How do we build inclusive, respectful, thriving tech companies that aren’t racist or sexist?

I’ve been trying to imagine what it looks like to have a tech workplace that is respectful and inclusive to women, people of color and LGBTQ folks for a while. Certainly part of this is administrative — what benefits are included, maternity/paternity leave policies, LGBTQ-friendly insurance, codes of conduct that exclude rude (read: sexist, racist) behavior — but what does the day-to-day of a place like this look like, feel like?

It’s of particular interest to me personally because as the owner of a tech company (Tercera), I employ women and people of color and I want to be the change that I seek in this industry. And having just undergone the tech interview process in Austin with a variety of companies (startups, medium and large corporations) I know first-hand how degrading, humiliating, frustrating, and ultimately expensive, a terrible company culture can be. A few examples:

  • A man stared at my breasts literally for an hour while I was part of a panel interview. His boss was sitting across from him, his female co-worker to his right, every time I made eye contact with him he was looking up from my chest.
  • The architect who interviewed me for an hour, allegedly to assess my Javascript skills, and interrupted, talked over and ignore what I said for an hour. At one point I told him that I’d just answered his question but he was clearly not listening to what I said because he didn’t hear me.
  • The hiring manager who transmogrified my success as an entrepreneur as a liability to his company by telling me that I would have a hard time being told what to do by someone else, and then told me I’d love working with them because they have an Xbox, PS4 and ping pong table.

Shockingly, I wasn’t hired by any of these men. Equally shocking, their engineering teams were almost exclusively male. What I find most shocking is how expensive all of this was for the companies involved: how much does an hour of an engineer’s time cost? An architect’s time? A hiring manager’s time? These companies would rather throw away thousands of dollars than create a process, culture, code of conduct that allows people who are “different” to bring their expertise there.

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I think about this as I toil away building my own company, named Tercera (“third” in Spanish) for the fact that I’m the third generation to build a life in this country. I want to build a company that skips over this feckless spend thriftiness, not to mention uncouth rudeness, and brings the experiences that are different to the table as an asset to build better technology.

To that end, I sent out an informal survey to several Slack groups, Blacks in Tech, Techquería, Sabio and Women Who Code Austin, asking a pointed question: What do you NOT have now that you think would make your workplace better for you, other women, people of color, etc.? (Ex: equal pay, not being interrupted in meetings, more women managers, etc.)

I was surprised by the results both because I didn’t expect some of them, and because most of them were so darn simple. The highlights from the majority female sample: more women/people of color/LGBTQ folks in leadership/management; equal/transparent pay; accountability/training for discrimination and inclusion; not interrupting or ignoring what’s said in meetings. Here are a few comments:

  • Other POC.
  • Yes, just even having one more woman would make a world of difference.
  • More accountability from seniors regarding discrimination.
  • More women, people of color, LGBTQ people in leadership positions.
  • Equal pay, not being interrupted, less humor based on teasing and humiliation.
  • More women managers. More women higher ups of any kind. More women coders.
  • My current workplace strongly promotes drinking heavily… [it’s] overtly hostile to people whose religious practices would prevent them from participating. I would like drinking to be genuinely OPTIONAL and not promoted by upper management as an unspoken requirement.
  • Not being interrupted in meetings, not having all the women in the company be in sales or HR, not telling nasty jokes during the work day (this is a workplace, not a strip club) and if there is a company social thing then everybody should be invited — not just the dudes.
  • People of color, strong male advocates for diversity (since, unfortunately, women and POC are often penalized for advocating), a good parental leave policy, more open talk about how to advance (instead of certain people, often male, being singled out and kind of sucked up the ladder).
  • Co-workers who allow me to talk during meetings and take things I say seriously, not just after a male co-worker repeats me (which he then gets credit for). Not having everything technical that I do second-guessed by other engineers on my team. Less crude “jokes” and inappropriate comments from male co-workers, less frat culture. Being able to work with other women or POC engineers. Management owning up to the fact that our engineering department is NOT diverse.
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When I initially sent out the survey I was hoping to get more insight into an inclusive tech world that we could imagine. What I learned from this exercise is that many of the tech companies we have today are either unfixable, or willfully broken. You can’t “fix” a company that is fine with the way things are. While I do not have any solutions, it would seem the most logical alternative is for women/POC/LGBTQ in tech to continue supporting, advocating and working with each other, and start their own businesses, and support each other there also.

As an entrepreneur myself I’m always amazed at how hard tech companies say it is to find “diverse” talent given that I’ve hired these folks exclusively as a matter of course, since that’s who’s in my network. I’m working to build an inclusive company where people feel respected and have agency, where diversity is welcome because it helps us discover the best technical solutions to real life problems, and where we’re more obsessed over differences in architecture than in each other.

How do we build inclusive, respectful, thriving tech companies that aren’t racist or sexist? was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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