“Intersectionality & Systemic Change”: Heidi Williams with tEQuitable (Video + Transcript)

May 29, 2019

As we journey into fourth-wave feminism, join tEUitable CTO Heidi Williams for this important session on intersectionality and systemic change. Navigating the challenging terrain to ensure that as we gain seats at the table, that the voices of all women are heard. She’ll share tips on how to engage allies and advocates, recognize privilege, and lead both up and down the organization.


Heidi Williams / CTO & Co-founder / tEQuitable
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X


Angie Chang: Can you hear us?

Heidi Williams: I can, yep.

Angie Chang: Wonderful. Well, welcome back to Girl Geek X Elevate. I’m Angie Chang, founder of Girl Geek X, and yes, this is being recorded and the videos will be available later online in about a week. So give us some time. Please tweet and share. The hashtag is #ggxelevate. We’ve been seeing a lot of great comments and pictures of viewing parties, so please tweet them at us and we’ll retweet and share. If you have a question for Heidi, our next speaker, please be sure to put it in the Q&A below and she will answer them after the session.

Angie Chang: So now we are excited to have Heidi Williams, the CTO and co-founder of tEQuitable share with us about intersectionality.

Heidi Williams: Thanks, Angie. I’m going to get my screen sharing here going. I’m in full screen mode. Yeah, super excited to be here and talking with everyone today. So my talk is about how to go beyond diversity 101 and really look at intersectionality and how to evoke systemic culture change. And I love going after Lili. I actually have a ton of quotes from the Tech Leavers study in my talk. So if you’ve been hanging in there through the whole thing, you’ll hear a little bit more.

Heidi Williams: So let me talk for a second about why I’m giving this talk. So I am CTO and co-founder of a company called tEQuitable. So we are building a confidential platform to address bias, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace. And really our mission is how to create work culture that works for everyone. So this is everything that we do.

Heidi Williams: And so in the work that we’ve done and with the customers that we have, we’ve learned a lot about what are the approaches that are actually going to work and how can companies really tackle this problem of culture change. We really believe that the same way that 10 or 15 years ago there was not, security wasn’t a big thing and all of a sudden it became a business imperative and people started hiring CSOS and having a board accountability for whether companies were secure, we believe that good work culture is going to be the next business imperative. It’s the biggest threat to our industry if we don’t fix this. And we really, really hope that companies will start taking a strategic approach to fixing their culture.

Heidi Williams: So let’s step back a second and look at what do I mean by diversity 101? So everybody has sort of seen the formula, the stats that said if you have employee diversity, you’ll see increased financial results. And there’s a ton of statistics around this. So if you have gender diverse executive teams, they are 21% more likely to outperform their peers. And if your executive team is ethnically and culturally diverse, it goes up to 33%. And if you have it on your board, you’re 43% more likely to outperform your peers. So the industry got really excited about this idea of diversity and they said, great, let’s go hire us some diversity so we can have better business outcomes.

Heidi Williams: But the reality is that it hasn’t been working very well. And in fact our numbers haven’t changed much. Part of this is related to what Lili was talking about with the Tech Leavers study. We are seeing that white women are leaving tech in mid career at twice the rate of white men, and it’s even worse for people of color. For black and Latinx people, they’re leaving tech at three and a half times the rate of white men.

Heidi Williams: So what is it that we’re doing wrong? The industry took a step back and they, I’m sorry, from that same Tech Leaver study, they saw that 78% of employees were reporting experiencing some form of unfair behavior or treatment and nearly 40% of those employees said that that played a major role in their decision to leave their company. So now we have some data that it’s the fact that people are not being treated well, they’re not being treated fairly. For the most part I don’t think that employees wake up in the morning and see say gee, I can’t wait to be a jerk today. Boy, this is going to be fun. Really, they have behaviors that are impacting others. And either they don’t know that they have this behavior that’s impacting others, or maybe they’re working in a system that is encouraging these bad behaviors that are impacting others.

Heidi Williams: So something was missing here and the industry said great, well we’ve got diversity, but it’s not sticking. So what we need to focus on is inclusion and belonging. And it’s a good thing. It’s something that we definitely need to do, but there’s something in the culture that is causing these problems. There’s something in the system that is causing these problems. And that’s why we’re focusing on those.

