Recently I learned something new about the history of photography that illuminates a lot about the relationship of technology and diversity.

In the 1950s, Kodak sold almost all the color film used in the U.S. To make sure the colors of their prints were calibrated correctly, Kodak had to set a standard that any studio that processed film could match against.

So they came up with the Shirley card:

shirley card

Shirley cards, likely named after the first model to pose for one, became the standard for color calibration in photo labs all over the world.

And they were always photos of light-skinned women.

It took until the 1970s for consumers to realize the problems this caused, and only then when furniture makers complained that the film wasn’t able to show the different between light- and darker-grained woods.

It took until the 1990s for camera makers to develop a new kind of camera system that balanced lighter and darker skin tones individually.

Either no one realized or no one was too worried that using a light-skinned model made all other skin tones deviations from the “norm” and therefore harder to photograph. And this changed the path of the whole industry for decades.

Teams need a diversity of perspectives and experiences to make products as good as they can be. 

You don’t have to look hard to find more modern-day examples of this phenomenon.

  • When YouTube first rolled out its iOS app for uploading video, 5 to 10 percent of videos were uploaded upside-down. The company’s almost exclusively right-handed developer team didn’t consider the needs of the left-handed.
  • Apple’s Health app for tracking “key health metrics” initially left off a tracker that about half the world’s population might use on a monthly basis: one for the menstrual cycle.

A variety of studies across fields like organizational science and psychology show that diverse teams are smarter and more creative than homogeneous ones.

At Buffer, we want to be a team like that. As one step of helping us get there, we’re devoting a new role to inclusivity and I’m honored to be Buffer’s Inclusivity Catalyst.

I’d love to share with you what this role is and means (so far), what we’ve been up to in our quest to create a more inclusive environment at Buffer, and what the future might hold.

Why is inclusivity so important to us?

A lot of tech companies we admire greatly have someone—or often, a team of people—focused on bringing more diverse perspectives and creating a greater sense of belonging for everyone who works there.

Members of these teams at companies like Facebook, Pinterest and Slack have shared some of their inclusion philosophies and strategies, and we’re so grateful to them for giving us a bit of a blueprint.

As I’ve dug in more on researching these roles, I’ve learned that it’s generally larger companies, often with thousands of employees, that are able to devote a whole role or team to inclusion.

Buffer is still a touch under 100 team members, making us a very small company to have a full-time inclusivity role. Why would we add this so early? A few reasons:

  • We’ve been growing rapidly, and we feel it’s important to be deliberate and conscious about how we grow. Right now, the Buffer team is 69% men, 78% white, and 81% age 25-34. We think we can improve here.
  • Focusing on inclusivity feels in line with our values, particularly “Do the right thing.” Opportunities for meaningful remote work shouldn’t be just for some; they should be for everyone!
  • We believe more diverse perspectives will make our team and our products better.

So what does an Inclusivity Catalyst do?

Good question; I’m still figuring that out! Here’s the job description I wrote for myself:

Inclusivity Catalyst

Buffer is a global company with not only the opportunity but also the responsibility of bringing a variety of cultures, backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives to our work in order to truly represent our customers.

The Inclusivity Catalyst will focus on creating an environment at Buffer where those of all ages, races, classes, ethnicities, gender identities or expressions, sexual identities, abilities, sizes, nationalities, cultures, faiths, neurotypes and backgrounds can feel welcome and experience a sense of belonging.

Areas of focus include (but are not at all limited to!) the following:
– Working with Buffer’s CEO and leadership to create an environment where teammates have the freedom to share their “whole selves” openly
– Crafting, editing and/or monitoring internal processes like salary formula, performance reviews, benefits, family leave and more with a focus on supporting our diverse team and growing more diverse still
– Continuously working to develop a diverse pool of candidates through a variety of recruitment experiments
– Creating resources to encourage team-wide education on inclusivity topics and acting as a advice giver to any teammates who would like one
– Advocating for more inclusive products and marketing materials wherever possible, by considering elements like accessibility, language, representation and more
– Supporting and building relationships with groups and individuals working to advance the presence of underrepresented groups in technology careers and positions
– Contributing to the future of diversity in tech through the development of fellowships, sponsorships, internships and other initiatives
– Sharing transparently our efforts (successes, failures, challenges, everything!) towards more inclusivity through various forms of content like blog posts, podcasts, videos, etc.

