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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

How Atlassian Approaches Diversity and Inclusion with Balance & Belonging

Written By Jannelle Sanchez | July 2, 2019

Aubrey Blanche Atlassian Diversity and Inclusion Talk

This is the 13th episode of HackerRank Radio, featuring HackerRank’s VP of Customer Success, Gaurav Verma, and his interviews with customers from the HackerRank main () meetup series.

Ever since Tracy Chou asked the big question, "Where are the numbers?", tech recruiters and hiring managers have added "Diversity and Inclusion" to their hiring checklist.

According to the 2018 Atlassian State of Diversity & Inclusion in U.S. Tech survey, 80% of respondents believe that diversity and inclusion are important. But over the years, there has been a 50% decrease in individual participation.

Aubrey Blanche, the Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian, believes the decline of D&I efforts and enthusiasm is because companies are taking the wrong approach.

In this interview, Aubrey and Gaurav Verma, HackerRank’s VP of Customer Success, discusses why diversity and inclusion should be replaced with balance and belonging. Aubrey also shares concrete and practical ways companies can create balanced teams, establish an atmosphere where everyone feels empowered, and eliminate bias from the hiring process. Listen to the episode below, or scroll below to skim the transcript.

Jump Ahead:


Gaurav Varma: Welcome to HackerRank Radio. I'm Gaurav Varma, SVP of Customer Success here at HackerRank. This week we're bringing you a conversation I had with Aubrey Blanche global head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian at our flagship event HackerRank Main Palo Alto. Aubrey and I talked about why organizations should stop thinking about diversity and inclusion, and prioritize balance and belonging. Aubrey also shares why resumés, degree requirements and the concept of a cultural fit, promote biased hiring.

Aubrey, thank you for being here. It would be great if you could introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit more about you.

Aubrey Blanche: I'm Aubrey. I'm so excited to be here. So I'm the global head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian and I'm gonna ask all of you for a favor actually, we'll talk about it, but I'm trying to change my job title and I need your help. My job is really to help Atlassian hire the right people and then make sure that they can thrive once they're there. The other way I describe my job is crushing the hierarchy with capitalism. I'm really lucky. I'm so excited to be here in particular because actually HackerRank was what got me into diversity and inclusion work.

Gaurav: That’s awesome.

Aubrey: So back when I was at Palantir, I basically convinced someone to let me run an experiment on engineering recruiting to be like, “It's busted, you're not hiring enough women” and they were like, “No, no, no we're a meritocracy,” and I did an experiment and I was like, “Haha, No.” And so, we ended up overhauling the process and HankerRank actually was really key to work with us to make it so that we removed a lot of bias from their process.

Gaurav: That's great. And so in every single one of us, there's some form of unconscious bias. I think I'm notorious. I do it all the time.

Aubrey: It's really like how many.

Gaurav: How many, right?

Aubrey: And to what degree, right?

Eliminating Bias From The Hiring Process

Why eliminating resumes, degree requirements and culture fit helps diversity and inclusion

Gaurav: It starts from the resumé. I see the email address in our ATS when it gets sent to me and I'm trying to decipher like, my own email address. You can infer a fair bit from it, right? Male, Indian origin, I don't think you'll get the hair part of it, but everything else you'll get. And then one tends to then let me go google this individual. You go on LinkedIn there's a picture. It creeps in and regardless of how hard you try to make a conscious effort not to, it does. And how do you protect yourself against that?

Aubrey: I think what you do is you have to do really smart systems design. So the fact is, you know that you could throw resumés on the floor and pick up half of them and interview those candidates and you'd have the same success in job performance as if you scanned resumés. Literally, the number one thing about resumés that predicts whether someone gets an onsite is typos on it, so like, resumés are useless. I genuinely think so.

But I think that's it, you have to design your processes to limit the potential expression of your bias. Because we're human, our brains physiologically can't not be biased. We've learned a lot of rules about people. So if you can get rid of resumés awesome, if you can use tools, genuinely, like HackerRank, to do any kind of skills testing as opposed to deciding something else. Or if you're not at the point where your organization can get rid of resumés, we have to do a little more stakeholder management, thinking about ways to read them that are more structured. Don't look for experience working at Google. Why? Because they've had historically highly discriminatory hiring processes. Right? I don't want to call out just Google, like, the entire industry. Google just has a lot of employees.

