Meet The Women Tackling Tech’s Diversity Crisis With Project Include
“We had to reject some applicants, because we were unwilling to water down our requirements or extend our timeline, and they were unwilling to commit to them, their HR or legal teams were too focused on legal risks and downsides, and/or they were focused on more of a PR boost than meaningful change. A few larger companies we talked with were reluctant to address more than gender, unwilling to take on risk, and/or slow to make decisions.”
By Katie Tandy, Nikki Gloudeman, and Kelley Calkins
Yes, it is that bad.
The impassioned rhetoric surrounding diversity in tech isn’t hyperbolic; by every possible measure, a lack of inclusivity remains a damning, deplorable, distressing problem.
Consider this: In a recent Fortune survey of nine top tech companies, women comprised, on average, one-third of the workforce. Minorities, meanwhile, were found to make up “just a tiny fraction” of those workforces. Worse yet, representation was revealed to be even more dismal in leadership roles.
And lest you think things are changing — they’re not. Or at least, they’re changing at a glacial pace.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the representation of women in computer and mathematical operations is actually slightly worse than it was in 2010 (it has improved for underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, but only slightly). More alarming, still, is that women are earning just 18% of computer science degrees . . . compared to 37% in back in 1985. Another analysis found that the major tech companies that had made the most progress in diversifying their workforces increased their hiring of women and people of color by a paltry 3%.
The situation is so bad, in fact, that it’s easy to stop paying attention, to resign oneself to a situation that feels both bleak and insurmountable.
But for the eight accomplished women behind Project Include — who have a cumulative 150 years of experience in the tech industry, and who have all lived the discrimination revealed by these troubling stats — resignation isn’t an option. The only way forward is a push for change to address the underlying issues that have stymied the industry.
Launched in May, Project Include provides practical tools and recommendations to industry executives looking to fundamentally, and from the outset, change their approach to diversity. The initiative is notable for the holistic approach it takes to inclusivity; the women involved are all too aware of how cursory hiring checklists or quotas can only accomplish so much, so they’ve worked hard to dig deeper and address the systemic issues driving the problem.
On the Project Include website, detailed guides address everything from company culture and training programs to conflict resolution and progress tracking. The recommendations go beyond where the conversation usually ceases; case studies and advice focus not only on women and ethnic minorities, but also on other frequently marginalized groups, including people who are trans, nonbinary, LGBTQIA, and disabled. Representation for populations that are neurodiverse, socioeconomically underrepresented, and in other ways pushed to the margins of society will remain a primary focus for the team.
Though nascent, the initiative has already elicited interest from thousands of startup CEOs, venture capitalists, and those looking to help across six continents and dozens of countries. After poring through hundreds of applications, the founders have hand-picked 26 startup and venture capital leaders — from companies including Airbnb, Patreon, Asana, and Kapor Capital — to take part in the Startup Include and VC Include programs, with the goal of creating meaningful change by the end of this year.
In a post for Medium, Project Include co-founder Freada Kapor Klein emphasized that this isn’t just lip service — Project Include is only working with those committed to tangible results:
More than just a matter of ethics, the women of Project Include believe that their approach is necessary for success. Considering that we’re talking about some of the most innovative companies in the fastest-growing industries, there’s no logical reason to uphold the status quo; according to McKinsey research, advancing women would add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025. And different research by the same consultancy found that companies with racially diverse leadership teams financially outperform their peers by 35%. In a variety of studies, diversity of thought — when teams are made up of different genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences — has proven to drive innovation and out-of-the-box solutions.
The Establishment’s all-female co-founding editorial team — Kelley Calkins, Nikki Gloudeman, and Katie Tandy — talked with five of the women involved in Project Include to discuss their experiences in tech . . . and what can be done to mitigate a diversity crisis.
Laura Gomez, CEO | Founder of Atipica
— Interview by Katie Tandy
A native of Silicon Valley, Laura Gomez has borne witness to the “diversity problem” — which is arguably a euphemism for systemic oppression and racism, depending on who you ask — her entire life.
She was 10 years old when she and her family migrated from Mexico; her mother cleaned houses and worked as a nanny for tech executives from the moment they arrived stateside. While Gomez says she always exhibited not only a keen interest in computer science, but a natural talent at it, no opportunities were ever extended to her.