If this triggers any thoughts for you, I’d be keen to hear any thoughts or feedback!

The story of inclusivity (so far) at Buffer

I’ve been increasingly taking on pieces of this role over the course of about a year—a year of advocating, taking small steps, messing up a lot and learning a great deal.

But I am far from alone in this effort. I’ve been inspired by Buffer’s CEO Joel, who has pushed himself to intense levels of reflection in this area and continues to encourage transparency even when it hurts.

Many of my teammates have provided amazing ideas, feedback and encouragement (including a whopping 23 volunteers who sit on our inclusivity guild, where I ask for advice a lot).

Together, we’ve taken steps like:

  • Exploring issues in tech that affect underrepresented groups on our blog
  • Modifying our Journey page and job descriptions to include images and language that actively includes everyone
  • Bringing in smart voices who can help us learn more—like Anil Dash, who did an awesome Bufferchat with us; and the awesome folks at Paradigm, who gave us an incredible course in understanding unconscious bias at our most recent team retreat

    Yessss so excited this is happening; yay! Thanks Paradigm!

    A photo posted by Courtney Seiter (@courtneyseiter) on

  • Sponsoring awesome initiatives like POCIT‘s Beer and Boardgames event and #wocintech‘s awesome photos, and learning from many more
  • Transforming our interview process to reduce bias and level the playing field
  • Sharing our open roles in new locations that focus on less represented audiences

And we’ve seen a lot of progress. Our candidate pool is steadily becoming more gender diverse, and team growth in 2016 has been gender-balanced for the first time ever.

candidates by gender

We’ve gone from 83% white in 2015 to 78% so far in 2016. (Our team is still very young, which feels like something we could work a lot more on). We’ll keep setting goals and sharing openly with you.

Who is qualified to do this kind of work?

I’m a typically abled, white, cisgender, neurotypical, 37-year-old woman married to a man. I have a lot of privilege. Am I truly the best person for this role?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and taken the opportunity to learn from others here.

Megan Rose Dickey, who writes about diversity and inclusion at TechCrunch, opined on who’s qualified to take on an inclusivity role and landed on this:

“…perhaps there is no one answer to who is the best fit to fill a diversity role. It might be a case of needing to factor in the entire employee base at the company in order for the role to be as effective as it can be.”

Erica Baker, who’s been instrumental in championing inclusivity at Slack, says accountability has to start at the top:

“Diversity and Inclusion should be a priority for all employees, but the person who leads the efforts and holds people accountable should be nobody but the CEO.”

Heben Nigatu, one-half of the incredible podcast Another Round, talked about this on the Longform podcast:

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I ask people to try. Literally just try! Think of things and sit down in a meeting and talk about it. And then have actionable items where you go out and do stuff.”

We tried to think through all these perspectives in setting up this role. The inclusivity area reports directly to Joel, our CEO, and we’re in communication quite a lot about what to prioritize and how to achieve our goals.

If Buffer is lucky enough to have a long life and grow into a large company with hundreds or thousands of teammates, I’d be delighted to hand this role over to someone (or a team of someones!) more suited for it in the future.

For now, though I don’t have all the answers, I can promise I’m trying.

What’s next for us?

Now that inclusivity is a bigger priority than ever at Buffer, what kinds of things can you expect to see as a result?

In my mind, everything we do in this area should be in service of either bringing more new perspectives to Buffer, or making sure everyone on our team feels a true sense of belonging.

Here are some of the projects I and others are working on for the next few months or so:

  • A new, updated version of our open-source Diversity Dashboard to help keep us accountable and transparent. Here’s a peek at what we’re working on:div dash 2.0
  • A new, standalone “Inclusivity hub” of resources for anyone else who might be working in this area
  • Volunteering at and sponsoring cool stuff like AlterConf, 2020Shift and more
  • Frequent blog updates on the experiments we’re trying to connect with new communities
  • A new About page that celebrates our team’s unique differences
  • More recommendations around Buffer processes like family leave, experience levels, our salary formula and more
  • A podcast! (I hope)

Over to you

I and the whole team at Buffer have a lot of big, exciting work ahead of us.

The responsibility for creating a more inclusive culture at Buffer is Buffer’s alone. But if you happen to want to share any thoughts or feelings about this position or any of our inclusivity efforts, I’d be honored to hear them.

