Lessons in diversity: How PDX Women in Tech overhauled board recruitment

In less than two years, the board of the Portland, OR-based nonprofit has gone from 80% white and cisgender and no LGBTQ representation, to 80% BIPOC with LGBTQ+ representation. Here's how we did it.

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The organization I lead, PDX Women in Tech (PDXWIT), is a nonprofit located in Portland, Oregon, with nearly 10,000 active members. Our goal is simple: Encourage and empower those who have been historically excluded from tech to join and stay in the industry.

In 2012, our founder Megan Bigelow discovered she was making over 30% less than a man working in the same position. He had been at the company for a shorter time than she had; in fact, she was on the hiring committee for the position and had trained him when he was hired. When she discovered what he was being paid and began to learn more about the structural inequities women in the tech industry face, she realized she had to do something. She formed a community group so women working in tech could support one another and feel less isolated in an industry heavily dominated by men. Fairly quickly, the community she formed grew exponentially and eventually became a nonprofit organization with a board of directors, bylaws and typical governance. 

When it came time to hire the first staff member, PDXWIT brought on an experienced nonprofit leader who would lead the organization as it continued to grow and impact more people. It was only then, six years into being a community group and two years into being an established nonprofit, that the leadership team began to see what was happening. This organization that was committed to seeing a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable tech workforce was overly focusing on white women and had not created an environment in which BIPOC or LGBTQ-identifying folks felt represented.

This happened because the PDXWIT community and those benefiting from it mirrored the board of directors and staff team: privileged, cisgendered, straight white women. Being an organization that made people feel excluded was the opposite of what Bigelow had had in mind when she founded the group, and it was clear that a change was needed.

The organization began engaging in deep internal work around race and equity with an outside firm. This work was not easy and went well beyond the typical diversity box most companies check. Over the next 22 months, PDXWIT underwent a transformation that saw multiple board members who had been involved with the organization since its inception decide to step down or not renew their terms to create space for new leaders who were more diverse and more representative of the community PDXWIT wanted to serve.

These moves were not unlike those taken by Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian, who in June decided to step down from the board of the company he founded. He specifically requested that his seat be filled by a Black board member. This and the actions taken by the PDXWIT board are examples of white people recognizing their privilege and intentionally releasing some of their power to create a path for those who can bring a new perspective into an organization.

The changes to the board also provided PDXWIT with the opportunity to find leaders who better reflected the community it aimed to serve. To do this right, PDXWIT revamped its recruitment, screening, interviewing, and decision-making process with racial justice, accessibility and equity top of mind.

PDXWIT developed new screening criteria, used new language in recruiting outreach, and asked new questions in a new way. For example, in conventional interviews, the person being interviewed hears the questions for the first time during the interview — a practice that typically limits the people who can excel in an interview, such as neurodiverse candidates. To ensure candidates from neurodiverse backgrounds were positioned for a successful interview, PDXWIT shared the interview questions a day ahead of the interviews. PDXWIT also adopted a candidate scoring rubric and process that accounted for the unconscious bias of interviewers.

When PDXWIT first started this process in 2018, its board of directors was 100% cisgender straight women and 80% white. As of 2020, the board was 80% BIPOC and included representation across the LBGTQ+ continuum. The board now reflects the community the organization is here to support.

Since the board transition, PDXWIT has increased its credibility and engagement with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals significantly, as evidenced by who participates in its programming and who inquires about getting involved. PDXWIT extended its reach and impact exponentially and drove innovation and organizational success, and it is now poised to continue this trajectory with diverse leadership at the helm.

Why (and how) CIOs can contribute to board diversity

The idea that corporate and nonprofit boards of directors need to be more diverse is not a new one, but change has been glacial: There is still a staggering lack of diversity on corporate boards today. While more women than ever are taking on board seats (accounting for about  20% of global directors, a 2020 report found), most of them are white women. There is still a massive need for more Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) representation in the boardroom, as well as representation across the LGBTQ+ continuum. But thanks to the increased energy and tactical action born out of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, more and more organizations are finally following through on their public commitments to diversify their boards.

Across industries, companies that have highly diverse boards are more likely to prioritize innovation and continue evolving products and services to meet the changing needs of customers. And, as technology evolves and many organizations digitize during COVID-19, boards can increasingly benefit from a diverse member with a very specific skill set — that of the CIO.

The CIO, who typically spearheads innovation at their company, has technical expertise and perspective that can be powerful for corporate and nonprofit boards, and it has never been more important for CIOs with diverse backgrounds to leverage their unique skillset to help move an organization forward. And for those CIOs currently on boards who are from an already well-represented demographic, it’s time to elevate those around them who may not have come into the industry with the same level of privilege and access.

The importance of board diversity

Optics matter. Today, more consumers and investors are looking closely at whether the companies they’re choosing to spend their dollars with or dedicate capital to reflect the diverse population of this country.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, having a diverse board better reflects your company’s customer base. And having multiple perspectives driving an organization forward is simply good business. Diversity, as Columbia University professor Katherine W. Phillips explains, “often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict.” Conflict and space for new information and insight will lead to more innovative solutions and continued evolution for an organization.

Diversity at the top of an organization will have a trickledown effect throughout the entire company. The leadership team models what its members want to see across the entire company — and this, ideally, should be a diverse set of ideas, lived experiences and perspectives — not to mention a commitment to continuing to innovate how it serves its customers and constituents. These factors make it more important than ever that CIOs with diverse perspectives or backgrounds join corporate and nonprofit boards.

Next steps for CIOs

Want to know how to join a corporate or nonprofit board so your perspective can be part of driving positive change forward? Here are a few quick and easy steps to get noticed and prepare yourself for your role:

Keep your LinkedIn profile updated, even if you are happily employed. Ensure that it not only reflects your current professional role but also your hobbies and interests. By having a LinkedIn profile, you are essentially building a brand and conveying to the professional world what you stand for and what you want to impact with your passion and expertise.

Begin researching organizations and companies that resonate with you and create a running list. Consider local organizations — often this is where you can have the greatest impact in your immediate community. Vet organizations before making an initial connection. Subscribe to newsletters and attend fundraisers or virtual events. Decide whether you’re a fan of the work an organization does before expressing your desire to join the board. Especially for nonprofit boards, it is critical that board members pursue those opportunities because the mission resonates; these are typically volunteer roles, so your motivation for joining won't be financial.

Be prepared to be transparent and vulnerable. Doing the work of equity on a board that may not have had diverse members in the past likely means a lot of tough conversations must take place, and you’ll likely need to do an honest examination of an organization’s current actions to improve diversity and infuse its benefits into every area of the business. Approaching it with an open and honest mindset from the start will build rapport with diverse employees and set the tone for how the board moves forward.

As board members, CIOs with diverse perspectives and backgrounds can transform how an organization moves forward and impact organizational performance across departments by driving innovation and alignment with investors and customers. Consider whether taking a board role is the right step for you and begin implementing the above actions today.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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