“The families treated us very kindly, but never offered me an internship or said, ‘Oh! you’re interested in tech!’ They never thought that I could be part of their tech creation. The majority of California is Latino. Seeing so many Latina women serving instead of creating has really hit home — it’s really shaped me.”
This ubiquity of white men in the tech field — for a brief glimpse into this phenomenon, look to Google’s tech employees, who are 83% male and 60% white — is what Gomez calls “Connectivism.” She explains that it’s not intentional exclusion — it’s not malicious — but a dangerous pattern that has emerged.
It’s one that Project Include and her own company, Atipica, is dedicated to disrupting.
“When people create something, they hire their friends who look like them and went to the same school. This is Connectivism. This is what happened in Silicon Valley. That’s why half of Google was from Stanford. Why Dropbox is all people from MIT. It’s been a perpetual pattern that emerged from hiring and working within a network.”
Gomez, who’s been recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her participation in the TechWomen program — in addition to being named Person of the Year: Social Pioneer by GQ Mexico — has wended her way through some of the biggest names in the business, including critical stints at YouTube and Twitter, before founding her own start-up this past January.
Atipica — like Project Include — is focused on bolstering inclusion and diversity in the workplace; it seeks to interrupt bias among job-seekers and employers, taking not only a resume into account, but also the human being behind it. In fact, she looks to the Dalai Llama as an inspiration for successful business practice: “Idealistic as it may sound, altruism should be the driving force in business, not just competition and a desire for wealth.”
Gomez says that capitalism posits business and altruism as opposites, when in reality, they should work hand in hand. “When you put humanity into a job, it allows for more prospering. People must consider the social impact when they’re creating a new generation of start-ups and wealth.”
But like any fight, this one hasn’t been without a few blows and setbacks. Gomez explains that even talking about a lack of diversity makes people very cagey; those in power feel threatened or guilty, unsure how to ameliorate the situation when they feel their very existence is the problem.
“We got such different reactions,” she says. “Everything from, ‘this is great!’ all the way to, ‘this makes me feel bad when I read it. Do I have to feel bad that I’m a male founder and a CEO?’ People were reactionary. It makes people so uncomfortable to have this conversation, so we wanted to acknowledge that and say, ‘Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable.’ But people aren’t going to feel good about themselves until we move forward and have these discussions.”
Tracy Chou, Engineer and Entrepreneur
— Interview by Kelley Calkins
To an uncritical eye, Tracy Chou’s rapid ascent within the world of tech could appear preordained. Her parents were both software engineers in Silicon Valley — she attended school not far from the Googleplex — and she herself went on to complete both an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science at Stanford. But even after nabbing internships at both Facebook and Google, and despite her obvious talent, Chou couldn’t always see a future for herself in tech.
Growing up, her mother told her tales about how she was treated differently — as one of four women in a class of 200. At Stanford, Chou accumulated her own set of stories. Not perceived as a serious student, she found that her male classmates were willing to help her out with schoolwork — that is, until she started outperforming them.
One of the men she’d dated in college, for example, grew increasingly agitated as Chou’s skill set surpassed his own. Eventually, he admitted that he “wasn’t used to a girl being smarter” than him, asserting that he’d believed “technical ability and attractiveness were inversely related.”
As Chou continued to excel at classes, internships, and a job at Quora after graduating, she continued to be marginalized and belittled for, well, not adhering to the tech bro archetype. “For a long time I didn’t know if it was just me, something about the way I was comporting myself, that kept people from trusting me.”
The more she talked about her experiences and researched the matter, the more she realized “that a lot of these issues were the result of women internalizing issues of sexism.”
After her stint at Quora, Chou joined Pinterest: “They treated me as an engineer, rather than a female engineer; they had high expectations of me.” She told me she could succeed when success was expected of her: “Being in a supportive environment made all the difference.”
And what a difference it has made — not just for Chou, but the entire industry, which she’s been shaking up for years.
In 2013, after attending the Grace Hopper Celebration — a gathering of women in computing — and witnessing a collective lamenting of diversity issues in the tech industry, Chou wondered how bad the numbers really were. So she set out to discover them, publishing a blog piece calling for tech companies to disclose their numbers of female staffers and uploading a spreadsheet to Github where they could do so.
As a result, more than 250 companies have self-reported these data.
Chou has taken this commitment to transparency and measurable solutions with her to Project Include. She emphasized, however, that diversity is about more than just race or gender.