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • kchapmangibbons

    Congrats! Your humility is a breath of fresh air.

    • Thanks so much, Kristen! :) Humility feels like a great place to start here; we have a LOT to learn.

  • This is so cool Courtney! Congrats. Keep it up.

  • Vicki

    We have almost the same issue in our 126 year old GFWC (General Federation of Women’s Clubs)! Our motto is “Unity in Diversity”, but we haven’t figured out how (or worked very hard) to attract women of color and other cultures to join our wonderful volunteer community service organization.

    • It’s a great first step that you’re aware of this challenge, Vicki! I’d love to share the results of any experiments we perform in this area! We’ve seen a positive impact from sponsoring more events/newsletters/podcasts/etc. that focus on women and people of color, in case that’s something you might want to try! Also giving another look to the images on your site/ads can make a big difference!

  • Neil McKay

    Kudos to Buffer for showing initiative in diversity and inclusion! And congratulations to you, Courtney, for your appointment to this role. I continue to look to Buffer as a model for what any organization should be doing. Looking forward to following your Podcast!

    • Neil McKay

      Also, great post – you hooked me with the little slice of history about the Shirley Card in your introduction!

      • Thanks, Neil! I kinda can’t stop reading about Shirley cards now; the history is so fascinating!

  • Sandra McCann

    Congrats Courtney! And don’t doubt that you are the person for the role. Your passion and engagement shows, and that’s two critical components. Also, realistically, as a woman (in tech) you likely have experienced issues based solely on your gender. That personal experience can help you keep an awareness on how others are affected. But reaching out to all diverse communities to hear and listen is the best way I feel to build out that awareness for you and your peers.

    One comment – the What’s Next list seems heavy on the internal focus. While that’s good, I think it can also stretch to an external focus. With all you and your team learn, what can be applied to the products and services Buffer offers? It’s a real win-win for the organization and those who adopt the Buffer Way ™ :-)

    • Really appreciate the kind encouragement, Sandra, and ESPECIALLY appreciate the feedback. That’s a great note on the internal focus; keen to reflect on it a bit and modify accordingly!

  • Marco Antonio Butron

    Thank you Courtney for this post. It has made me change the way I thought about Buffer’s hiring process, being a 56 year old mexican guy who just applied for a job with you guys. This is what I like about the company: the transparency, which is so hard to find somewhere else. Cheers!

    • Hey Marco! I’m really glad to share a bit of our perspective; so happy it felt good to you to read!

  • Zsombor

    Hi Courtney, I guess you have already known about the potential in people who are on the autism spectrum, but here is the link if not: http://usa.specialisterne.com/ cheers!

  • Thanks for sharing Courtney , and congrats on the new role! It’s exciting to learn about Buffer’s commitment to diversity , I’m curious to check out the new Journey page :)

    • Thanks, Lisa! Our hiring has slowed down a bit so we can catch our breath as a team, but we’d love for you to keep an eye on it! We’ll be ramping up again in no time. :)

  • Thanks for posting about this! Inclusivity is definitely important in every company and across all axes of oppression. I am excited that Buffer has dedicated a person to focus specifically on exclusivity!

  • This is so exciting to me. A friend of mine has been working in recent months to promote the inclusivity of fat people (her preferred term) in diverse day-to-day settings, but especially in faith communities. It’s been such an eye-opener on my end. Unless you take time to consciously think about it, it’s incredible how much privilege can blind you (and by you, I mean me!) to the marginalization of others.

    My sense is that it’s a powerful and beautiful thing to intentionally embrace diversity and look for opportunities to encourage it. I can’t imagine it’s an easy thing :) but I do feel it’s a journey worth taking.

  • Wonderful post, Courtney. I always look forward to learning more about this amazing experiment in business structure you folks call Buffer!

    Having been through multiple startups and recently “retired” after our most recent company, BlogPaws.com, was acquired by PetSmart, I’m putting together the next project, rebranding myself as “Old Dog Learning” (not angling to be petted!).
    ;-D

    Your specific mention of needing to address the lack of age diversity intrigues me. I’ve been digging into a bunch of (perhaps surprising) current research on aspects of aging related to creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, risk tolerance, growth mindset, and learning, that should bolster your feeling on this score.