And so, if you're looking for signs that someone has had a lot of money, go hire someone from Stanford, go hire someone who went to Google or Facebook. I did go to Stanford. There are a lot of smart people there but there are a lot of people that are just rich there too. And I think that's important to know, so when you're looking at a resumé especially for a university student, does that student have a 2.8 GPA but did they work an extra job because they had to support family at home? Because students of color are significantly more likely to have to be like that. And when you have a 3.7 resumé cut off, all you're actually selecting for is family wealth and whiteness, for the most part, because of the way those things move together in the society.

So I think we can make those intentional choices and I think it goes back to a larger point which is, I'm not actually a recruiter, so to do this work well you have to have an incredible partnership with the recruiting team. I'm really lucky that we have an awesome one, but we've worked really hard. Where possible, get rid of degree requirements. Why? Because you can code without one or you can code with a degree in philosophy. I code and I have a degree in journalism. Make sure you're taking to account people's whole life story. I'd rather hire the student with a 2.5 GPA who had two extra jobs, than an internship at a fancy company. Why? They're gonna get shit done. They know how to solve problems. So that's it. I think you can also make sure that you're killing the concept of culture fit. All that is, is an intractable morass of unconscious bias.

At Atlassian, we talk about values alignment and that isn't just some like rebranding term. We actually went out, did focus groups with our employees, identified the specific behaviors that are associated with each of those values, and we now run a highly structured interview that looks for those types of behaviors in their past work. You have to have been at Atlassian for at least a year, especially nominated and go through extra training to even do that interview. If there's one thing you can do, because all culture fit means is “you're just like me”, and when we have an industry that's imbalanced in the way that it is, that just repeats those things. And so, it's not that interviewing for people who are going to work well in your environment is bad. That's actually really great, but you want to be very intentional and specific about what things you're looking for versus what you're not. Otherwise, it just becomes who road crew with the interview at Princeton.

That little quip actually comes from a study that showed that in finance if you play the same sport as your interviewer, you are four times more likely to get another interview. And something like crew or whatever, there's very strong socioeconomic components to what types of sports you tend to play.

Gaurav: Yes. I think mine does bring some diversity to the whole panel.

Aubrey: There’s a question over here. Sorry, there are no rules, right?

Gaurav: Yes. Absolutely.

Participant: Would you be discriminating against a hardworking child from a rich family, who happens to be in Stanford?

Aubrey: No, not if you have a conscious set of criteria. But why are you going to give the Stanford kid an extra look over a kid who went to Arizona State? Yes, so I’m not saying don't hire people from Stanford. I'm just saying don't give them an extra advantage that the people from other schools don't get.

Participant: You can have a very hardworking child who just happens to be at Stanford.

Aubrey: Absolutely. And so, if you're doing the skills test for that then they would get the same assessment. But I know at companies I've seen where they literally have separate interview processes. If you went to a core school like Stanford versus MIT and so that's what I'm saying is, the fact is, the students at Stanford regardless of their wealth or how hard they've worked, I can tell you I do not come from a family with 10 million dollars in the bank, and so yes what I'm saying is don't give the kids from Stanford extra benefits over students who went to other schools because that's actually what the practice is in the current state – not at every company and not in the same way. But yes, the idea is you should have the same skills tests for everyone and then you hire whoever meets the bar. Fairness. It is also legal. It's like legal, ethical and right. But what we know is the processes as they're generally practiced now are highly inequitable and so what we're doing is correcting for that.

Balance & Belonging Over Diversity and Inclusion

Gaurav: You mentioned this earlier about title, you don't like your title. So you're not a big fan of the term diversity. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Aubrey: Not a fan is like a really light way to describe that. I didn't have any benchmarking data on attitudes and behaviors towards diversity and inclusion in tech. I was like, “Are people excited or are they engaged?”, no one had this data. So I went out and collected it in an international survey and our team we actually decided to release all that. Because I thought if it is useful to us, it'll be useful to you. And what we found last year, I put some secret trick questions in the survey, in one of the questions I asked last year was, “Which of these groups are part of diversity?” Here's the fun part, I put all the groups: Men, women, non-binary people, white people, black people, Asian people – whatever. So, the word “diversity” is overwhelmingly associated only with white women and black Americans. Even in Australia, Australians were more likely to say that African-Americans were diverse than Indigenous Australians. That's weird. And so, my argument is that the word diversity is actually highly problematic, not aligned to the goals that we have and getting in the way of creating equity for white women and black Americans in the first place.

