“You might find it ironic given my job title but I am on a mission to get rid of diversity,” says Aubrey Blanche, head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian.
Blanche is speaking to Computerworld on the launch of the software-maker’s diversity report, an initiative now in its third year.
Since 2016 the company, founded by Australians Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, has run an audit of its employees, publishing the proportions of men and women in different departments, their age bands and – in jurisdictions that allow it like the US where the company is headquartered – their race and background.
This year the company has taken a different tack with the report, which begins with its title. What for two years was known as the ‘State of Diversity and Inclusion Report’ is now called the ‘Balance and Belonging Team Report’. Semantics were scuppering progress, Blanche says.
“The words diversity and inclusion and the way we were thinking about those concepts were getting in the way,” she says.
“We found that people were much more likely to associate the word diversity with folks who come from underrepresented or minority backgrounds. So that meant simply using the word gave people the idea that people from majority groups weren’t a part of diversity,” Blanche adds.
The word association is a problem when the vision is to build a diverse company, Blanche explains — “you might have accidently just told many of your current employees that you’re building a future without them, which doesn’t give them a lot of reason to buy into it”.
Inclusion as a term has also been ditched, as Blanche puts it: “it feels like being invited to a party and someone telling you it’s because someone else cancelled”.
In the latest report, gender, age, race, and nationality data remain, but the company has a new, overarching metric for success: Belonging.
“It’s important that we’re not only increasing the representation of folks at Atlassian, but that they’re having an incredible experience while they’re here,” Blanche says.
Technology companies are not known for the diversity of their workforces. The image of a Silicon Valley office full of ‘tech bros’ and ‘brogrammers’ is not too far from reality. The average Atlassian employee – going by the data released yesterday – is a white male in his 30s working in a software team.
It’s a look the tech industry is trying to shake off. Companies are chasing the financial benefits of having a diverse workforce and the edge it can give them in building products for a diverse market.
For Blanche there’s also the higher aim of trying to settle the ‘cognitive dissonance’ within the industry, she explains.
“The technology industry has been one that has quite a progressive set of values, so there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance between an industry that proposes a progressive set of values that is frankly so far behind in creating any level of fairness,” she adds.
Transparency around workplace diversity is a tactic being pursued by many tech companies. Apple, Microsoft, CA Technologies, Facebook, Twitter, IBM, Amazon and Google (one of the first to do so back in 2014) – also publish diversity stats.
In some countries, at least for gender pay gap statistics, this is a legal requirement – notably the UK which made it mandatory for all companies with more than 250 employees this year. The Australian Labor Party has proposed similar legislation here.
“We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible, because we believe it’s one of the best ways to hold ourselves accountable for progress, but also for us to help the industry improve,” Blanche says.
Being transparent about the staff mix also helps with talent acquisition.
“There’s an important step of being honest and open with current Atlassians and potential future Atlassians, to say we’re not at the end of the journey, we know we’re not perfect but we deeply care about this and are making serious investments and here’s our track record of progress that we intend to continue,” Blanche says.
“It becomes a competitive advantage for us to acquire and retain talent, but it’s also good for the employees, so it’s a win-win,” she adds.
Us, them and we
Efforts to improve diversity at other companies haven’t always been well received by employees. Last year, Google software engineer James Damore wrote a 10-page memo to colleagues saying the company’s initiatives to improve female representation were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business”.
Within Atlassian, most employees are on board with improving the balance of representation in their offices, Blanche says.
“Even if maybe the concept of diversity and inclusion isn’t something that [an employee is] personally really excited about, if you say I want you to create a great working environment and I want you to hire the right people who are going to create a dynamic, interesting place to work, that’s a pretty easy sell,” she explains.
“And moving from diversity and inclusion to balance and belonging, we take something that could create an us versus them dynamic, and it becomes more about we,” Blanche adds. “We’re really intentional about explaining to folks what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
In Atlassian’s case, progress has been at slight at best. The number of women in leadership roles globally has risen by less than a percentage point from 26.8 per cent last year, to 27.1 per cent this year. African Americans make up one per cent of leadership roles (in the US where race is recorded), and Hispanics 3.4 per cent.
Women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. African Americans fill 2.3 per cent of them.
Blanche won’t be drawn on specific diversity targets, there are no hard goals, only a long term aim for offices to “reflect the diversity of the community they’re in”.
“We're playing the long game,” she added.
The company has implemented training programs for managers around diversity, and built a ‘bias-resistant performance assessment process’, but has stopped short of bringing in any recruitment quotas.
Instead, improving employees’ sense of ‘belonging’ – a metric gained from a specific question asked for the first time this year in the biannual employee survey – is the primary focus. The metric correlates with a greater likelihood to stay engaged at work and remain at Atlassian, she said.
The word is now in her job title: head of diversity and belonging, changed from head of diversity and inclusion in May. Inclusion might be swapped for balance too.
“Eventually, I haven’t gotten there yet,” she says. “My boss said you have to do the work to convince everyone else to use it and then you can change it. Challenge accepted.”