Heidi Williams: But at tEQuitable, we really believe that that order of operations was wrong, that people were starting with diversity, they were getting butts in seats, but they weren’t focusing on the culture. And really you have to start with the culture first. Part of the reason the order of operations was wrong is that companies were treating symptoms. They were counting heads. They were saying well, how many women do we have? How many people of color do we have? How many people with disabilities do we have? Instead of taking an engineering mindset and trying to fix the root cause. So my co-founder and I both have been in the tech industry for 25 years and we really believe that we can use technology to solve seemingly intractable problems. And we really like taking an engineering mindset to do this. I’m encouraging all of you to feel inspired by this talk to do the same thing.

Heidi Williams: So let’s talk a little bit about why this was the wrong approach. So for companies treating symptoms, how many of you have heard well, we’re going to start with gender first and then we’ll solve the other problems later? Gender is just easier. But the problem is as engineers, we all know you don’t start with the easy problem. You’re supposed to start with the hardest problem and solve that first because that’s where you’ve got the most unknowns. So that was sort of the number one problem is that they started with the easiest problem.

Heidi Williams: The second thing is that the lack of women in tech is really only one symptom. They weren’t looking at it with this intersectional lens. And we know that if you’re not looking at all of the symptoms, all of the bugs that are happening, you’re not going to find a complete solution to the problem. So that was problem number two.

Heidi Williams: And then problem number really three is that they weren’t asking why women weren’t being successful, why people of color weren’t being successful and thriving. And the first thing that we know about engineering is that you have to ask the five whys. You have to do root cause analysis to figure out what is it that’s causing this bug. Don’t just patch it on the surface. You have to patch it down in the underpinnings and down in the system. So that’s why we really want to help people take a systemic approach to fixing the underpinnings, the culture in which all of the rest of their company operates in order to make real change here. And the study showed that two thirds of tech leavers said that they would have stayed if their employer had fixed its culture.

Heidi Williams: So let’s talk about the tEQuitable formula, which is starting with the supportive culture. So for number one, the supportive culture, let’s start by defining what culture is. Culture is the self sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done. So some people might think it’s your mission or your vision, or it might even be your code of conduct. It might be your values, which you have in lovely posters all over your office. But it turns out that it’s behavior, it’s how you interact with people and how you get your work done that actually determines what your culture is. And so often, even if companies have culture values defined, what’s really happening is that people are, you’re giving the message do as I do and not as I say. So if you aren’t living your values, if your behavior doesn’t exemplify your values, then your values don’t mean much.

Heidi Williams: The second thing is that I want to talk about supportive culture. So supportive culture provides the social and psychological conditions that optimize employee health, safety, and wellbeing. So what do I mean by that? So basically we refer to this as something called psychological safety and it’s something you can see, it’s a Google study that showed data that psychological safety more than anything else is critical to making a team work.

Heidi Williams: And so what is psychological safety? It’s the shared belief held by members of the team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It also means that as an individual you’re confident that your team won’t embarrass you or reject you or punish you for speaking up. There’s interpersonal trust between team members and mutual respect where people are comfortable being themselves.

Heidi Williams: So let’s talk about that for a second. At your company, do you encourage people to have a growth mindset that they might learn that they can take a risk and it’s okay to fail as long as they learn from it? Is there a culture of forgiveness? Do employees feel heard, they feel like they can bring their whole selves to work or do they have to hold something back? How do you develop trust in each other or empathy or understanding? How do you educate employees about cultural norms or learn about things that they haven’t been exposed to before? Do you have a culture of speaking up? If you see something, say something? Do people feel safe that they can speak up without a risk of retaliation? Do you have a culture of ally ship or advocacy or accomplices where people have each other’s backs? Do you encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work? How do you train managers? How do they do career development? How did they do promotions? How do you educate your employees about how to treat each other well? Really the goal here is that you want to build a community of trust and understanding, of empathy, of communication, vulnerability, and a growth mindset. And if you have psychological safety, then you can really tackle any kind of problem.

Heidi Williams: So let’s talk a little bit about debugging destructive behaviors. Psychological safety may sound like it’s all about the emotions or about the mental aspect of the game. But really it’s the way that you encourage and promote behaviors that reinforce trust and respect and mutual empathy and authenticity and discourage behaviors that tear those down. So the key here is don’t measure how people feel, measure how people behave and the impact it has on others.

