Ruchika Tulshyan lives in Seattle, where people often tell her that the challenge of bias and discrimination is not an issue in this liberal part of the country. But after working as a business reporter in different countries and cities, Tulshyan moved to the Seattle area to work in tech, where discrimination and bias are “writ large” in the industry, she said.
Her experience got her thinking about defining what makes certain workplaces better than others for people of historically underestimated identities. Now, as CEO and founder of inclusion-strategy practice Candour, Tulshyan is a noted speaker on what it takes to create workplaces where everyone can belong. She describes those practices and behaviors in her book Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work.
At From Day One’s Seattle conference, Tulshyan talked with journalist Naomi Ishisaka, assistant managing editor for diversity, inclusion, and staff development at the Seattle Times, as well as a columnist there on race, culture, equity and social justice.
Ishisaka began by pointing out that the inclusion may be widely accepted as a cultural value in places like the Seattle conference, but “we struggle turning that value into action.”
The biggest barrier to change, said Tulshyan, which she addresses in her book, is when people rely too much on their self-image of being a good person with good intentions. Instead, we should allow ourselves to experience discomfort, asking ourselves questions like, “Who do I hire on my team? Who am I promoting into those who get to speak in meetings, whose ideas carry weight and influence and power?”
“I think we forget that in every moment, it's a very active process,” said Tulshyan. She frequently coaches organizational leaders to move past the barrier of their self-image to put diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into practice on a daily basis. One way to begin to engage with the work, she says, is to start consuming media, like Ishisaka’s column, that presents a wider focus.
Tulshyan and Ishisaka agreed that the burden of driving cultural and organizational change should not be on the people who have experienced marginalization, exclusion, and bias. For example, much of the narrative around women’s leadership emphasizes individual performance and strategies, urging women to “lean in,” negotiate better, and shake off the lack of confidence and self-doubt described as “imposter syndrome.”
Instead, a social-justice lens sees how workplace discrimination is systemic. Tulshyan offered an example, saying she had recently heard similar anecdotes from friends involved in the hiring process in four different organizations. In each case, when someone involved in hiring expressed preference for a job candidate “because they could imagine going out for a drink with them,” that candidate matched the speaker’s racial identity, and in many cases, their gender identity as well.
“Intersectionality,” the term coined by author and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes how people of more than one marginalized identity can face discrimination multiplied. Tulshyan found her experience as a woman of color in the tech industry differed from that reported by her colleagues who were white women. “I started noticing when I was in the tech industry that I would get left out of invitations, social invitations to connect after work. That kind of thing had a material impact on my career.”
Part of the solution is to put the role of ally into practice. “I talk about allies not as a noun, but really as a verb,” said Tulshyan, who prompts colleagues and leaders to ask themselves, “What does it look like to practice allyship in every moment?”
What could make leaders care more about putting DEI values into action? Tulshyan mentioned the McKinsey data showing that companies with diversity in leadership teams outperform their peers. Centering people of color and marginalized people makes good business sense, “but honestly, at the core of it, it’s the right thing to do.”
Valerie Schloredt is a writer and editor living in Seattle. She is the former books editor for YES! magazine.