    To your questioning of your own qualification to work on this problem, please don’t. It’s inherently impossible for any one person to embody ALL colors and shades of the diversity rainbow. Your recognition of the questions, eagerness to address them, and openness to getting help from “others” make you an ideal leader for the task.

    • I love Old Dog Learning; what an awesome idea! Would love to hear more about the research you’ve uncovered; perhaps it will live on the blog?

      And thanks a ton for your encouragement. It means more than you know.

      • You betcha, Courtney. But while I collect more for the blog post, here are a few key points that might relate directly to your work and the Buffer culture:
        1. Older folks are generally more positive, what the neuro-scientists call the “age-related positivity effect” – and they also recover faster from induced negative moods – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3459016/
        2. Older people show more emotional stability and this continues to go up on a fairly straight line into their 90s – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3332527/
        3. There is new evidence that older people actually learn better on some measures (I’d argue more work-relevant ones) than younger people – http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/metcalfe/PDFs/Metcalfe2015Hyp.pdf (killer quote: “Older adults may be unwilling or unable to recruit their efforts to learn irrelevant mumbo jumbo, but, as the present study demonstrates, they can and will engage their attention and effort to learn the truth.”)
        There’s a fun TED playlist you might enjoy binge watching:
        Talks to make you feel good about getting older http://www.ted.com/playlists/227/talks_to_make_you_feel_good_ab
        Okay, I’ll shut up now! ;-D

        • Wow, thanks for all these awesome resources! This will make an awesome blog post for you; can’t wait to share it!

  • Zoe Lewis

    As someone who works in a Diversity team in a BIG organization, I really enjoy reading Buffer’s posts – and this was a great one. Congrats on being a catalyst and happy to share ideas sometime.

  • Jim Reams

    81% age 25-34 is by far the norm in newer tech businesses (in my experience). Tech companies are missing out on a whole lot of knowledge because of the bias that “old people” are bumbling fools when it comes to technology.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, and age bias in tech also seems to get the least amount of attention and initiatives devoted to it. Keen to change that!

      • Chris Raymond

        I often jokingly tell friends I might have been the oldest person hired by a tech startup in 2015. I happen to work for a place where our developers are non-white and included an African American woman. At one point, women made up 75% of the place!

        During the time I was looking for a job in web design, I can say that the team photos of almost uniformly 20- and 30-somethings, coupled with a focus on team building activities like rock climbing, did not send a signal of welcome to folks like me, or folks with physical limitations. Jim is so right: we older folks have lots of great experience in being contributing workers, even if we might sometimes need some time to pick up the latest tech. (Honestly, who can keep up with the constant tech change, even a 25 year old?) I think age bias is the last remaining one that still seems all-too socially acceptable.

  • T.Nichols

    Hi Courtney. I have so many thoughts about this update, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

    As someone who has been a Buffer fan and customer for about two years now, I’m happy to read this, but wary at the same time. While I acknowledge that this has been a work in progress for some time, I’m cautious because there doesn’t seem to be much change. Buffer runs the risk of sounding like every other company, big and small, who sees there’s a problem and really wants to do something about it, but nothing really changes.

    The irony of the situation is that most companies, including Buffer, are still using a Shirley card. And while that fault doesn’t fall solely on companies, as there are many other factors that contribute to this, it is still disheartening.

    It seems like Buffer is on the right path. Acknowledging the problem is the first step towards fixing the problem. But what happens next? And not what you hope to happen or what you’re striving for, but what really happens next?

    Here are a couple things to really consider:
    1. One person working on D&I isn’t enough. A team of three (including the Culture team) who look alike aren’t going to fix D&I either. While unconscious bias acts as a safety net and is therefore something we all have, as a Black woman I can’t and don’t benefit from my biases. You, as you mentioned, are privileged and therefore do benefit from your unconscious biases. So if Buffer truly intends to improve in this, then there needs to be more D&I on your team and/or the leadership team.
    2. Buffer’s a big proponent of transparency, but I haven’t seen any hard goals around this. Maybe Buffer hasn’t publicized it, but there really needs to be some hard targets. Because how do you know that you’re hitting your target if you truly haven’t defined and measured your target.

    I really hope to see change within Buffer. I hope that Buffer one day truly reflects the customers that use their products. I just hope that day is one day soon and not some day in the distant future.