Heidi Williams: So to talk for a second about, this is exactly where tEQuitable plays. This is our approach, is that we want to help companies measure their culture and it’s a very complex system. And so the way that we do that is that employees have a way to get advice when something happens so that they can talk one on one with people and have those interpersonal conversations in order to undo behavior on the one on one level. But at the same time, we can gather data company wide and help the company see trends in their culture and in their system and take actions so that they can prevent those things from happening again. So it’s really a virtuous cycle where both employees from the ground up are improving the culture and the leadership and the HR teams are improving culture from the top down.

Heidi Williams: So let me give an example of one of the things that we’ve seen and how we identified behaviors and then talked about the possible systems that might’ve been causing those behaviors. And of course, then what actions you can take to improve those systems.

Heidi Williams: So the example we saw at one company was that interactions between teams were being reported as aggressive and bullying. So you could imagine that those people are just mean, but that’s probably not really the case. There’s some reason why they’re being aggressive and bullying. There’s a bunch of different systemic issues that could be the root cause here. Maybe the two different teams don’t have aligned goals. They have goals that they are totally different from each other. They’re not reliant on each other, and they’re both measured on the success of achieving their own goals. And maybe the success metrics don’t include that you have to collaborate and help others achieve their goals. So you’re only measured on whether your team achieves your own goal. Or maybe the peer feedback system is not part of performance reviews. So there’s actually no way to even report this behavior. So maybe this team that’s being aggressive and bullying has no idea the impact of their behavior on others. So only if you look at the data and then ask the five whys and debug it like an engineer will you get at the possible root causes, the systemic issues that could be causing that behavior.

Heidi Williams: So to talk through that, if you’re going to make systemic change about your supportive culture and create a supportive culture, start by examining behaviors to understand your current culture. Then ask the five whys to find the root cause behind the behavior. And then create systems that encourage psychological safety so that you can promote all of these good things around trust and understanding and empathy and communication and don’t tolerate destructive behaviors.

Heidi Williams: Let’s go on to the next step, which is to encourage create an inclusive workplace. So now you’ve got the supportive culture where people can speak up if you see something, say something, they’re in an environment where they feel safe and we actually are working on belonging first. The second thing is this inclusive workspace. We define it as all employees are valued, respected, accepted, and encouraged to participate across the organization at every level. And active work has done to eliminate all forms of bias, discrimination, and inequity.

Heidi Williams: So let me go back to each of the purple words here, which is that all employees. So the idea is that you want a diverse employee population, that they are valued, and that your definition of value is not narrow. It actually is a diverse and broad definition of values, so that all of the people that are accepted for their differences can express their value in different ways. There’s mutual respect in the organization, that people are respected for their differences and appreciated for their differences, and that they’re encouraged to participate and given opportunities across the organization for different projects and also opportunities for advancement at every level.

Heidi Williams: And then the last piece of this is active work, which is that it requires constant re-analysis. We’ve all seen the things about pay equity that you can’t just fix it once. You have to constantly be looking at it. And it’s not the only thing. You always have to be looking for the next behaviors that need to be debugged and figure out what’s causing them.

Heidi Williams: So let me take a second and talk about intersectionality. And Lili brought this up as well, which is awesome. So intersectionality, the definition is that it’s the complex cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, and intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. Now the reason that this is important, and actually let me just give an example. So if you’re a woman, you might be impacted by the stereotypes and biases of being a woman. But if you’re a woman of color, not only do you have the biases and stereotypes around women, but you also have biases and stereotypes around people of color. And so now all of a sudden you have a double or a triple whammy effect because you’re coming from multiple groups that are marginalized.

Heidi Williams: So the reason that this is important is that when you are tackling exclusion, you really need to need to look at things, you need to dig multiple levels of data deep. So as an example, if you do a survey and you look at what women are saying or what men are saying and you sort of make a broad statement about the women, the reality is because the majority sentiment might be one thing, but the reality is because we have more white women in tech than women of color in tech, the majority voice of women is going to be the voice of white women, primarily. So you have to keep looking at the smaller sets of data to go look at the individual experiences of people who have multiple versions of stereotypes and biases that might be working against them.