“Research shows that if you put self-identified Democrats and Republicans in a room together, the combination will be more productive than a room of just Democrats or just Republicans. The reason people focus on gender and race is because they are visual markers — but we’re not even getting that right!”
As one example of this, she told me, “Asian people often get totally left out of the conversation. Some companies do have people of color, they’re just all yellow, not black or brown. Asians are people of color who have unique issues that warrant discussion.”
Rectifying such matters and ushering in a climate of true inclusion — where all employees feel valued and safe at work — is Chou’s primary focus at Project Include. “Our ultimate goal is to build a community where people are discussing these issues — what they’ve tried, what’s working, what isn’t working.”
“We want to support the next generation of companies in tech to get it right from the start,” she said — and I couldn’t help but visualize and cheer the next generation of Tracy Chous, working in tech unfettered by stereotypes or sexist scrutiny.
Susan Wu, Entrepreneur and Investor
— Interview by Kelley Calkins
To understand the mission of Project Include, Susan Wu says it’s important to understand what inclusion even means. The word is typically used in reference to women and, less frequently, to people of color. But while these are both undoubtedly important, to understand inclusion in such limited terms is to not really understand it at all.
“When I think of intersectionality, and when I think about diversity, I don’t really think of it in terms of gender or race,” Wu says. “I think both of them are important categories, but there are many, many categories of marginalization that don’t ever get talked about because they’re so marginalized.”
Wu tells me, for example, that she most strongly identifies as a survivor of childhood trauma, a category of marginalization often left out of the inclusion discussion. “Project Include is designed to help shine a light on all marginalized groups,” she emphasizes. “Adult survivors of childhood trauma often hide in the closet; they are living in shame their entire lives, so they can’t even form support groups, much less professional support groups to talk about it.”
After a long career in the industry — spanning roles as a VC operating executive, chief executive at an open-source organization, and founder of a company that went public on NASDAQ — Wu has too often seen a limited view of inclusivity curb needed change. She likens this limited approach to a GIF she once saw on Twitter of people trying to save the Titanic by focusing on the part above the water, rather than the sinking vessel beneath the surface. A cursory approach to diversity, she says, “overlooks the fact that the Titanic is sinking.”
In only implementing a couple rudimentary programs, without offering institutional support, companies may even exacerbate their problems . . . and then use these failed attempts to “prove” that pushing for change doesn’t actually accomplish anything.
In particular, Wu says, it’s impossible to make necessary shifts without the committed involvement of those at the top:
“Diversity and inclusion always start with the founder and CEO. If they don’t understand the significance, and aren’t personally invested in and/or supporting the outcome — which is improving the culture and work experiences for underrepresented communities — there’s nothing we can do that will really work.”
When I ask Wu why she wanted to get involved with Project Include, her answer is both simple and forceful: “We were all just fed up, honestly. We were very frustrated with all of these startups that publicly talk about their commitment to diversity and inclusion but, if you look under the hood, aren’t actually doing anything about diversity and inclusion.”
In an environment where talk is often empty, Wu is ready to fundamentally change the discourse around inclusivity — and, hopefully, salvage the entire ship in the process.
— Interview by Nikki Gloudeman
Erica Joy Baker, Senior Engineer at Slack and Diversity and Inclusion Advocate
When I asked Erica Joy Baker what had led her to Project Include, she cut to the chase. “I’ve been in the tech industry for 15 years. I’ve had some good experiences . . . and some not-so-good ones. A few years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to be quiet about it anymore.”
“In 2014,” she said, “I started doing some therapy; I was wondering why I was so angry all the time and I realized that I was keeping a lot of things in. I just decided I was going to stop.”
The straightforward simplicity of her words belie her wide-ranging and pivotal work; not everyone who just decides to stop keeping things in simultaneously send tremors throughout an entire industry.
First came her powerful blog post, “The Other Side of Diversity.” Published in the fall of 2014, Baker used the piece to point out how the “prevailing narrative surrounding minorities in tech relates to how beneficial employing minorities can be for a company.” And then, in bleak, unequivocal detail, spoke to the flip side: “how being a minority in a mostly homogenous workplace for an extended period of time” affected her as “a black woman in the predominantly white male tech industry.”
Next, she set her sights on her own employer — none other than that great tech juggernaut: Google.
