6 mins

Making sure that your company upholds diversity and inclusion efforts is crucial. Here are some ways you can improve your current approach to culture.

In modern engineering organizations, we often talk about diversity and inclusion. These initiatives are important and should be prioritized within companies. 

What do diversity and inclusion mean?

Diversity is the idea that we can improve our culture by recruiting and retaining people from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Inclusion is when all people feel valued, respected, and heard regardless of their differences. To that end, at its core, diversity and inclusion mean establishing an environment where everyone can thrive.

Creating an environment where everyone feels like they belong needs to be intentional; we can’t just hope that people who share similar backgrounds and interests will self-select into a group. Instead, we should proactively create spaces where everyone can work together.

"We want to make our team a place where hardworking, collaborative, smart people from all backgrounds can succeed and thrive." - Mekka Okereke in Building Inclusive Engineering Teams.

Company culture and the values which define it

Your organization’s values define and reflect its purpose, mission, and commitment to its people. If a company has no strong sense of identity, it will have difficulty recruiting and retaining employees who share those values.

The relationship between diversity, inclusion, and culture can be mutually reinforcing. Diversity of thought, experience, and background can help an organization generate fresh perspectives on problems or opportunities. And inclusion guarantees that every employee, irrespective of their differences, is esteemed and embraced. Therefore, a strong establishment of culture provides fertile ground for both diversity and inclusion to grow.

The following list presents some ideas for defining your organization's culture:

Maintaining a strong culture 

Culture is what you say, do, and reward. Culture is how you hire, promote, and manage. It’s what helps good employees feel valued or appreciated at work, ensuring they don’t look for jobs elsewhere. 

Culture determines whether people enjoy working in your company or not – because if employees don't feel psychologically safe in their jobs, then they won't be able to give their best effort on a day-to-day basis. To avoid this problem in your own engineering teams, consider these tips:

  • Make sure you have a culture that's consistent with your vision and feels safe for teams. Too often, companies focus on getting new hires to fit into the existing corporate culture instead of focusing on what they want their company to look like in five years. If you want to build an engineering team that can take on ambitious projects and ship high-quality software, then you need to establish a work environment that allows engineers to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Another cultural norm I like to promote is having a healthy work-life balance – a lesson I learned the hard way after years of being a workaholic. The most productive engineers are also the happiest ones. Being able to take a step away from their desks allows for time spent with friends, family, and loved ones.

What are some elements of inclusive culture?

Inclusive language is a practice that ensures that everyone can feel included in the conversation. This means making sure that your company has an inclusive definition of gender, and avoiding language that is exclusive or offensive to certain groups of people. For example, instead of saying "hey guys", try using "hey everyone" or "hey folks" instead.

Inclusive meetings are meetings where every person gets an opportunity to speak up and share their opinions. This is especially important if you're building a company where people from different backgrounds work together. If your meetings are often dominated by the same voices talking over everyone else, it might be time for you to make some changes.

These changes could include making sure everyone gets a chance to speak up by taking turns or having people raise their hands when they want to talk. You could also try asking open-ended questions that don't require yes or no answers, which will help encourage others to contribute.

If you're the one who's dominating the conversation, try to be more aware of when others might want a chance to talk. You could also use some of your meetings to facilitate discussions rather than just talking at people. That way, everyone has an opportunity to contribute their ideas and opinions.

Inclusive hiring is a practice that ensures candidates from diverse backgrounds are given an equal chance of employment. When hiring, make sure that you're interviewing applicants from different backgrounds and building relationships with organizations like Black Girls CODE or hack the hood.

At all stages, it’s important to make sure that the interviewers themselves reflect your company's values of diversity. 

What is allyship? 

Allyship is the essential work of understanding and eliminating barriers faced by underrepresented groups.

The first step in allyship is humility. You must be willing to acknowledge your own privilege and recognize that it shapes how you interact with others. Acknowledging that you have a place on the spectrum of privilege allows room for growth as an ally – you won't be so quick to dismiss or minimize things if you understand where they're coming from (or why).

The second step is empathy, which involves imagining what it's like for someone else: understanding their position and perspective, feeling their emotions as if they were your own, putting yourself in their shoes. This can often lead to anger at injustice or frustration with systems of oppression, but even in these instances, there are ways we can stay kind towards those around us while still speaking up about issues that matter to allies!

Of course, these steps aren't easy ones – they require humility and empathy! But being an ally isn't just about doing these two things; it's also about committing yourself to lifelong practice – to working on yourself daily so that over time you become better equipped at helping others too.

One of the most common mistakes people make when they're trying to be an ally is putting the onus on the underrepresented group. This often means centering yourself and your needs in conversations about oppression, instead of listening to what marginalized groups have to say about their experiences. If you're not sure how to be an ally, start by listening. Ask questions and listen carefully; don't tell anyone else how they should feel or what the right way to respond is.

Building an inclusive culture takes time

It's often a multi-year effort, with progress measured in baby steps rather than giant leaps. It also takes patience and persistence. Building an engineering team representative of different backgrounds and experiences can be slow, particularly if you're used to being part of a homogeneous group.

But this is exactly why we must persevere: because building an inclusive culture isn't just about making the right changes – it's also about changing the way we think about ourselves and our colleagues, which takes time and practice to master.

Now go build it

If you’re a manager who wants to build an inclusive engineering team, there are some specific things you can do. Start by thinking about what you want to accomplish. Are you trying to increase diversity or promote inclusivity? Do you wish to make sure that everyone on your team feels welcome, or that they’re able to contribute equally? Perhaps you want to work on and strengthen all of these avenues.

Once you know what kind of culture you want, start with the basics. Take a look at your recruitment strategy and see if there are ways you can make it more inclusive. If you want to promote inclusivity in your current team, start by asking yourself what kind of culture makes people feel most comfortable and then make changes accordingly.