    • Hey there T,
      I want to thank you so much for taking the time and energy to share these tough but totally fair thoughts. I understand your wariness and agree that we do still carry the remnants of the Shirley card in our company DNA.

      The team as a whole has made a lot of progress in understanding bias and learning why and how to be deliberate as we grow the team, and yet I also understand how from your perspective progress looks really slow. I hope this doesn’t come across as defensive; I totally agree with you.

      I think both your specific points are really important; I wanted to speak to each:

      1) Totally agree; I would love to get to the point where we are able to have a team working on this topic, and I 100% agree we need more diversity on the team and in leadership. We are slowing our hiring a good bit this quarter so I’m focusing on that second part and working on developing transparent, equitable advancement tracks to get help women and POC on the team advance into leadership roles.

      2) That’s a great point about transparent goals. I failed in sharing them with y’all last quarter, and that’s on me. We had a lot of internal discussion about whether it felt right to create specific goals around race and ethnicity, and that halted our progress for a bit.

      These were the goals we were striving for in Q1:
      – Improve inclusivity to 35% women (currently 27%) Did not quite achieve this one
      – Improve inclusivity to 22% non-white (currently 17%) We met this but the ratio has since changed again

      We’re planning on bringing very few new teammates on in this current quarter, so in the interim until we’re hiring a lot again I decided to focus on launching a new, more easily understandable Diversity Dashboard to keep us transparent and accountable.

      Again, thank you for ALL these thoughts; I absolutely need them. You’re right: The goal is to reflect customer NOW, not in the distant future. I 100% appreciate the push here.

  • Angela Sylcott

    Congratulations on your (officially) new role! I think you are absolutely the right person for the job. From reading your previous pieces about diversity/inclusivity, it’s been clear that you are genuinely interested in—maybe even fascinated by—the topic. It’s also clear how much you love Buffer and are committed to helping it realize even more of its potential. Your discussions of diversity have never come off as if someone at Buffer said, “We need to do something about diversity. Hey, Courtney, you busy?”

    To answer your question of if you are truly the best person for the job based on the “categories” you fit into as a person: Yes. Why? Because you don’t *have* to do this. Most of the boxes you check are the norm, so if Buffer decided tomorrow to ditch its inclusivity efforts, nothing would change for you and how working for Buffer looks and feels to you. But it seems that something in your research of inclusivity or maybe even something before or outside of that has hooked you and made inclusivity a mission for you and a way to help the company you love become even better. To me, the fact that you *want* to do the job despite not really *needing* to do it says you are the best person.

    I look forward to reading your updates. Congratulations again!

    • Angela, it means the world to me to read this kind note of encouragement. Thank you so much! I’m happy my zeal for this topic comes through. There’s definitely a great sense of urgency in this for me, and I feel very grateful to be supported by our team in taking this on!

  • Michael Jenkins

    Great article as usual. I enjoyed the little Kodak bit. My uncle use to work for them and we are moving out to that area soon.

    What I really enjoy about this is the amount of research and how much you care about this topic. I am starting to see this trend more, where the company focuses on it’s employees just as much as the product. Keep up the great work. I refer friends to you all the time if for nothing else than to read your articles.

    • That is so kind of you, Michael; thank you so much for sharing Buffer with your friends!

  • Sandra McCann

    hey there! a possible quick-fix diversity enhancement – the faces that scroll through on your job posts? heavily leaning to men (like 2-1 ratio?) and i ‘think’ only 2 potentially non-white faces… (yeah, I was bored so did a lot of refreshes and counting…;-) And we won’t even mention the age bias..nope, we just won’t… ;-) On the plus side, everybody’s happy!

    • Hey Sandra, this is a great point and I totally agree! A new Journey page is on our list for this very quarter; I’m so excited to get more representation there ASAP!

  • Jennifer Orr

    Hi Courtney, I know I’m late to the game here, but just wanted to mention one area that, in my personal experience, Buffer does a great job. It’s in being inclusive of applicants without a tech background, both in the role description language and in actually talking with and considering them. It’s not necessarily the case for all companies, even those who claim to be inclusive. I feel like sometimes the focus of diversity conversations tend to be more around gender, age and race, but there is less focus on diversity of backgrounds/experiences, learning methods, work styles, personality, etc.

    • Thanks so much for this encouragement, Jennifer! It really means so much. You’re absolutely right, those are all really important elements to consider for true diversity!