Breaking Down Barriers to Build a More Diverse Tech Workforce

BY Angelica Frey | June 17, 2021

When working as a teacher in Pennsylvania, Maasha Kah realized that systemically, the American education system is geared towards helping people prepare to work–in factories. “We have very rote memorization systems, we ask students to sit up straight, put on a uniform, and fall in line. But we know in the tech industry and in Corporate America in general, innovation is the next wave. We have to be creative,” she said this month at a From Day One webinar, “Breaking Down Barriers to Build a More Diverse Tech Workforce.”

Kah is now the head of talent outreach at DocuSign, the electronic-signature company. In her role there, an integral part of her focus on creativity and innovation is, in her words, how to make diversity real. “I've spent a lot of time dissecting the HR facets of diversity and inclusion,” she said during the panel conversation, moderated by journalist Lydia Dishman. “So I think a lot about how diversity and inclusion are embedded in our HR practices, even when we don't mention them. So there are the verbal things and the processes that we all agree upon–and there are those unwritten, agreed-upon things that just kind of happen. And I find that in those cracks lies inequity.” In the panel conversation, Kah and three other experts weighed in on the topic of hiring for diversity. Their observations:

It's Too Easy to Blame the Pipeline

In recent years, tech companies lacking diversity in their workforces have tended to blame a lack of qualified candidates in the talent pipeline from schools to business. Jeffrey Spector, the co-founder of Karat, a company that conducts technical interviews for companies recruiting software engineers, sees blaming the pipeline as a deflection. “It's an excuse that certain companies make because they haven't hit diversity-hiring goals,” he said. “It affords them the opportunity to not look inward, to figure out like, hey, do we have systemic issues going on? Is there sexism or racism in our processes?”

“I don't think there is truly a pipeline problem,” said Ivori Johnson, senior manager of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) recruiting at, a digital home-loan corporation. Johnson sees other factors in play. “When we think about the pipeline, we focus on finding the talent and just ensuring that we have more representation at the top of the funnel,” she said. “The problem that exists is if the process itself is inequitable, if our interviews are already screening out people of color, women, or people with disabilities and other communities. Then the problem is within the process,” she continued. “If we are able to fix the process, and we're able to influence hiring managers to get on board, and also train our recruiters to be able to go out and find the talent–and where they can find it–then we will be more successful.”

Speaking on diversity in tech, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company and Jeffrey Spector of Karat. Bottom row, from left: Maasha Kah of DocuSign, Rita Giacalone of Autodesk, and Ivori Johnson of (Image by From Day One)

Rita Giacalone, VP and global head of culture, diversity & belonging at Autodesk, which makes software for 3D design and engineering, offered a broad demographic assessment of the pipeline debate. “Let's take, say, the Black demographic or the Latinx demographic, with the Black demographic being 13% of the U.S. population, Latinx being 18% of the U.S. population, and then let's look at the professional population within these demographic groups,” she said, noting that it's 9% for the Black population and 11% for the Latinx population. “The pipeline problem lies in that delta, and that's systemic in nature. It's in education, it's in access. It's systemic inequity. So the pipeline problem is there.”

Remote Work Widens the Talent Pool, But …

Giacalone enthusiastically reported that her company was recently able to add to its workforce diversity by hiring a candidate to work on a full-time remote basis, which might not have been possible before the pandemic loosened policies about where workers are located. “You're casting a wider net, you're tapping into talent pools that potentially–out of a choice or out of necessity–can't live in very expensive cities,” she said.

Yet the expansion of remote work brings some inequities too, said Kah. “I think the challenge that I would caution–if I could get a bullhorn and just let everybody know, from the mountaintops–is that we have to be thinking about this in terms of being remote-first, versus remote-friendly,” Kah said. She asserted that remote-friendly workplaces have the tendency to create second-class citizens of remote workers by promoting and cultivating the retention of people who are nearest and dearest to the physical office space. “We isolate the office-based leadership.” In contrast, she said, a remote-first policy comes with an inclusive strategy.

Inequities in the Interviewing Process Can Be Remedied

An issue in the technical interviewing process, Spector believes, is lack of professionalism. People conducting the interviews typically are the employees who have the most time to do so, rather than those who are good at it. Another issue lies with access to information on the part of the job candidate. “Everybody should know exactly what the interviewing process is, what competencies you're assessing for,” Spector said. To level the playing field, Karat offers candidates one redo opportunity. “We'll interview again with a different interviewer or a different question,” he said. “And that has huge impacts on underrepresented talent. We see them do much better in the second interview than the first interview, because now they're like, Oh, now I know what the situation is like.”

