Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson On Why Talk Of “Lowering The Bar” Is Inherently Racist

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Implementing unconscious bias trainings at tech companies has become a thing over the last year or so. Part of that is thanks to Paradigm, a consulting startup that work with tech companies like Slack, Airbnb and Pinterest to help formulate strategies around diversity and inclusion. Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson recently stopped by TC’s studio to chat with me about those unconscious bias training programs, what’s problematic when people use “lowering the bar” and “diversity” in the same sentence, and more. Below is a lightly edited Q&A with Emerson.

Megan Rose Dickey: Why are you doing these unconscious bias trainings and what do you hope they’ll accomplish?

Joelle Emerson: it’s important to think of unconscious bias training as part of broader efforts to change systems and processes — specifically systems and processes around decision making about people. what we hope to achieve through training is to get people and organizations to change the way they make decisions. so if you approach training as something you can just do and it’s all about awareness raising and you check the box and you’re done, you may not see an impact. If you approach training as how can we understand better ways to make hiring decisions, conduct interviews, evaluate performances, you can then start to see some pretty exciting changes that can lead to impact longer term

MRD: In running these unconscious bias training workshops, have you come across any racism and sexism?

Emerson: Actually, this did come up in a workshop where I was talking about research that Americans tend to think geniuses are more likely to be men. I was talking about this research, about how interesting it was and somebody raised their hand and said, ‘well, couldn’t it be true that geniuses are more likely to be men?’ I wasn’t expecting that question. So I said, ‘oh, that’s interesting. Let’s talk about why you think that and why that might be.’ The conversation I intended to have was why do we subconsciously make that association. Maybe we do so because most people in history that have been pointed out as geniuses are men, so we have these associations based on the images and the messages we’ve received from the world around us. Then someone surprised me by sharing an explicit belief that maybe geniuses just are men. That needs to be addressed a little bit differently.

That is an inherently racist and sexist thing to believe. If you think that we have to lower the bar to bring in people from different backgrounds, you’re saying that people from those backgrounds are less good.
— Joelle Emerson, Paradigm CEO

MRD: What is diversity and what are you telling these companies diversity looks like?

Emerson: I think diversity is a pretty broad topic. I think what diversity is, what that term means is also a little bit different than what you need to think about at a company. Diversity is, you’re getting people from all different sorts of background working together and that’s great, but then as a company you need to develop a strategy that’s a little bit more specific. Where I’ve seen companies go wrong in the past is that they have an extremely broad definition, which is great, but then they don’t ever narrow it in a way that allows them to design a strategy. So when you start to hear companies say things like, ‘diversity means difference in thought and difference in perspective’ — but how do you go execute on a strategy to hire people who have different thought processes and different perspectives? What we try to help companies do is define not just what diversity means as a concept but what does this mean in the context of your hiring processes, of your internal processes and how is it related to this concept of inclusion, which is the culture you’re trying to build, and how do the two work together. So, typically our clients are thinking not just about diversity of thought, but diversity of demographic background and how do we make sure we’re building teams that reflect our users, that reflect the communities we’re a part of and that allows you to get a little bit more specific about what that word means for you as a company.

MRD: You mentioned diversity strategies. How do these strategies differ from company to company?

Emerson: I love that question because I think they need to, and I think historically diversity and inclusion efforts have been about adopting best practices and then you wonder why they don’t end up working. Instead, what companies should do is figure out, ‘what are our unique barriers and what are their unique opportunities as a company, and how do we build strategies that address those things. ‘I’ll just give you an example. If I, company X says ‘we want to become more diverse, so we’re going to anonymize the names on all of our resumes and that’s going to lead to better outcomes.’ Well, if you’re not going to places and recruiting people from underrepresented backgrounds, you’re not going to get those resumes in the first place. If you have a hiring process that is inherently subjective and ad-hoc and subject to bias, the anonymity of a resume is only going to get you so far. You’re going to start bringing people into interviews and on site, they’re not going to pass because your process is flawed. So it’s really about identifying where are those barriers for each company and building strategies with those barriers in mind.

MRD: Some people have said that you have to lower the bar in order to hire diverse people. Why is that the wrong thing to say?

Emerson: The way I would like to respond is ‘wow, that is an inherently racist and sexist thing to believe. If you think that we have to lower the bar to bring in people from different backgrounds, you’re saying that people from those backgrounds are less good.” That’s really scary to me, but I’ve found that type of response tends not to get people to engage in a discussion with me. So typically I’ll ask people to articulate a little more specifically ‘what is your bar, how are you assessing people against that bar?’ What I’ve found, when I’ve looked at most tech companies’ hiring processes, is that there really is no bar or the bar fluctuates depending on who it is that we’re interviewing and if we happen to like you and you came from a background similar to my own, maybe the bar is “here.” But if you haven’t really gone to a school that I’ve heard of or come from a company that I’ve worked for or know people who have worked there, I might have a slightly different bar because I might need you to prove yourself in a different way. So until companies can really tell me what their bar is, I think talking about lowering it or raising it is a weird conversation to even be having.

MRD: What are your goals for this year?

Emerson: One thing people haven’t done very well is measure inclusion, so, how do we tell how inclusive a culture really is?

MRD: You know how to do that?

Emerson: I do know how. We’ve been working on designing a survey. We partnered with CultureAmp, an engagement survey company. They’re going to be releasing this survey sometime in the next couple of months for free for tech companies. We spent a lot of time on this at Paradigm thinking about what does the research tell us about the different types of factors that contribute to an inclusive culture, and then how do we assess those factors effectively. And then how do we cut results by a bunch of different types of demographic groups to identify whether people from particular backgrounds are more likely to feel included or not included in different ways. For example, this survey might be able to tell us all of the Latina employees in this particular company feel like their voice isn’t heard. Or all of the gay men in this company are more likely to question whether or not they belong, or women across all parts of this organization feel like they’re less likely to say they know where to find resources to do their work. Those are the types of things we want to know and we want to know — how people from different backgrounds are experiencing those things. One thing I’m excited for in 2016 is not just this survey we’ve created, but generally moving companies more towards talking about inclusion not as a vague, amorphous concept but as something that can be measured and worked on in very specific ways.

This is part four of a five-part series. Come back tomorrow to check out our final interview with CODE2040 co-founder Laura Weidman Powers. If you’re new to the series, be sure to watch our interviews with Black Girls Code founder Kimberly BryantSlack engineer Erica Baker and Trans*H4CK founder Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler.