How to Tell If a Company is (Actually) Supporting Women of Color
There’s a lot of talk in the US (and the world) about diversity and inclusion. As a woman of color in tech, it’s not always easy to see at a glance which companies are already doing the work of inclusivity and which ones are only diverse (or barely diverse) on paper. You have likely read countless anti-racism statements from every company in your inbox in the last few weeks. If you have eyed some of those promises with suspicion, it makes sense, especially if you are a person of color trying to determine what companies you want to support or work for.
One reason it can be tough to figure out if a company is actually doing the work is that these two terms — diversity and inclusion — are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Diversity refers to the presence of underrepresented people, aka just having people of different age groups, races, genders, abilities, and sexual orientation (to name a few) in the room. Inclusion refers to making sure those underrepresented people feel safe, valued, and respected in their roles.
And diversity alone isn’t enough. Diversity and inclusion is what women of color (and BIPOC as a whole) are asking for. We don’t just want to be hired to be added to your About page, so you can check a box saying you “handled the lack of diversity problem” at your company (Forbes).
When you are starting a job hunt process, regardless of who you are, you want to feel valued in this new position. Working in tech as a woman of color, it’s very likely that you’ll be “the only one,” or one of a few on the team — so figuring out if your prospective company respects you as a woman of color can be difficult, to say the least. Will your opinions be valued? Will you be paid fairly? Will you feel safe speaking up in meetings? What if someone does something offensive — will you have means of recourse?
These are the kinds of questions that can run through your mind when reviewing job postings, but how do you actually find answers to these questions without working at a company for a few months? The short answer: it’s not easy. Fortunately, looking out for specific markers can help you make an educated guess to find the right company for you.
Table of Contents
- What does “Diversity & Inclusion” really mean?
- Hallmarks of an inclusive company
- When companies pay lip service to diversity & inclusion
What does “diversity and inclusion” really mean?
Diversity means different things in different environments. Sometimes it just refers to race or ethnicity. Other times it incorporates traits such as age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or socioeconomic status.
The definition of inclusion seems more straightforward at first, but it’s actually complex. A 2018 Gallup report defines inclusion as “a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging.” But how do you measure feelings? It’s not simple, which is why diversity and inclusion aren’t simple. When it comes down to it, saying diverse people are welcome isn’t as important as hiring diverse people which isn’t as important as making them feel safe and respected enough to stay at your company because they feel included.
But again, how do you measure inclusion? Start by measuring equity. In fact, D&I is also called DEI, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Equity “seeks to ensure fair treatment, equality of opportunity, and fairness in access to information and resources for all” (Ford Foundation). In the way that demographics can be measured to ensure diversity, you can measure promotion rates, compare salaries, and career development opportunities available to your employees. The fewer inequalities, perceived or actual, the closer you are to making your diverse employees feel valued in their roles (aka included.)
Hallmarks of an inclusive company
So, maybe we know how to measure diversity and equity, but what about inclusion? What signs can you look for that a company is making women of color feel safe and supported?
An inclusive company has a diverse management team
Though the definition of inclusion is more straightforward, figuring out if a company is inclusive still starts with figuring out if a company is diverse.
I spoke to Joyce Gutierrez, a Creative Business Coach and former ad tech employee with 10 years of experience in New York and the Bay Area. She said her search for inclusion starts with “looking at the management and leadership teams, [to see if they are] diverse in race and sex.” She recognizes that even that’s not enough and, “you can’t automatically discount that company yet because you don’t know if they are in the process of diversifying” — especially in today’s climate, when many companies and organizations are scrambling to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion.
TeLisa Daughtry, Founder & CEO of FlyTechnista, an organization that helps companies hire and retain women in tech, also starts with looking at leadership to determine if a company is inclusive. First, you can do a general LinkedIn search of company management to see if it’s a diverse group.
It’s important to look at the people you interact with during the hiring process, too. At an inclusive company you’ll often run into women and people of color throughout the hiring process. But if the only women or women of color you interact with are in HR or admin roles, it might be a red flag that you’re not dealing with an inclusive company.
If women of color are only in less technical roles like HR or admin it appears that they aren’t “trusted” with more complex tasks, such as engineering, or that women of color don’t last long in these roles at that company. So if you’re the first woman of color walking into that role (or the fifth because all of the previous have turned over) you’ll feel a spotlight that makes you feel every task you complete will be second-guessed.
An inclusive company invests in inclusion
Another trait of an inclusive company is that they demonstrate their commitment by supporting various causes with company time and money. For example, LinkedIn matches individual charitable donations of employees up to $15,000 per year, per employee and partners with volunteer organizations to donate company time. Similarly, Salesforce pioneered the “Pledge 1% model of integrated corporate philanthropy, which dedicates 1% of Salesforce’s equity, employee time or product back into the community.” Since inception, they have donated $240 million in grants, 3.5 million hours of community service, and donated to more than 39,000 nonprofits and education institutions (Salesforce).
Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno, CEO and co-founder of Future For Us, a national platform that advances women of color through culture, community and development suggests identifying these qualities by “searching a company’s website and social media channels and by reaching out to their DEI experts through platforms like LinkedIn.” She also believes internal programs to recruit and maintain underrepresented talent and employee resource groups (ERGs) are trademarks of an inclusive company.
An inclusive company has an adequate parental leave policy
In some ways, it’s easier to tell if a company is not inclusive versus if they are inclusive. For example, if an inclusive company has representation in leadership and programs to support the advancement of WOC (and especially their employees) a non-inclusive company doesn’t have either of these things.
What else does an inclusive company not look like? An inclusive company does not have major holes in their benefits.
There is no federal policy for paid parental leave and a non-inclusive company doesn’t take any steps to right this wrong. Gutierrez recalls working at a tech startup with a $1 billion valuation in 2015 that didn’t have a maternity leave policy (much less a more inclusive parental leave policy) until its third year, when an executive became pregnant — even though the male CEO had children during that time. Before the policy existed, neither she nor any of her teammates felt comfortable asking about a policy, much less having a child.
Of course, a parental leave policy doesn’t just affect women of color, but the absence of one can be a good indicator that a company is falling short in supporting employees in other ways. And, unfortunately, it can be one more hurdle in a hiring process that favors candidates that fit the profile of “young, unattached, and always ready for an after work drink.”
In a 2017 Elephant in the Valley survey, 200+ women in the Bay Area were asked about how family life, marital status, and children came up in interviews. The research showed statements from hiring managers such as, “It’s a good thing you don’t have children yet as that [wouldn’t] work well in venture/start up world” led women to believe that raising families would limit their impact at the company or completely exclude them from getting hired in the first place. Gutierrez recalls startup companies in the beginning of her career that veered away from hiring women who weren’t fresh out of college and instead prioritized women who would always be available to work (even at 11pm) and go to drinks after hours.
If you’re considering starting a family, there’s no shame in doing your due diligence and asking about the policy during the interview process. If the company shys away from the question, it may be a warning sign that they aren’t going to be supportive. According to Vox, 83% percent of women in tech say they feel pressured to return to work early following parental leave (Vox). And if women in general are affected, it adds an extra burden to women of color who may already feel a spotlight on their work output.
An inclusive company does not rely on an employee referral system for hiring
For years, tech companies have centered their recruitment process around a referral system. If employees refer candidates who end up getting hired, that employee gets financially compensated. That could be a kickback of thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars for high-profile roles, so employees are incentivized to refer their own friends and family members.
Unfortunately, women of color are 35 times less likely to get an employee referral, and 40% of referrals benefit white men. What’s worse, when men are referred by their business contacts they still benefit more than women who are hired based on referrals. On average, men hired based on referral receive starting salaries that are $8,200 higher (when compared to non-referred new employees) versus referred women who only receive $3,700 more.
Daughtry says, “companies should always be hiring for an add rather than a fit,” meaning as a hiring manager, you shouldn’t be looking for someone who “fits” into your company culture you should be looking for someone who adds value to your team instead. Referrals make it too easy to concentrate on fitting in versus hiring based on skillset.
When companies pay lip service to diversity & inclusion
“We’re an equal opportunity employer. All applicants will be considered for employment without attention to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, veteran or disability status.”
As a woman of color, when you see this statement do you say to yourself, “YES! They really care about me!” Or do your eyes just gloss over it?
This boilerplate Equal Employment Opportunity statement is frequently found on job applications, career pages, and job descriptions — but what does it really mean? It means that a company is legally obligated to state they don’t discriminate based on “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, veteran or disability status.” But it doesn’t actually tell you what actions they’re taking to support it.
It means they say they hire fairly but they might not. And if they do hire fairly, it doesn’t mean diverse candidates are treated fairly once they start their jobs. In 2012, Daughtry joined a 10-year old company of 800+ people as the first Black hire. For example, she recalls not being invited to career development workshops because she was told “it wouldn’t fit [her] culture,” and remembers how coworkers attitudes would change following conversations with HR.
As the only Black person at the company of 800+, she was frequently left out of meetings and eventually left the toxic environment as it put a strain on her mental health. Says Daughtry, “I love doing my work with joy, and the moment I didn’t have that … I couldn’t just do it for a paycheck. I just decided to leave.”
According to a recent Fast Company article, when Ifeoma Ozoma was hired to Pinterest as the public policy and social impact manager in 2018 she was excited to do meaningful work. She had done similar work at Facebook and Google and was the second person on Pinterest’s team. Her teammate was a white man and they split the work equally. Only, they weren’t getting paid equally. A few months after getting hired she saw the team levels chart which documents role expectations for employees at each of the five salary levels for the job family. She discovered she was on the second to lowest level of that chart while her counterpart was on the highest level.
For months she attempted to work through the proper channels to fix her level and for months she was denied. When a second Black woman was added to the team (now splitting the work in thirds) she was also hired at a level below her responsibility and paid less. Both ended up filing complaints with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) before eventually quitting on the same day (Fast Company).
Their stories became public after Ozoma called out Pinterest for their statements of “solidarity with BLM.” With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, prospective employees have a new avenue to decide if a company is inclusive or not: did they make a statement about Black Lives Matter? And if they did make a statement, did it adequately address shortcoming of the past and promise meaningful change?
Originally centered around the beauty industry, the campaign Pull Up for Change encouraged companies to share racial demographics of employees and leaderships. Many companies made pledges to how they would fix disparities such as pledging to add Black leadership, reviewing salaries, and sourcing interns from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
If a company has made a statement like this, you’re well within your right to ask what steps they’ve made towards fulfilling these promises during your interview process. And if they haven’t made any such statement, ask the HR Manager. If they don’t have an answer, it might be a red flag that this company won’t choose to value you in the future.
As an industry, tech still has a lot to do to make workplaces more inclusive. We want to make sure workplaces are supportive of all womxn, women of color, trans, and non-binary folx, and everyone who is marginalized. We need to make sure they are represented throughout the company, that they are paid equally and given the same opportunities as other employees, and that they feel safe and respected enough to continue at the company for the long haul.