Similarly, DocuSign gives candidates three different technical questions to answer, each with a different interviewer. “And it's not just based on whether or not you check the box and got it right,” said Kah, “but also your thought process, how you went through the problem, how you were able to explain it, and the way in which you communicated any difficulties and questions that you were able to think through and ask.” This structure helps avoid “a kind of tiebreaker moment,” she said, “where it's like one interviewer says, ‘Yes, this is exactly right. They pass this with flying colors,’ and the other one's like, ‘No, absolutely not, they couldn't figure it out.’”

Confirmation Bias Dies Hard

More inclusivity comes with challenging the traditionally held notion of what “good” looks like. In the recruiting and hiring process, for example, Spector observed a huge bias against active candidates, meaning those who actively searched for the position rather than being referred by someone the company already knows. “Most of the companies we work for, when we start working with them, interview only about 10% of the people who apply actively, and yet those people do just as well on the interviews as the people that they've sourced,” he said. “So we're kind of constantly pushing them” to be more inclusive, he said. “You should go to 20% or 30%, or a bigger percentage of our population who's not in your network.”

A way to get rid of this biased mindset? Johnson suggests starting internally. “If we focus on just trying to recruit as many people from underestimated communities as possible, and we haven't done the work internally, we're just gonna lose them quicker than we hire them,” she said. "So we're starting with educating our employees on: What does diversity mean? What is actually happening in these communities? How can we address our biases and understand what our biases are?” Johnson said. “We're also working with our hiring managers, sharing with them data around where employees are, and what our employee makeup looks like, addressing gaps when it comes to racial and gender diversity, also looking at intersectionality as well, to ensure that our hiring managers are very well-informed, and also our leaders.”

It's also advisable to have a paper trail. "Write everything down!” said Kah. “In DEI, and HR in general, we have this tendency to think of it as fluffy science that's nebulous. We need hard facts, data, and to be able to measure success based on where we come from. We talk about embedding DEI everywhere, but don't know the nuts and bolts. It takes intentional seeds to build the trees that we want."

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.