So what we should be talking about is building balanced teams. First of all, who is going to die on the hill of building an imbalanced team, like, absolutely none of your engineer managers right? It doesn’t make sense. But the reason it also helps is because it allows a greater space for other types of identities. So we can hold, for example, intersectionality – inside balance, so we can actually think about women of color who face significantly more barriers to advancement than white women do. We can also have space for that straight white cisgender man who grew up in a trailer park. Who historically has heard that, “Oh, he's just privileged,” when in fact a lot of the barriers that he faced are similar to some of his peers who come from other low-income backgrounds, who may or may not be from other marginalized groups. And the third reason I think it's actually really helpful is because I have found that internally at Atlassian, switching to this language has helped us have more direct conversations about race than I've ever seen. So, the fact is like white fragility is real and the word diversity is so tied up with blackness specifically that before you even start to have a productive conversation, people emotionally shut down.

So balance, the word, literally just people have less hangups about it, and so we're able to actually get into the question of, “Oh, hey we've all seen the hiring manager who's like, ‘I really care about diversity’” and you're like, “You have hired six white women which is great, but what about everybody else?” Not to nag on white women. We note that they also deserve more opportunity than they're often given.

And so, I think then you go to the question of, okay great, your team is balanced in terms of gender. In what other ways do we need to work on balance? And then we get to a constructive conversation about this category and what are we going to do about it. And like I said, for us, it has been completely transformative because people start bringing in aspects of their identity –

Autism, parenting status, military status, struggling with addiction and mental illness, death of a spouse – these are things that people talk about and write about internally at work and even at our customer summits, and I think it's because we've created space for them. So, my boss won't let me change my job title to head of balance and belonging until I make balance happen like “fetch,” so I'm hoping that you will help me.

I only ever use the word diverse when it is very clear that I am also including people from majority groups.

White people are a part of diversity, otherwise we're contributing to the idea of people of color and women and anyone who doesn't fit that majority being the other and we shouldn't accept that there is one default for people. We're all the default.

So that's it, I'm a secret Latina. Right. You didn't know because of my name. I'm like the people who the LinkedIn parses miss. But I think that's it, is when you say balance, it goes back to this. We all have different perspectives that we bring to the team, but those are fundamentally informed by our identities and life experiences. You can't just say “diversity of thought” that comes from diversity of life experience.

It's the reason that algorithms nowadays don't work for people of color because the people in the room building don't even know to ask the questions, not because they're evil, not because they're stupid but because their life experience has not given them that knowledge. Giving them an hour training is not going to solve it. You just need to teach them how to work well with people from different backgrounds.

How To Build Balanced Teams

Gaurav: That's super profound. You've done a lot of research and one of the reports that you had state of diversity which we’ll now call “State of balance” report.

Aubrey: I’m trying, yes. This year, we’re trying to make it happen.

Gaurav: That’s awesome. You found that 80 percent of people think D&I, which we're now going to call balance is important, but that doesn't necessarily translate to action. This is a big one. Especially here in the Valley, the report found that the number of formal D&I has shrunk since 2017. Why do you think that is and how do we solve for it?

Aubrey: Yes. So, we sort of quantified this existence of diversity fatigue and I think that's what's driving it.

So we found that there was a 10 percentage point drop in companies who had a formal D&I program, but like a 10% jump in companies that said they cared about D&I. And the thing I offer to you is, I would prefer if your company is not putting actual time and money into it, just say that you don't care. No one's going to judge that, but what you're doing is you're creating a space where candidates can't find a place where they're gonna be safe and where they're going to thrive. And so, I think that's what's happening is at the corporate level— it's 2013 was sort of when this next big wave, Tracey Chow asked, “Where are the numbers ?”, and you've seen a lot of companies pour a lot of money into branding and into PR but not into the structural change. And so, I think recruiters are really the front line of creating that change, which is, why are we doing a team fit interview? Why aren't we looking for people who add something to the team? Why aren't we selecting for skills instead of pedigree? Those little choices create more fairness because I think also the way that— and I'll put this on me and my peers, the way that we've talked about this work has been really wrong.

