Being Yourself at Work: Notes on Equality and Diversity in Tech

When I got British citizenship in 2010, it felt like winning a lottery. Going through the immigration process was a long, nerve-wrecking and expensive journey, but through hard work and a healthy dose of luck I got through to the finish line when so many people with similar skills didn’t make it. My degree, work experience and age (yes, age) meant that I scored enough points to qualify for Highly Skilled Migrant Programme during the brief time of its existence (2008-2015). Had I been one year older at the time of applying or in a different profession, the stars wouldn’t align for me so well.

Once my family became British, I threw away six large bin bags of shredded payslips, bank statements and tax returns that I previously collected for immigration purposes, left my job and changed my name. By and large, British employers just weren’t able to cope with my Ukrainian name, Mar’yana Kolodiy. It was misspelled more often than not, usually with multiple typos. So as soon as my immigration process was over, I decided to adopt a new name, Marianne Kay, for professional purposes. It was a pragmatic decision. I was hoping that the new name would enhance my career prospects; and it did. I can now introduce myself in one sentence, anywhere, no questions asked. There is no need for awkward moments, geography lessons, or lengthy detours into the history of Chernobyl. Today, ten years after I changed my name, I am also confident that it better reflects my identity of a British immigrant. It makes me happier and more at ease. If anything, I regret I wasn’t able to change my name earlier in my career.

Research backs up my concerns over foreign sounding names. In 2017, BBC Inside Out asked a question: is it easier to get a job if you’re Adam or Mohamed? Predictably, in response to 100 identical job applications, Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered only four. In the same vein, a study conducted by the British Academy in 2019 concludes that on average 24% of job applicants with British sounding names receive a positive response from prospective employers, against only 15% of minority ethnic applicants (whilst submitting identical CVs). It appears that a significant percentage of hiring managers don’t progress the recruitment process much further when they get stuck on the fact that they can’t pronounce the applicant’s name.

Name bias is just one of the many possible factors that lead to inequality at work. Consider these recent figures on diversity:

·       Female employees take up less than 25% technical roles at America’s largest tech companies: Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Lack of women is even more obvious at the senior level and in leadership roles. (Statista, 2020)

·       Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff in the UK earn on average 16% less than straight workers. 35% of LGBT+ staff in the UK choose not to disclose their sexuality at work for fear of discrimination. (YouGov, 2019)

·       Only 15% of the people working in tech in the UK are from black, asian and minority groups. (TechNation, 2018)

·       Disabled employees earn on average 12.2% less than those without impairments. (Office for National Statistics, UK, 2018)

·       66% of tech professionals are stressed by their work. People in tech are five times more depressed than the national average. (BIMA, UK, 2019)

·       More than 40% of older tech workers are worried about losing their jobs due to their age. (Indeed, 2017). A book by Dan Lyons “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble” is a true story about ageism in tech industry which is sad and funny in equal measure.

Despite the challenges associated with overcoming stereotypes and biases, the business case for greater diversity at workplace is overwhelming. Diversity gives organisations access to a wider range of talent, and provides the ability to understand the needs of all of their customers rather than certain customer groups as determined by race, gender or some other restrictive characteristic. Boston Consulting Group found that companies with above average diversity in management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

The case for professionals to be themselves, even if they don’t ‘fit in’ with the team in the traditional sense, is just as convincing. Being your true self at work is associated with higher levels of well-being, engagement and motivation, which in turn has a positive effect on performance.

Nevertheless many people feel cautious about exposing their vulnerabilities at work, particularly at the start of their career. Being yourself feels natural and right when you are a child – you just don’t know any different. It is also easier to be true to yourself in later life, when most of us develop superpowers to no longer seek other people’s approval as much. However being open and honest at a time when we are actively developing our personalities and careers is much more risky – there is so much pressure, so much struggle, and so much is at stake.

“Being different makes you stand out from the crowd and can help you to progress your career, but it also opens you up to criticism, judgement and discrimination.” – says a web designer working for a large retail company in the UK. “You have to be confident and sometimes you’ll have to align yourself with others who may not agree or appreciate your differences in order to succeed or to get a task done. You have to access the situation and make a conscious decision on how and when you show the different sides of your personality.”

Sameera Rafiq, the equality and diversity lead for the School of Food Science and Nutrition in the University of Leeds (UK), encourages students and staff to be proud of who they are. “The world is so much bigger than you think, it is filled with all kinds of quirky, mysterious, passionate, intelligent people. You admire them for their energy, so why not give yourself the same love and respect? When you spend too much time trying to do the right thing, as defined by your peers, teachers, family, you end up being pulled in so many different directions. The only right thing to do is to be you. Say what you really think and how you really feel. It will change your life.”

In the book “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business” Lord John Browne, former CEO of BP promotes self-disclosure as the best approach both for the staff themselves and for their employers. John’s deepest regret to this day remains not being able to come out as gay earlier in his career.

True diversity, such as the racial diversity we see in the ‘Good Place’ series on Netflix, is rare. When we come across it, it feels good and right, but the reality isn’t always as agreeable as it’s pictured in the movies. 

Diverse teams perform better than homogeneous groups but, ironically, due to such a wide range of perspectives and ideas, they also have lower confidence in the results of their work. Initially, diversity feels uncomfortable. If nothing is done to counteract this awkward moment, diversity has limited benefits and amounts to nothing more than tolerating differences, because even though diversity is in place, inclusion, the “how” of diversity, is not.

Every organization is unique, but some generic principles of advancing diversity and inclusion apply to most workplaces. These are:

·       Clearly communicate business goals and performance objectives, to alleviate anxiety over possible discrimination when it comes to rewards and promotion;

·       Ask employees what they need in order to be the best they can be at work. Listen. Don’t assume. Everyone is different and everyone deserves to be treated as a person with their own needs and preferences;

·       Have formal processes in place to achieve equality and diversity objectives, including for example name-blind recruitment policy and support for staff through gender transition;

·       Enlist help from independent third parties who can advise your staff on equality and diversity matters in a safe, confidential manner;

·       Foster openness, honesty and tolerance.

Nothing worth having comes easy. Just as talented, motivated professionals step out of their comfort zones to share their vulnerability with their team mates, organizations should embrace and advance their diversity and inclusion objectives, in order to achieve success that truly sets them apart from competition.