Total Rewards: How the Definition Is Changing

It was a bounty that wasn’t destined to last. During the Great Resignation and its war for talent, employers offered workers abundant new benefits and other rewards. But now, with employee-retention numbers at high levels and corporate austerity taking hold, finance departments are looking to tighten reward budgets. That has caused some tension with HR leaders charged with attracting and retaining talent.  “We’re in this constant battle with finance,” said Ken Wechsler, VP of total rewards at Akamai Technologies. “We’re fighting for it, and I would guess my colleagues on this call will also fight it. We might not get as much moving forward, but we will fight.” Weschler and three other leaders in the benefits and compensation sector of HR spoke last month in a From Day One webinar about the constantly evolving dynamic of total rewards packages.  Todd Cowgill, VP of global rewards at the data-center company Equinix, says it’s essential to “speak their language” when negotiating with finance and business departments about rewards programs. “If you cannot tell what the return on investment of your program is, you will lose that program,” he said. “You have to understand what the company as a business gets because of the program, what it costs and what it gets back.” David Kirby, senior VP of total rewards and operations at the customer-experience company Epsilon, says once programs are lost due to cost-cutting, it becomes very challenging to revive them in a reasonable amount of time. “I’m very concerned about our secondary benefits,” he said. “We have a company where there’s a snack allowance. That’s the last thing I want to see removed or cut.” Working From Home a Must, But Trips to the Office Help Finding a cutting-edge company in 2023 that isn’t offering some form of work-from-home option is a challenging task, but many HR leaders believe a few trips to the office –even irregular ones–can be highly beneficial. “We give employees the choice of where they want to work, and 90% of them have said they want to work from home,” Wechsler said. “Everything is in play now–things I had never even thought of when it comes to total rewards.” Arvind Kumar, director of total rewards and HR operations in the Asia Pacific for the ad giant McCann Worldgroup, said his workplace policies are as varied as the countries of operation he oversees.The panel on total rewards, top row from left: Arvind Kumar of McCann Worldgroup and David Kirby of Epsilon. Bottom row: Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Ken Wechsler of Akamai, and Todd cowgill of Equinix. (Image by From Day One; featured illustration by Lemono/iStock by Getty Images)“Asia has a completely different culture,” he said. “I think since Covid we aren’t planning on changing it back to how it used to be. We accepted that hybrid work is here to stay and that’s where we changed our way of working.” Kumar says some countries McCann operates in are more predisposed to working in an office environment, while workers from other Asian countries may enjoy working from home. Though quickly becoming a minority of workers, some will avoid working for a company if its work-from-home policies are too permissive. “They’ll self-select,” Weschler said. “We make the effort to do things in the office a lot–but now a lot means quarterly. We know that most will not want to come, and some folks will want to attend an event because they get to go to the office. Our recruiters ask if you’re looking to be in the office a lot because our package doesn’t include that.” All four total-ewards executives agreed that having opportunities to make intermittent trips to the office is beneficial and allows employees to expand their network by meeting new faces. Kumar says communication with prospective employees is vital for both sides to manage expectations. Fringe Benefits Are a Big Slice of the Pie HR leaders typically seek to gauge what their employees want from their organization. McGill says one of the most tried-and-true methods remains the pulse survey–a short set of questions sent to employees regularly. “That’s the short and efficient way to get into things,” he said. “But then you have to find specific ways to target whatever the issue is.” Ideas from those surveys often get implemented as policies that benefit the worker. “We have five wellness days per year. We completely shut our doors and there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t send emails on those days or on weekends,” Weschler said. “On Fridays, we don’t have any meetings–that has come from leadership.” The speakers reported that requests for childcare assistance have become less common, perhaps due to the increase in remote work that allows childcare to coincide with working. “I think people have gotten better on Zoom with the kid coming in and saying hello,” McGill said. “That blend between home and work has happened in a much more open way and, I think, healthy way than what we’ve seen in the past.” Even so, childcare policy experts warn of a looming “child-care cliff” starting at the end of this month, when many of the child-care programs supported by the American Rescue Plan Act’s stabilization funds expire. Kirby said Epsilon does not track time off for exempt employees and the organization operates on a culture of trust. “We expect folks to work and get their job done,” he said. “Sometimes that means 2 p.m. and other times that means until 9 p.m. We want people to have that flexibility.” Good News on the Health Insurance Front Despite many companies facing double-digit increases in health-insurance costs in 2023, those on the webinar reported that their companies have been absorbing the cost hikes amid the post-Covid inflationary market. “Our trend is nothing near what the market is,” Weschler said. “I’m not sure why, but we are absorbing most of it and trying to keep that minimal increase and maintain the balance of how employees and employers split health care.” Kirby says that Epsilon has also “eaten” the increase in costs at the corporate level. McGill said he attributes some of his company’s ability to absorb the increases in health care costs to an effective wellness program offered to employees. “It varies from country to country, but how do you engage with employees on health care?” he asked. “In some countries, it’s a state-run enterprise and not something we can get into.” Weschler said Akamai provides $500 in wellness reimbursement for employees to allow for fitness equipment purchases or other wellness-related items. “The working life is integrated, so we try to focus on encouraging our employees to participate in healthy activities,” he said.Tim Zyla is the managing editor of a community newspaper in Pennsylvania and has a strong interest in business and finance.  

Tim Zyla | September 06, 2023

Equitable Rewards: Do You Have Pride in Your Benefits?