So, we talk about it a lot at the company level, it's like, “Oh, we have 30% this” but your average middle manager doesn't know what the hell they can do to impact that number, right? Or you're like, “Empower women” and they're like, “Do I go buy Dove deodorant? What am I supposed to be doing?” And I joke but it's true. Instead of being like, “You should value diversity!”, I say, “Well could you institute a no-interruptions rule in your meeting?”, why? Well, because it turns out that women, people of color and people from East Asian countries are significantly more likely to be interrupted while speaking in meetings. So, you're gonna get the good ideas on the table. Now, does that feel like a diversity thing? No. It’s also just a good way to have an effective meeting. But I think that's it.

You have to get really tactical, because folks don't know what to do to impact the whole culture which is because they can't. They can impact the culture of their teams. And we need to talk about balance, building balanced teams. Because your average hiring manager, knows how to do something about their team.

And if every person made their team a little bit more balanced, a little bit more having a culture of belonging, the entire company culture would shift, but it's not because you're asking people to act there. And I think that's it, give people tactics. Things like, I'm doing a talk with our security team today who's growing a lot and they said, “Well what can we do to make sure we go in a more balanced way?” And they go “Here is all of the things our recruiting team is doing from a structural and a process level.” I was like, “What about referrals?” And they’re like, “Well, our referrals aren't very balanced.” And I was like, “Well, so you five…” and it happened to be a group of men who were sitting to my right, and I said, “How many of you have been to women in cybersecurity meet ups?” And they were like, “Uh, none of us.” I was like, “Well, why not? You want to go hire women. The women in cybersecurity go to those meet-ups, go meet them and then give them jobs.” And they were like, “Oh yeah, we can totally do that.” And again, it was not a tactic that ever occurred.

So I would say there is that is, give people one job and something to do because often they will try to do your job. They're like, “Can I help you source?” And you're like, “No, we have awesome sourcers. What I need is for you to go build a reputation as someone who's going to support people.” Because the candidate's gonna come in and say, “Well, what have you done to help build a team where I'm going to thrive.” And the hiring manager is going to be like, “Oh, we have a diversity program.” No one's going to believe that hiring manager.

To me, a great answer for a candidate and I can tell you because we've got to hire this one, I talked to her after she joined and she was like, “You know, the hiring manager on the team, I'm the first woman on my team and I talked to the hiring manager about it and I said, ‘What are you doing to make the team more inclusive?” And he said, ‘Well, I've been working with recruiting to find more women, but we've also been trying to have no interruptions rules in the meetings, and this is something I feel really awkward talking about but I'm trying to be more proactive.’”

That was his long answer. He did this one tiny thing and “I feel awkward” and she was like, “I'll go work for this person.”

Gaurav: Wow.

Aubrey: So I think that's what it is, is don't make these big pledges about, like, “We care about diversity” everyone says that. It's about how can you do a small thing that's totally within your power and you should also feel awesome about yourself about that creates, a little bit of change. And then when that becomes your habit and you don't even notice, pick a new thing and do that thing.

Gaurav: That's great. I always felt like—and Vivek and I have talked about this and what I started to is, there’s only one question I ask them and it’s,  “Core values, do you have posters about it everywhere” and he goes, “No”, and I go,  “I'm gonna come join this company.” Because we tend to make a lot of noise about these things, put posters up and it's on our website and everything, but do we really mean it? Do we really embody these? It is really important.

Aubrey: Yes. I think that's what it's about, it’s like break it down into chunks. You don't have to move the whole mountain. None of us can do it alone. This is a gnarly structural issue that we all put little bits into creating it. And so, it's going to take us all just slowly moving and undoing that. But to me that's more optimistic. You absolutely can do something.

Gaurav: That's great. This is really great.

Aubrey: We're just more uncomfortable when we're around people not like ourselves and so I think there might be some of that driving it too.

Gaurav: That’s awesome. So Aubrey I can have you here all day, thank you so much.

Aubrey: Thank you for having me.

Gaurav: Thank you for tuning in. If you have any questions, tweet us at HackerRank.

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