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5 Times We Failed at Diversity Big Time (and How We Fixed it)

One of the first blog posts I ever wrote at Buffer is this beginner’s guide to SEO. When published originally, it had the title “Beginner’s Guide to SEO Even Your Mom Can Understand.”

Holy casual sexism!

When I think of all the amazing women and moms I know in search optimization and search marketing (here’s a primer on just a few), I am still super embarrassed to have made this giant mistake even nearly 2 years later.

I’d like to think I and the whole team at Buffer have come a long way since then. Our company-wide value to do the right thing has led us to focus on inclusivity, and creating the most welcoming environment possible for new customers, community members and teammates.

Along the way we’ve noticed quite a few mistakes (like mine above!) and it feels good to share them here. If you’d like to create a more inclusive workplace and company, maybe these examples will help you with a few examples of what not to do. :)

5 inclusivity mistakes

1. Falling into the “even your mom” trap

I’d love to explore my mistake with the”Beginner’s Guide to SEO Even Your Mother Can Understand” a bit more in-depth here.

How could someone who calls herself a feminist not see how this headline would be at least off-putting, if not downright offensive, to half the population? And what could bearing children possibly have to do with one’s ability to comprehend search engine optimization?

My mom would be the first to say that she doesn’t understand SEO, but my father wouldn’t fare any better in an SEO quiz. So why is it that moms tend to bear the brunt of this type of speech?

I decided to do some research.  It turns out the “so easy your mom can do it” theme has been prevalent in tech for a long time. (Google the phrase; it’s very interesting!) When something becomes so ingrained in the culture, it becomes what’s called institutionalized discrimination—so prevalent that it’s easy to barely notice it anymore.

There are quite a few great resources online about why it’s problematic to use this kind of terminology, and there’s a simple fix to be more aware of it when you see it online, according to Dave Winer:

“The way to tell if something is sexist (or racist or ageist or whatever ist) is to change the gender, race or age, and see if it still works.”

Here’s a more in-depth look at how to reframe your mind with things you read or write:

“In analyzing statements about gender roles, it is sometimes helpful to substitute for gender some other trait, such as skin color or race. This helps to illustrate bias, because many of us are more sensitized to racial stereotypes: Is Ubuntu so easy that a white boy could use it?  Does it pass the white boy test?  If my white boyfriend can figure it out, you can too! This can be a useful way to ‘test‘ language and reveal implications.”

I’ve been using this reframing technique lately, and it’s super effective.

So: Big apology to moms. We can do better.

2. Less-than-inclusive roundup posts

I love a good expert roundup blog post! Posts that ask multiple industry leaders for their favorite tool or tip can be such a great way to pack a ton of wisdom into one goodie-packed page.

They’re also an opportunity to highlight unique and lesser-heard voices, raise up experts from different walks of life and celebrate the variety of experience that comes with diversity.

Some of the roundup posts we’ve done in the past at Buffer haven’t quite taken advantage of this great opportunity.

Our post on counterintuitive advice from entrepreneurs had tons of great advice, but from one main perspective: That of a white, male entrepreneur. Take a look at a few of the folks cited:

roundup 3

roundup 2

roundup 1

Our community was quick to point out the missed opportunity on this one (thanks, y’all!):

more women comments

comment 2

It feels great to work on making some changes here.

Our most recent roundup post, A Private Peek at the Home Screens of Top Marketers, features a higher percentage of women (7 of 22), and I think we can keep improving here, particularly when it comes to elevating experts of color.

3. Not inviting women to imagine themselves at Buffer

On the hiring side, we’ve made changes as well. Eliminating the word “hacker” in job descriptions was one step we took to make our engineering jobs more woman-friendly, and we recently spotted another opportunity to change.

Notice anything interesting about this form?
Johnny Buffer

Johnny Buffer is probably an awesome guy, but the Buffer team is already predominantly male. That signals to me that men might not have as tough a time picturing themselves at Buffer as women could. Why not give them a hand?

That’s how Johnny Buffer became … Jenny Buffer!

Jenny Buffer

Now, this is a really tiny change. You may be thinking that it’s hardly worth writing about here, which I totally get.

But even little changes can make a big difference. As Moz’s awesome Erica McGillivray noted in her great post on Ways to Proactively Welcome Women Into Online Marketing:

“There’s a strong correlation between seeing yourself demographically and dreaming that you could do that job too. We all need inspiration and heroes to look up to and aspire to be like.”

4. (Even more!) masculine language

Can you spot the difference in these two sentences?

“We’re looking for a person who embodies this community spirit and is excited to share his knowledge with the broader web development world.”

“We’re looking for a person who embodies this community spirit and is excited to share their knowledge with the broader web development world.”

Until recently, our listing for a Reliability Developer included the first sentence—another example of a tiny word that can make a big difference in deciding whether a work environment is right for you, or even interested in welcoming you.

We’ve talked before about how we’re working on weeding out gendered language like “guys” (as in “Hey guys; what’s up?”) when speaking to a group. The above example is pretty much the reason why this matters to us.