Pride month is about celebrating and supporting diversity. One way to do that is to ensure your benefits plans are inclusive of different employees’ needs.A good benefits package consistently ranks among the top three most important factors for job satisfaction, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. But for many people, the usual components of a benefits plan—401(k) match, paid time off, and/or professional development stipends—aren’t keeping up with what employees really want and need.As a result, some companies are innovating their compensation offerings and winning over top talent along the way. Moreover, your existing employees may be shopping around for packages that better suit their needs, said Corrinne Hobbs, vice president of business development at Ovia Health, a family health benefits platform.“Recently, Ovia did a survey of its members, and we learned that 91% of our members would consider a lateral move to a place with better family benefits and a family friendly culture,” Hobbs said. “That's really significant.” For BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees, inclusive benefits packages can encourage well-being, better team retention, and a more diverse overall workforce.Leading DE&I professionals weighed in at From Day One’s recent webinar titled, “Equitable Rewards: Do You Have Pride In Your Benefits?” How to Tap Into What Employees WantEmployee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a great way for employees to connect with one another. But they can also be an accurate and authentic way to determine relevant next steps for your benefits development efforts, said Hannah Wilkowski, director of global benefits at BuzzFeed.“ERGs are such a source of information. There's no better way to get to know your employees than to reach out to your ERGs and say, ‘How are we doing? Let's get a temperature check,’” Wilkowski said. She notes that leveraging existing connections within the organization can help you shape a relevant strategy. “It’s actually helped shift our trajectory for the next few years, just based on those conversations,” she added.The full panel of speakers from top left, Hannah Wilkowski of Buzzfeed, moderator Nick Wolny of CNET, Corrinne Hobbs of Ovia Health, Jodi Davidson of Sodexo, Chad Nico Hiu of YMCA of San Francisco, and Pablo Slough of Google (photo by From Day One)The needs and wants of most workforces have shifted in the wake of hybrid and fully remote setups. As such, stakeholders may need to revisit current policies and weigh what works best to meet employees’ needs, said Chad Nico Hiu, senior vice president of strategy, equity and impact at the YMCA of San Francisco, who also serves on the board of the Tyler Clementi Foundation.“When we say hybrid, we mean like seven different things. And the nonprofit sector, part of what we are struggling with is [that] only some of us at leadership levels, myself included, even have even the option of being hybrid,” Hiu said. “Those who are at the top of the hierarchy are making decisions for those who are not, oftentimes without understanding or empathy. If we're asking questions of our employees, are we really ready to listen?”The power dynamic brings up an important point: If employees don’t feel psychologically safe to begin with, they’ll be less likely to voice their needs and concerns, crippling an important feedback loop. Research from Google entitled Project Aristotle found that psychological safety is the most important factor for effective teamwork. C-suite decision makers and team leaders should proactively cultivate this across the organization, said Jodi Davidson, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for Sodexo.“Psychological safety ensures teams are effective. It’s about expanding the definition [of psychological safety], not only being able to bring your whole self to work, but also the ability to take risks without fear that in some way you're going to be punished for doing so,” Davidson said.Meet Employees Where They Are, Both Physically and PersonallyAnother reason to advocate for remote work is that it can often result in more diverse workforces, noted Pablo Slough, head of diversity, equity and inclusion for executive recruiting at Google.“It’s also just about where offices are located, right? What happens a lot in the tech space is that everyone is in the Bay Area, so you want to hire in the Bay Area,” said Slough. “If you're always looking in the Bay Area, you end up with lower representation of certain groups. Being open to hiring and [having] offices in cities like Atlanta, DC, or Chicago, these are all places where representation is greater. It’s an important piece that's kind of adapted more recently.”To instill confidence in your rewards plan, experts agree that prioritizing flexibility and innovation in your benefits is a smart move. Ensure your compensation package is inclusive to different employees’ financial and family planning needs and you’ll find yourself attracting and retaining quality talent for years to come.Nick Wolny is an editor, journalist, and consultant. Currently a senior editor at CNET, he has previously written for Fast Company, Fortune, Business Insider, and OUT Magazine, and is a frequent television commentator on technology and work life. He is based in Los Angeles.

Nick Wolny | June 20, 2023

The Other Caregiving Crisis: How Employers Can Help Workers With Their Hidden Responsibilities

