Why DE&I Should Be Part of Your Engineering Culture – And How to Do It

BrandPostBy Catherine McGarvey, Vice President of Software Engineering, VMware
May 18, 2022
Diversity and Inclusion IT Leadership

When there are diverse teams and an inclusive culture, one will undeniably realize greater output and better products that meet the needs of the general public and users.

Credit: iStock

Despite ongoing efforts to hire more people of color and women in tech roles, organizations are struggling to retain that talent. In large part, this is due to organizations not having an inclusive culture in the first place.

A Diversity in Tech 2021 U.S. Report by Wiley found that half of surveyed respondents reported leaving or wanting to leave a tech or IT job because the company culture made them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. Of those respondents, the majority came from underrepresented groups (53% of female respondents, 53% of Asian respondents, 56% of Black and African American respondents, 58% of Hispanic or Latino respondents).

DE&I initiatives shouldn’t just be an HR objective. At a time when the talent and skills shortage is impacting the ability of all organizations to drive digital transformation projects, meet business needs and compete, building a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace culture – which is proven to attract and retain talent – should be a priority for CIOs and engineering leaders too.

Diverse engineering teams breed creativity and more innovative ways to problem solve. In turn, this results in higher quality products that are accessible to more customers – all of which is good for business and for people. An inclusive culture also encourages ongoing feedback, which is key to the software development and engineering process and can result in better software and services delivery.

So, what can CIOs and leaders do to create and foster an inclusive culture within the engineering organization, and start to reap the benefits of a high-performing, diverse engineering team?

Outcomes-Based Approach to Hiring

Hiring is not the end-all be-all to building diverse teams, but it is one of the first steps. How you write a job description has a big impact on the type of talent who applies. The language or requirements in the description can dissuade some people from applying due to suggested bias implied by the listing or by the applicant’s own perceived abilities and qualifications. For example, a job description that has phrasing like “looking for a young and energetic candidate” or “graduated from a top university” can suggest biases against older workers or applicants from certain socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, research has found that women won’t apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the qualifications.

Beyond writing more inclusive job descriptions, another way to reduce biases and attract more diverse talent is to take an outcomes-based approach to hiring. Instead of just listing out the job requirements and characteristics of the perfect candidate, a job description should highlight the challenge of the position. This can help you attract and assess talent based on performance outcomes and not individual qualifications. For example, a qualifications-based approach to hiring would look for candidates who are expert bridge builders to cross the river. Whereas the outcomes-based approach would state the challenge or problem (we need to cross a river) and have candidates demonstrate their skills and thinking on the best way to do it.

This hiring philosophy can help you gain a holistic picture of the skills, achievements, and motivations a candidate offers to your team. The main objective of interviews is then to give each candidate an opportunity to showcase how they would use their mix of skills, knowledge, and abilities to achieve the performance outcomes required for the role.

An Inclusive Team Culture Requires Space for Feedback and Psychological Safety

Taking a page from the agile engineering playbook, one of the most important tenets to an inclusive culture is having a safe space for feedback. You can do this by setting aside the time each month or quarter to create the space for team members to share their perspective. Asking questions like: do you feel comfortable sharing your opinion? Feedback from these check-ins can help reveal any trends where actionable change is needed.

It’s also important for employees to feel safe in sharing their feedback, ideas and opinions outside these surveys and check-ins. Google researchers have found that psychological safety is the most important characteristic of high performing teams. This means a state of well-being where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. A workplace culture where psychological safety exists encourages people to be comfortable in asking questions, sharing their ideas, and admitting a mistake or not knowing something, without the fear of being judged or punished. Psychological safety is what enables a team to be open to give and receive new ideas and feedback, which can drive creativity and new viewpoints to approaching a problem or building a solution.

Representation and Mentorship at the Top

Retention among team members from underrepresented backgrounds can be difficult when   your leadership team still looks like the status quo because it can be perceived that there isn’t a path for career growth if males continue to dominate leadership roles. An inclusive culture requires commitment from the top down, and part of that responsibility is having leaders and managers who advocate for the women, gender non-conforming and BIPOC employees on their teams.

For team members who come from underrepresented groups, it can be a challenge for them to advocate for themselves or know the best path forward when they have fewer examples of leaders that come from similar backgrounds to look to. Business and engineering leadership must be involved in career path planning for their team members, covering areas such as: what is the path they would like to take in their careers, what are the next steps that will help them advance, and what do they need to feel supported? Just like carving out safe spaces for feedback, leadership should look to carve out opportunities and raise the visibility of their team members who might not otherwise be heard or recognized for their strengths.

Business and engineering leaders should have a stake in ensuring they are building teams that are diverse and equitable, and are sustaining an inclusive workplace culture. When you have a diverse team and an inclusive culture to support that team, you will see greater output and better products that meet the needs of the general public and your users.

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