“Don’t touch my hair” - expert advice for creating inclusivity

Part of building a diverse technology workforce is creating an inclusive culture, which can be a challenge when a number of those at the top come from a position of privilege, and are not aware of issues faced by those in the minority.

For example, have you ever had someone randomly come up to you and touch your hair?

I have, and so has Twilio’s global head of culture and inclusion, LaFawn Davis, and this tiny action can highlight huge differences in people’s preferences and behaviour.

For some people this seems like a normal thing to do, and for others it doesn’t – increased workplace diversity contributes to more positive business outcomes, but it does mean people will be exposed to ideas and cultures they have not encountered before.

Davis said: “There are cultural differences of things that happen in certain countries that don’t happen in others. You see some people react with looks of horror at the actions that some people take that others don’t.”

Davis, who has been working on improving diversity in the tech sector for 15 years, said it’s easy to get tied down by addressing the needs of specific diverse groups, such as gender or LGBTQ+, when really inclusivity needs to be used to address diversity issues more widely across a firm.

Where at the start of her career she noticed many trying to “throw money” at hiring diversely, people are beginning to understand more effort needs to be put into driving equality in all areas, such as developing an unbiased recruiting process, equal pay, and equal promotion opportunities for all groups.

In recent years there have been large strides made to address the lack of women in the technology industry, as well a gender inequality as a whole, but Davis said this timeframe has also been bogged down in “political correctness” when really people should have been trying to better understand each other.

Part of Davis’ approach is trying to help those in a position of privilege understand how their experience will have been different from someone else’s, and therefore influence their behaviour in the workplace.

One way of achieving this is by encouraging the office to take part in a ‘privilege walk’ – a number of questions are asked, such as ‘are you male?’, ‘are you white?’, ‘did you grow up with both parents?’ etc.

Where the answer to those questions is “yes”, one takes a step forward.

“What you find is that you’ve had different walks of life because of those things,” Davis explained.

“You can see there are differences and we’ve approach life in a different way, it doesn’t mean we’re less successful it just means we’ve had to do different things to get to where we are. There are some things you just don’t know about people by looking at them. I’m trying to teach people that are of a majority population to understand the privilege that they have, and understanding that privilege will at least give you the knowledge that your experience is different than someone else’s.”

Twilio hosts events throughout the year called Twilio After Hours, its September 2018 instalment of which was hosted in the UK to ensure the focus was global rather than just US-based, aiming to bring more people of colour into the firm.

The company’s September 2018 event featured an all black panel, which is very rare in technology events, a move met with a positive response.

Having this panel also helped to “set the intention” of the event, Davis said, making it clear the goal of the event is to create a safe space for people of colour in tech, but that is also open to others who can help advance the conversation.

“We’re saying we want to create more spaces for people of colour we’re not saying no one else can come in. it’s quite the opposite. We need to have everyone to make this space realistic and authentic.” She said.

The overarching theme of these events is community building, bringing people into a space to share their stories.

Davis said: “It really is in story telling that we figure out what our commonalities are and it helps us to figure out how to build together.”

What else can be done to develop a more inclusive culture?

Davis joked “don’t touch people’s hair” is a good place to start when building inclusivity, and also pointed out working to understand the nuances of different personalities and cultures is part of the journey towards an inclusive workplace.

Davis has rolled out an inclusion roadmap for Twilio, offering coaching to managers on how to develop inclusive teams, emotional intelligence (EQ) training, and how to approach particular, potentially difficult, conversations.

Understanding “how someone might be showing up and why” in a situation can help managers to approach situations depending on their employee as an individual.

She said: “I can run around with sprinkles and rainbows and unicorn dust, but if a manager isn’t setting inclusion on their team every day then that’s what affects their employee; it’s their day to day.”

Twilio is launching a bootcamp for people of colour to help them understand the experiences they might have in the workplace and how to cope with them.

Much like women in technology networks, understanding you’re not alone can be a great help.

Davis said: “That’s’ what we’re noticing more of. It’s less about let’s exclude and more about how do we include? How do we create communities no matter what communities look like?”

For me, this is another example of why the technology industry needs to focus on more than just gender, and to help those at the top understand inclusion is the most important step to recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.

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