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Saturday 10:50 a.m.–11:20 a.m.

How our engineering environments are killing diversity (and how we can fix it).

Kate Heddleston

Audience level:


This talk focuses on how engineering team environments can impact employee behavior, and how environmental factors can prohibit diversity at tech companies. I will talk about some of the key problems that exist in current engineering environments and how they can be fixed.


**What is an Environment?** Environments are the things that make up your surroundings, both tangible and intangible. The effects that an environment can have on the people in them is profound. Examples of your environment include physical spaces like office layouts. They also include things like stage layouts, where one person is elevated over others giving them power and credibility to speak. The environment is key in shaping that power and credibility. Work environments also include the ability to navigate the job itself. How does one accomplish work, move up in the social structure, etc. The power hierarchy, communication structure, processes, and physical space are all part of the environment for an engineering team. It’s important to understand the environmental factors that affect people’s behavior and ability to be successful at their jobs. Sexism and racism doesn't always manifest as individuals discriminating against individuals. Sometimes it’s a collective group of people (all of us) creating an environment that is better for some than others. **8 Common Problems in Engineering Environments** * Onboarding/Training * Currently rely on existing social structures > The first contact a person has with their new team’s environment is the training and on boarding they receive. In tech, training/onboarding is not prioritized and many companies have no on boarding. However, when it comes to people, in the absence of process what ends up happening is that the process relies on the existing social structure. In most tech companies, the existing social structure is the core team that is already there; namely male and often mostly white. This means that the first experience people have with their new environment is inadvertently biased towards people like the existing team in companies that don’t have thoughtful integration and training for new engineers. * Benefits * Parental leave * Sick days * Vacation * Bathroom supplies > Benefits is not a difficult problem to solve although it requires some thought. Make your benefits count and go for the simple wins. Understanding that not all of your employees have the same amount of responsibility outside the company is important; some people have a disproportionate share of the home responsibility. Using young, single people as the baseline for work expectation will alienate people with children, especially those who do most of the childcare. * Safety * Work hours * Transportation * Safety at conferences > Safety is pretty basic and pretty important. It bleeds into a lot of aspects of work life. A common one is safety getting to and from work; if you expect employees to work late and travel home in the dark, it’s important to remember that safety is going to be a bigger concern for some employees vs. Others. Have transportation plans ready for people working late or people at conferences and events. Otherwise, setup a culture that encourages people to go home while it’s still light out. > There’s the other major issue of safety from other coworkers. We saw with the Tindr lawsuit that safety from coworkers is not a guarantee for many people. This is another area to have a plan and to have process about what to do if one coworker is harassing another. A plan that doesn’t have anything to do with placing blame but that allows any employee to get distance or space from another employee professionally. * Promotions * men promoted based on potential, women (and likely minorities) promoted based on accomplishments * * * > By not recognizing subconscious differences in how we promote different groups of people, we create small gaps that grow over time. If women and other minorities have to accomplish a task to be promoted but men simply have to convince others that they could potentially do the task, then you create a small gap that grows over time. * Power structures * Flirting culture * Communication (argument vs. Discussion based culture, using emotions as weapons, gendered-loaded insults, lack of communication channels) * Argument vs. Discussion culture * Lack of communication channels > There are two major environmental factors that hurt communication for a lot of people. The first is the argument vs. Discussion based culture. Allowing engineers to argue and creating an argument culture puts an emphasis on the idea of ‘winning’ a conversation. If there is an idea of winning multiple things come out of that environment. Size and aggression will be used as tactics to win. Undermining another person’s point will be used to win. And finally, if something can be won then someone will cheat (that’s why we have refs in sports) and it can encourage unethical behavior like lying or inventing information to win. A discussion based culture is a culture where the emphasis is on finding a shared truth. Because the goal is to collectively come to the best conclusion possible, all viewpoints should be included and acknowledged and points are not given for stomping on other ideas. It’s a seemingly small but critical shift in the way decisions are made and communicated. > The second environmental factor that hurts people is having a lack of communication channels. There should be a lot of ways for someone to easily give feedback about the company, processes, organization, or their coworkers that is private and low overhead. Forcing employees to schedule meetings with busy bosses and founders and putting the responsibility on the person with less power to bring forward criticism or bad news will diminish the amount of feedback given. * Process > There’s no such thing as a structure or process not existing for people. In the absence of structure and process, people create it or fall back on unspoken existing structures and processes. A common fallacy of tech companies is in thinking that process is bad (usually because they experienced bad process) and that removing process will fix the problem. Instead, it makes it difficult for people to effectively get things done. Worse, it can inadvertently give certain people will more domain knowledge and power that can never be shared with others. Having no process can also allow people with more power to change the process at any time to fit their needs, but does not allow those with lesser power to do the same. The goal is not no process, the goal is good process. * Empathy - * Weighing people’s emotional problems and experiences more because you understand them. > If people only solve problems that they themselves have experienced, then you get an environment and culture that is tailored to the original core team. Men will never experience gender issues and white people will never experience racial issues, so if white men are the status quo then these problems will not be solved for others in a company without empathy. Empathy involves listening, believing others stories, and understanding them through other people’s experience. It’s common to hear people say we do things this way because in the past I had an experience where we did things another way and it didn’t work, so I learned from it. Empathy is the tool that’s necessary in order to learn from other people’s experiences as well as your own.
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