Heidi Williams: So let me give an example, another example. So at a company we saw, the percentage of women being promoted was lower than men. We could have stopped there, but instead we dug a little bit deeper and saw that the percentage of non white women being promoted was lower than white women. So now you’ve got two problems and if you stopped at just one, you would have an incomplete solution.

Heidi Williams: So the possible systemic issues that perhaps impacting all women regardless of race and ethnicity is that were no good career development practices and those were impacting women more than they were impacting men. The second one is that maybe the rubric around what leadership looks like is racially biased in some way. If we hadn’t dug into the data to look at all of the “edge” cases or the smaller datasets, we might not have seen that there was an issue around how the rubric for advancement was defined.

Heidi Williams: So I want to also take a moment to just talk about there’s two different kinds of behaviors. The one is the system induced behaviors, which I was talking about, which is that maybe your rubric has a narrow definition and when you measure people against the rubric, people who are different get left behind. The other kind of behaviors we see is not necessarily about the system, but it is that you might have behaviors that stem from a lack of education. I just want to remind that if you go back to step number one, the supportive culture, if you’ve created a space that’s psychologically safe where people feel like they can speak up, they actually will feel like they can tackle these hard conversations that make people uncomfortable. And so now when someone says something that’s offensive or has an impact on you in some way, that’s a stereotype or a bias of some kind, if you’re in a psychologically safe environment, you hopefully feel comfortable speaking up and telling that person what the impact of their words were on them. But I think also that growth mindset means that everyone, regardless if someone has to tell you what you did wrong, everyone with the growth mindset should look for opportunities to learn and educate themselves about how they can be a better ally or accomplice or a coworker in all those ways.

Heidi Williams: So if you want to create systemic change and create an inclusive workplace, measure exclusion and exclusive behaviors. And so one of the things I forgot to mention earlier is that a lot of the ways people measure inclusive workplace today is about engagement. Now engagement will tell you that people feel like they’re engaged four out of five or 80%, but the problem is it’s not telling you about the last 20% and what the problem is. Why weren’t they a five out of five? So if you actually focus on measuring exclusion and exclusive behaviors, that’s where you will be able to ask the questions and do the five whys to dig into what’s going on. So slice that data, look at intersectionality, look at all the edge cases, ask those five whys, and really focusing on what’s the exclusive stuff, what’s missing, who’s not represented, what’s not happening that should be happening. So ask those five whys, find the root causes, and then you can create or repair systems that promote equity and fairness.

Heidi Williams: And the last thing is just educate yourselves. Keep a growth mindset. So again, as a white woman, there’s lots that I can learn about being a woman of color or different sexual identity or ageism or having a disability. There’s always things that even from your lived experience, you can’t forget that other people have different lived experiences and there’s lots of opportunities to educate yourself and make sure that you’re not contributing to the problem.

Heidi Williams: So hopefully when you put all of this work in place, you’ve created a supportive culture, you’ve created an inclusive workplace, the last step should come really easily. Who wouldn’t want to work at a company like that? You’ve created a place where people can, if they see something, say something, you’ve created an equitable opportunities for everyone to advance and pretty soon you should see diversity across your organization.

Heidi Williams: So the main thing I want to leave you with is that I would really like companies to not take a diversity strategy, but take a culture strategy and really make it a critical aspect of what they’re doing and how they’re going to succeed. And if you take an engineering mindset, just go through the math a little bit, if behavior is culture then behavior change means culture change. In order to affect behavior change, you can look at the buggy systems that induce those bad behaviors. You can look at the supportive culture that perpetuates those bad behaviors, but if you use an engineering mindset and debug your culture, like an engineer with an intersectional lens, you can really create systemic change in your organization and create a culture where everyone can bring their whole and best selves to work. Thank you.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Heidi. That was a very inspiring talk. I see lots of chatter and questions, but unfortunately we’ve run out of time. So thank you so much. If you can share your slides, I’ve seen a lot of questions about sharing your slides. Are you hiring? Are you going to make these findings public? But we have to get on to our next speaker, so thank you so much and we will be back shortly with our next session.

Heidi Williams: Thank you.

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