While the pandemic revealed a crisis in childcare, it also exposed a parallel crisis in family caregiving for adults. One in five workers has responsibility for the care of one or more adults who are aging, ill, or have special needs, according to research by AARP. Yet many carry the burden in silence–more than half of these caregivers don’t tell their supervisors about it.Fortunately, that situation is changing. In a recent survey of 200 leaders in HR conducted by From Day One with support from AARP, 56% of the respondents said that workers are increasingly open with colleagues and managers about their caregiving responsibilities, while 60% said that their companies associate support for family caregivers with improving morale and strengthening a culture of belonging.“Before the pandemic, convincing employers to prioritize their support of working caregivers was an uphill battle,” said Tricia Sandiego, a senior advisor at AARP, in a From Day One webinar on the issue. But from the survey results, “we learned that there is an increase in awareness of this issue. Workers are talking about caregiving, and company leaders do realize and acknowledge that it’s important.” That said, there is still room for improvement: fewer than 15% of respondents said supporting family caregivers was a major priority at their companies.For Sandiego, this issue is personal. She is part of the so-called sandwich generation–she calls it the “panini generation”– which is caught caregiving for both a younger and an older generation.And she is far from alone. Sandiego noted that family caregivers are not just older workers. Rather, 50% of the 48 million caregivers in the U.S. are under the age of 50. About 25% of them are in the millennial generation, and already 6% of them are in Generation Z.Age is just one aspect of the diversity of caregivers. Despite the stereotype about caregivers being female, four in 10 caregivers are men. Lower-income workers tend to have heavier caregiving responsibilities, while shift workers and gig workers have less corporate support than full-time workers. Sandiego underscored that this diversity leads to a wide range of divides among the caregiver population and the need for different types of support.What Changes Can Companies Make?The good news is that there are many ways for companies to support their caregivers. These solutions are often affordable as well. Cheryl Kern, VP of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for the office-furniture maker MillerKnoll, underscored the importance of creating an open and transparent culture. “We want employees to feel confident that they can step forward and make it known to their leadership and management that they need support and resources.”Kern noted some of the resources MillerKnoll provides, such as advice on eldercare. Her team also helps remind caregivers of some of the policies the company already has in place around childcare and nanny support–both of which caregivers could find helpful. “We aim to help caregivers feel better equipped, better prepared, and more confident in order to do their caregiving role,” said Kern. MillerKnoll additionally leverages business resource groups to support their working caregivers.The full panel of leaders: top row fromleft, Cheryl Kern of MillerKnoll and Krista Brookman of Northwestern Mutual. Bottom row: Tricia Sandiego of AARP, Nyasia Sarfo of Microsoft, and moderator Ericka Sóuter (Image by From Day One)Nyasia Sarfo, a global culture and people experiences lead at Microsoft, echoed these sentiments, highlighting her company’s goal of creating a culture of inclusion and belonging. “We believe that your well-being isn’t extra, it’s essential.” The company aims to make this mission come to life by putting people first and reminding employees to prioritize their well-being by, for example, taking time off when they need it. Sarfo added that Microsoft supports employees by reminding them to use their vacation days and prioritize spending time with their family. “These practices did not just begin—they are really in the fabric of our culture as a whole,” Sarfo said.What makes supporting caregivers tricky, noted Krista Brookman, a senior director of DEI at Northwestern Mutual, is that becoming a caregiver is often unplanned. “It puts your life on another trajectory,” she asserted. That is why she believes it is critical to develop a workplace culture where employers help employees through stressful times with robust policies and practices.“Being a caregiver is unplanned and puts your life on another trajectory,” Brookman said. That is why Northwestern Mutual has developed policies and practices to support caregivers. “We made sure our caregiving responsibilities were broadly defined,” she said. That way, different types of caregivers with different roles are all equally supported. “Having that broader definition helps ensure that these policies fit within our diversity and inclusion efforts.”What Risks Do Companies Run by Ignoring These Needs?Sandiego believes that companies that avoid prioritizing the needs of employee caregivers might have issues finding and retaining top talent. “Companies that can acknowledge the needs of–and help support–working family caregivers will be ahead of the curve when it comes to their talent management strategy and being able to hold on to really good talent in your organization,” she said.Kern agreed with Sandiego, further emphasizing that ignoring the needs of caregivers could threaten the company’s inclusivity goals. In Kern’s opinion, the best way to go about ensuring that caregiver needs are met is by focusing on building the business case for supporting them. “The ROI for supporting caregivers is very clear, but there is much more work that remains,” said Kern.Top of this to-do list is ensuring buy-in at top management levels. Sarfo said she’s able to secure senior support by leveraging the power of storytelling. “We have a speaker series where employees can share the stories of what they are going through,” she said. “It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”Kern notes that much of this power lies in the hands of employees themselves. “Influencing change is now bottom-up. Associates can voice the power they have as employees. That’s a wonderful way of getting leadership on board. And most leaders do want to listen,” she said.Editor’s note: AARP, who sponsored this webinar, is offering an Employee Caregiver Program Series. This series is an easy way to make your workplace more caregiver-inclusive via live, virtual programs that help employees balance their work and caregiving responsibilities. AARP has agreed to offer the caregiving program to members of the From Day One community free of charge. This is a unique opportunity. Learn more and apply by visiting Kaminer is a Miami-based journalist, researcher, and content strategist. As a freelance tech writer and researcher, he has profiled more than 400 of the world’s top entrepreneurs and investors. His work has been featured in publications including Forbes, the Times (UK), the Economist, and LatAm Investor.(Featured photo by Fred Froese/iStock by Getty Images)

Riley Kaminer | June 14, 2023