Recently, we were lucky enough to have Buffer’s Diversity Dashboard featured in a USA Today article. In the same article, we were super inspired to see another startup, npm, taking things one step further on the “guys” front: They’ve got a “guys jar,” in which members working on removing this word from their vocabulary put a dollar in the jar every time they say it accidentally.

“At npm participation in the Guys Jar is totally voluntary, but a lot of us do it, and we tend to put a dollar in whenever we accidentally gender something gender-neutral or misgender somebody. When we cross $50, we donate the money to a charity.”

guys jar

What a great idea!

Recently we’ve had some interesting discussions about using terms like “man” and “bro” in friendly emails and have decided to avoid them as well.

Since the terms don’t really have a female equivalent that we can think of, it feels like they might exclude women from feeling the same level of closeness to teammates as the guys might have. Would love to hear your thoughts here!

5. Confusing cultural fit and cultural contribution

Sunil recently passed on to me one of the most fascinating and resonant articles I’ve read about the importance of diversity in building a team: Hiring: It’s About Cultural Contribution, Not Cultural Fit.

contribution vs. fit

In this post, Diego Rodriguez of IDEO explains why he chooses candidates who could make a positive contribution to the future of his company’s culture.

“I don’t optimize for fit with our existing culture, because over time that will lead to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, I try to envision a future where this person’s unique point of view has shifted how we work and what we value. I hire for an individual’s potential cultural contribution.”

Reading this made me realize that the way I’ve been thinking about cultural fit at Buffer might be all wrong!

Because of our values, I believe we already go beyond the idea of cultural fit as simply, “Is this a person I want to hang out with?” But actively prioritizing cultural contribution over present-day fit feels like an exciting shift to me!

Sunil is one step ahead of me on this one, which is why I’m so glad he’s heavily involved in hiring. Here are his thoughts on cultural contribution:

“I think a way of looking at cultural contribution is about focusing on what aspects is Buffer culture isn’t at all great at yet, and striving to improve on those areas. I think I see it no different than trying to hire more folks in Asia, since we’re trying to improve our remote working culture in those areas, or looking for someone who can help us with finances. Similarly I think we’re always asking how can we make Buffer a better place to work for moms and dads, those with disabilities, etc. Hiring and working towards improving Buffer’s culture where we’re lacking in the most positive way feels key to me.”

I’m keen to keep exploring the difference between these two concepts in future posts, and I’m excited to hear your thoughts on this topic as well!

Over to you

It feels great to unburden ourselves of some of these inclusivity mistakes in the hopes that they might help others. We’re still learning a lot in this area, so there will most likely be more mistakes to report.

Have you made or come across any of these mistakes before? How did they make you feel?

If you’re working on building diversity at your company or practicing more inclusivity in your life, I’d love to hear about your tips and experiences!

  • Cool topic to tackle Courtney. Great to see Buffer continue to do a great job of self reflection, catching things that could have been done better and addressing them.

    Isn’t it just as sexist to use Jenny Buffer in the application form fill as Johnny Buffer? How about a name that can be applied to either sex? Or none at all, like Potential Buffer Badass. ;)

    • Thanks, Ben! Ah, great question on the Jenny Buffer; I don’t think either version is sexist! For me it’s more about seizing a small opportunity to help women picture themselves at Buffer. :)

    • The crucial difference is that men have no reason to believe they wouldn’t belong at Buffer, nor the tech industry at large. Fighting sexism isn’t just about making everything neutral, but about creating opportunities where there wasn’t one before.

      • Sylvia

        Yes! All those big and small changes can make a difference, thank you Buffer for being open and, even better, aware of those areas where you’re not being intentionally inclusive and making that extra effort. It’s great to see that type of ownership! I think most places or people doesn’t necessarily try to be exclusive but they just don’t realize that one door doesn’t allow all types of people to easily walk through it.

        I love how you put it, Brad, it’s about “creating opportunities where there wasn’t one before.” I was going to also suggest that, “The way to tell if something is sexist (or racist or ageist or whatever -ist) is to change the gender, race or age, and see if it still works…” sometimes isn’t the most accurate gauge. I know it’s not necessarily “equal” and people can make the argument that it’s a “double standard,”but what may be acceptable for one group or within a certain setting may not extend to everyone. I think that whole situation needs to be taken in context.

        • Great thoughts, Sylvia! Thank you so much for adding your voice here. I think your note about changing the gender, race, age, etc. is super important to think on. Context is super important in any situation!

          • Sylvia

            Courtney, I appreciate the time you took to reply. Sweet of you!

  • Krista Wiltbank

    As a mom, I really appreciate the realization of “even your mom could do” isn’t so nice. Now if you wanted to add “with one hand tied behind her back” that would be cool ;).

    I always enjoy reading these kinds of posts – it’s a pleasure to see a company openly admitting they do things wrong, and striving to do better.

    • Hey Krista, thanks for checking this post out! Moms are superheroes in my book; I don’t know much they can’t do!

  • Thanks for this post, Courtney! I really enjoyed reading your reflections on diversity in the workplace. Your post reminded me of this New Tech City (now: Note to Self) podcast about what Google is doing to promote gender diversity in its workplace.