Baker had worked as a Google engineer for a number of years when last summer, she and a few coworkers, while “bored,” created a spreadsheet to record their respective salaries. Baker posted the document on her internal social network account — where it took off “like wildfire,” with more and more employees adding their salary and benefit information.
The sheet revealed, in Baker’s words, “not great things” about pay equality.
She went public about her experiences in a string of tweets, sparking not just a Valley-wide, but a nationwide, conversation on diversity and pay.
“Companies are extremely afraid of transparency,” Baker told me, reflecting on the experience. “They do their best to discourage employees from discussing salaries.”
It had bothered her, though, that there was no sense of how much various employees were making, as companies make big offers “to exceptional and extraordinary candidates — with no thought about how that exceptionality is rooted in a biased opinion of what that exceptionality looks like.”
Baker’s work continues to focus on combating these biases.
In addition to her role at Project Include, she’s a senior engineer at Slack, where she spends 20% of her time on diversity and inclusion efforts. “I don’t like to say the word ‘diversity’ without the word ‘inclusion,’” she emphasized to me. “Diversity refers to it being not a homogenous environment; inclusion refers to making that diverse environment safe.”
Given Baker’s high-profile work on these issues, I asked if she identified as an activist. She promptly answered that she doesn’t — and then countered with a question of her own, “Have you read Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes?”
“I listened to her read it and it was like listening to Grey’s Anatomy. She talks about how she hates the question, ‘Why does diversity matter?’ She points out how it’s such an asinine question. This is the way the world is, this is what it looks like, why are we even asking this?”
Like Rhimes, Baker said she’s “just working so that things are the right way,” adding that “the fact that they aren’t being done that way means we have to fight.”
And so, simply put, that’s what Project Include is doing.
“If Donald Trump gets elected, though, I’m moving to Bora Bora,” she said.
Let’s hope not — Baker’s absence would sure to be all of our losses.
bethanye Blount, CEO of Cathy Labs
— Interview by Nikki Gloudeman
Like many women with a long history in the tech industry, bethanye Blount clearly remembers the days when she was expected to sublimate her opinions and even passively allow for latent sexism in an effort to act like “one of the guys.” In an environment where pushing back could threaten the career she’d worked so hard to establish, it was easier, and safer, to simply go with it.
“Now, when men say something that I feel doesn’t resonate with me, instead of going, ha ha ha and sort of walking away, I’ll be like, Uh-uh. No. Y’all sit down. You’re all going to listen to me now.”
After two decades in tech — including as a co-founder of MailRank, which was acquired by Facebook in 2011; leading teams in infrastructure at Facebook; and, most recently, founding and serving as CEO of Cathy Labs — Blount has become increasingly emboldened to more freely assert herself. “When you’re first starting in your career — and this is especially true for those from unrepresented groups — you’re always thinking, it’s just me. You’re always double-checking yourself. One of the great things about being later in my career is I’m much more like, Ah, no. This is crap.”
But this isn’t really a matter of a woman learning to “lean in”; it’s a matter of a culture slowly shifting to make room for women like her who have always demanded to be heard.
Project Include is a manifestation of Blount’s desire to push harder for the cultural shifts that, slowly over time, have helped her in her own career. In joining the project’s team, she’s making the industry as a whole sit down and listen.
A primary focus, she says, is asking companies to broaden what’s been a very limited idea of change. “Often, when people talk about diversity, they look at their hiring numbers,” she says. “And this is, honestly, incredibly short-sighted for organizations to do.” Instead, she says, companies need to support diverse employees during their entire life cycle at a company. More fundamentally, they need to recognize inclusivity as the only way forward in the modern world.
In this way, she explains, companies just starting out have the greatest opportunity, since they can build a culture of diversity from the ground up. “I’m looking forward to seeing companies that are born from the beginning with an understanding of why creating an inclusive company culture leads to your company being stronger and more resilient,” she says. “In 10 years, I can’t wait to see how experiences and choices made early on have enabled companies to be more successful.”
And until that day comes? It’s safe to say that Blount — and for that matter, all of her Project Include colleagues — won’t be going anywhere. “Many of us have expressed the viewpoint that we’ve had this moment where we were just ready to flip a desk and walk away,” she says of confronting sexism in tech. “But we still love the experience. We love technology. We’re not ready to walk away.”
All illustrations by Emma Munger