If you ever visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, CA, you will be asked to choose between two doors to start your tour. The first door, has a red sign above it, with the word ‘PREJUDICED’ written on it in white letters. The door next to it, has a green sign above it, with the word ‘UNPREJUDICED’ written on it in white letters. As a thought experiment: which door would you choose to enter to start your tour?
Now the Museum of Tolerance is not only an international renowned Jewish human rights organization dedicated to teaching visitors about the atrocities of the Holocaust, it also serves as an educational institution that strives to teach about all forms of prejudicial thinking and discrimination that still occurs today. On my visit to the museum, most of the well-meaning visitors that day naturally went towards the green door with the words ‘UNPREJUDICED’ above it —perhaps some of us were descendants of survivors of the Holocaust, maybe some of us identified as a person of color, a feminist, queer, or have been on the receiving end of bigoted behavior, maybe some of us were were ‘fighting the good fight’ and of course were unprejudiced — we slowly walked up to that greenly lit door with the word ‘UNPREJUDICED’ emblazoned above it… only to find, incredibly, the door locked.
To start our tour, we all had to walk through the door labeled ‘PREJUDICED.’ It was a simple but humbling lesson each of us immediately gained — we all have prejudices deeply ingrained within us from our upbringings and a lifetime of experiences. And denying it was actually part of the problem. We learned that we had to first recognize our own prejudices before we could create any meaningful change in the world around us.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Legal Inclusiveness and Diversity Summit organized by the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, to learn about issues that both the legal and tech industry have struggled with: creating inclusive and diverse workplaces in largely white and male-dominated fields.
Image: The Lion Project
What would a more diverse and inclusive workplace look like to you? You may have imagined a workplace filled with people of varying ethnicities or perhaps an equal number of men and women. While representation is definitely a large part of it, what I was surprised to learn at this conference was that this was only a small part of creating lasting change. More important was creating the kind of inclusive workplace that makes a diverse workplace sustainable. Through my conversations with attendees of the conference, I heard many anecdotes of women and people of color leaving law firms after only a few years — something I’ve personally seen echoed in the tech industry. This prompted me to ask myself: how can we create the kind of workplace that helps people of all backgrounds thrive?
While there’s not one magical remedy that we can easily apply to our organizations and companies to create inclusive and diverse workplaces — I would like to share a few simple action points that are hopefully a good starting point towards creating a more inclusive workplace:
1. To the Underrepresented Employee: Find a Mentor
It can feel daunting to be in a field where you are a minority — but you don’t have to go through it alone. Simply speaking to someone else who has gone through similar struggles can be a great source of support. In addition, a career mentor can provide professional guidance, help you untangle problems you’re facing in the workplace, and push you to set and reach your career goals.
One of my first professional mentors taught me everything I know about how to communicate with clients, fought tooth and nail to help me find a new job when our entire department got laid off (including herself), and generally inspired me on a daily basis with her level-headedness, professionalism, and genuine kindness. Only in hindsight do I realize how deeply her mentorship has made such a profound impact on my professional career.
Not sure where to start? Apart from your own workplace (an experienced colleague, manager, etc), you can also attend local meetups or conferences, and reach out to people established in your field from whom you may be able to learn — a casual invitation to coffee is a great and informal way to start. Many of my own career mentors were informal and started with small conversations over coffee or lunch. Later on, you may come across a tough situation at work, and you can reach back out to your mentors for advice.
2. To the Hiring Team: Forget the Cultural Fit
At start-ups and young tech companies, you will inevitably hear about the importance of a candidate’s cultural fit at a company. In an effort to curate the perfect work team, hiring managers will include tailored interview questions or have group interviews with the candidate’s would-be team, to test out whether a candidate will fit well in their company. While this isn’t inherently a negative thing — often times, it’s a slippery slope to only hiring people that are, ahem, very similar to you.
Asking potential employees about their stance on after-work happy hours, which kegs they’d like on tap in the breakroom, or chatting about their favorite video games, is creating an environment where people who imbibe and play video games feel welcome, and little else.
What to do instead: Be comfortable hiring people who are different from your current employees. Asking each candidate the same questions helps ensure that each candidate is getting a fair interview process. Go through those interview questions, and remove any questions that unfairly benefit only one type of employee. Focus instead on the candidate’s skills and core values and ensure they align with the overarching values of your company.
3. To the Leadership Team: Lead by Example
Whether you want it to or not, the company’s leadership team invariably sets the tone and culture for the entire company — it makes such a tremendous difference when the excitement to create an inclusive workplace comes from the very top. In their joint talk, "Inclusive Leadership as a Legal Skill," Dr. Brenda Allen and Patrick O’Rourke spoke about the signature traits of an inclusive leader based on the Deloitte article, “The Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership.”
As explained by Allen and O’Rourke, the six signature traits of an inclusive leader are:
1. Commitment — An inclusive leader is committed to diversity
2. Courage — An inclusive leader speaks-up and challenges the status quo and acts as an agent for change.
3. Cognizant of Bias — An inclusive leader is mindful of personal and organizational blind spots.
4. Curiosity — An inclusive leader has an open mindset and is tolerant of ambiguity
5. Cultural — An inclusive leader is confident and effective in cross-cultural interactions
6. Collaboration — An inclusive leader empowers their team and gives them a voice.
While we won’t explore each inclusive leadership trait in depth in this blog post, suffice it to say, it’s important to realize that it takes conscious and ongoing effort to be an inclusive leader. If you are reading this as a leader of your team, organization, or company -- please know just how crucial you are to creating a sustainable inclusive environment for your team.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the takeaway, I hope, is that we can each take small but meaningful actions at our companies, regardless of our role or position -- whether it’s through seeking out a career mentor, creating a more inclusive hiring process, or leading by example. We can each feel empowered to create a culture of inclusion in our workplaces.