    It’s available here:

    The parts on unconscious bias training and ‘the nudge’ seem particularly relevant! ?

    • Ooooh, thank you SO much for the resource; really excited to check this out!

      • You’re most welcome, Courtney! Have a great weekend! ?

  • Rajesh SIngh Saharan

    Hi Courtney, I didn’t like the cultural fit value of Buffer from the start, it’s something that you have already decided and expect the new joiner to adopt it. Where is the diversity then? Diversity is not just about people from different places and regions working together, its also about different thinking and perspectives. “Personality recognition” is something that we should all respect.

    Good that values are changing and for better :)

    • Hey there Rajesh, thanks so much for your reflection here! Definitely one for me to meditate on. I think I have a lot more unpacking to do on the phrase “cultural contribution”; I’d love to really pin down how it can complement our existing values and still leave room from growth and evolution. Your honesty is so beneficial here; I appreciate it!

      • You could perhaps substitute ‘culture’ for ‘attitude’, though ‘attitudinal fit’ sounds a little clumsy…

  • I think diversity, of the lack of it, has been one of the only glaring problems with Buffer. It goes without saying that Buffer’s a great product and an equally great company, so I’m happy to see more and more discussions around diversity and the genuine desire to improve it.

    From having recently applied for a role at Buffer, I have one recommendation that I think will help Buffer in the diversity category. Buffer’s application process is broken. The application process comes across as if you’re asking someone to impress you rather than getting the necessary information to make an objective decision about a candidate’s ability to perform the role. When your application process is subjective you’re more likely to accept and reject candidates based on whether you like them as opposed to whether they’re the best candidate for the role.

    • Hey T! I’m always so, so appreciative of any thoughts you are able to share with us here, and these are no exception! I agree with you; we can do a much better job of our screening and application process. I’m not certain we can ever make it “blind” (which would kinda be the ideal from an equality perspective) but I do think we can make it much more objective. I think we will need a lot of help getting there! I’d love to be able to call on amazing friends of Buffer like you. (Totally understand if that feels like a bit too much to ask, also; no pressure!) If you happen to have any thoughts or suggestions about improvements we can begin to make, I’d love to hear them! :)

  • kchapmangibbons

    Fantastic changes that take away nothing, but make tremendous space. Thanks!

  • Great post Courtney. (Just spotted it from the Twitter feed.) Kudos to you guys for speaking openly about this particular issue as it is one that many companies (large and small) avoid.
    Point 4 (masculine language) is one that was drilled into my head by my English teacher in high school and again during undergrad so I’m very mindful of it.
    Because of some of the underlying nuances that exist within our societies a lot of these challenges are difficult to avoid – we often realise we’re guilty of them after the fact – but with effort (and call-outs like this) it’s doable. :-)

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to check it out, Anna! Really appreciate your thoughtful comments. Aren’t English teachers the best?! I had some amazing ones myself. :)

  • Angela Sylcott

    The phrase “…even your mom can understand” could also be considered ageism, since technology is often considered the realm of younger people. I’m a proofreader and copy editor by trade, so I’m always on the lookout for and come across mistakes such as these as part of my work. I’m just glad you don’t use the awful “s/he,” haha!

    It’s very insightful and humble of you (and Buffer) to point out these gaffes. While there seems to be a fine line these days between awareness of diversity and forced tokenism, it’s nice to know that some companies are genuinely looking at what they do and say and thinking about how to be more inclusive.

    • Yup, I think it’s definitely a sign of both ageism and sexism (both awesome things to be on the lookout for in tech especially!). Really appreciate your kind words, Angela! This is an ongoing journey for all of us at Buffer. We will not be perfect by a long shot, but we will try!

  • Hi Courtney – I wanted to jump in and mention that your link to the article “Hiring: It’s About Cultural Contribution, Not Cultural Fit” is broken. Here’s the correct URL:

    On that note, I too was inspired by this article. I work at a university in Canada and am responsible for recruiting, hiring, and onboarding a team of student workers/leaders. The age demographic that I’m often dealing with (17-24 y/o) is both a challenge and a huge opportunity. People in this group have usually not acquired the skills needed in the role yet, so I’m constantly asking myself which ‘job requirements’ are truly required – what are there things that can be trained vs. attitudes that are inherent. This is a really neat perspective to start from because it has allowed me the opportunity to work with some truly inspiring youth.

  • Hollie Swofford

    To echo what others in the comments are saying, great post Courtney :) I think about #4 a lot and over the last couple of years have shifted towards vocabulary that actively favors “y’all” and “folks” over “guys” and other similarly gendered words.

    I also really try to use folks’ (see what I did there? :)) first names when in a one-on-one written exchange. It makes it both more personal/validating and removes that gendered language from the exchange. Win win!

    Are there other terms y’all are using at Buffer to replace the more gendered way of communicating?

  • What a great post! Thanks! :)
    The part about Culture Collaboration is brilliant

    I’m 99.9% sure you’ve seen it already, but just in case

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