynchronously.

We delved deeper into our primary themes even further and identified sub-themes to keep track of as we read through the interview transcripts. For example, we can infer each participant’s feelings about growing professionally in a workplace by noticing moments in the interview where people talk about: 
  • mentorship - What is it’s value? What makes for successful or unsuccessful mentorship?
  • evaluations - Evaluations from peers and supervisors. How they are run? Are they fair? Are evaluation criteria available to you beforehand, or when you joined?
  • career path - What are the career paths and salary levels available to me in this job? Is there transparency about these paths and levels? How will I be evaluated?
  • ability to grow - Do I have the support and space to grow, learn, and advance towards real leadership roles?

After each interview was read and tagged with the appropriate keyword listed above, we moved to grouping comments that shared a similar theme. We continued this process over time, while discussing as a group the themes that were emerging — some that were expected and others that were surprising.

Analysis for hiring, which includes the process the applying and interviewing.

Analysis for retention, which includes staying, growing and being yourself at a workplace.

We learned a lot from folks who are underrepresented in technology, but are unable to share it with the public

Our agreed upon outcome from this research was a summary of what we learned, to be shared internally with 18F leadership as well as the public report or blog post.

While leadership is aware of the research findings through casual conversations, we were not able to present them directly.

There is also a blog post drafted that summarizes the research findings, but we are not able to publish it. Blog posts at 18F go through a very thorough approvals process by entities and individuals beyond 18F, and unfortunately the post has been in a blocked state for a couple of months.

I will, however, offer you a few quotes: 

“I [soothe] myself, ‘Don't take it as because you're Black. Don't take it as because you're a woman. Don't take it as because you're the lowest paid person.’” - participant about microaggressions 

“Pretty sure throughout my career I was discriminated against. But can't tell if it's because I’m Hispanic, geeky, or have communication problems because English is not my first language. I feel like I can't really complain about it because it's very hard to detect.” - participant on microaggressions

“I once interviewed with eight people at once. I felt like I was being attacked. It was just question after question after question.” - participant on the job application and interviewing process
“Mentorship is vital. In previous careers, there was at least one person who was advocating for me, and the person had power to do so. [I’ve had] mentors who’ve graciously said, ‘Step up to the front, say what you want to say. I have your back.’” - participant on mentorship

“Tech's greatest contribution is that it's more collaborative [than most sectors] and there's a culture of learning.” - participant on continuous learning

“When something happens in the world, we talk about it, not sidestep it. We are involved and pay attention to things that affect our employees and students and community.” - participant on the kind of work environment that makes them feel like they can bring their whole selves to work

I would love to share more — let’s take the conversation offline!

A conflicted reflection

Showing gratitude in a more tangible way — We sent each person a package of 18F resources as gratitude for their time. People from minority groups and backgrounds are often asked about their experience to help educate organizations and never compensated for their knowledge, time and emotional labor. As a government entity, we could not offer monetary gifts to members of the public, but I do want to ensure that we have a plan to give back to future research participants in an even more substantial way.

Effective diversity & inclusion work requires full-hearted support from leadership — The entirely POC research team did this work outside of their full-time and regular responsibilities. We had to convince leadership of the value of the research to make sure we were able to spend time on it. If diversity and inclusion work is believed to be a core tenant of an organization’s mission and success, it should give the team the same resources, time and organizational support that it does to billable, agency partner work.

Research inspired new threads of work — The work is now carried on by others. In 2016, the 18F engineering chapter appointed a few functional lead roles, each tasked with making the engineering chapter better in a certain way, including a diversity lead for engineering. And, in 2017, 18F has  appointed a senior advisor for diversity and inclusion for six months. This person serves as a strategic partner to 18F’s Executive Director to advance 18F’s priorities to recruit a diverse workforce and build an equitable and inclusive culture. Both people chosen for these roles were part of this original diversity & inclusion work, and so are stepping into their new roles with a firm grounding and understanding of the many challenges and opportunities for folks who are underrepresented in technology, in addition to, of course, their own lived experiences.