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Hacking Our Brains Against Bias: 7 Lessons from Facebook, Pinterest And Google on Building Diverse Teams

Working on making Buffer an inclusive place where all kinds of people feel they belong and thrive is one of my favorite things.

It’s a unique time to be working on diversity goals at a tech startup. On the one hand, there is quite a bit of work to do to make the strides we’d all like to make. On the other hand, there is so much hope and so many cool innovations, programs, and even tools that can help move us toward where we want to be.

We’ve shared a lot of our thoughts, strategies and mistakes so far. As I begin to embark on making diversity a bigger part of my job (Potential future title: Belonging Booster. What do you think?) I wanted to check out what some other tech companies are working on when it comes to inclusivity.

My research journey took me all the way from the NFL to the symphony orchestra as I discovered tech companies are pulling inspiration from many different areas. Here are 7 cool inclusivity tactics that my investigation turned up.

1. The Rooney Rule

Who’s using it? Facebook and Pinterest

What does tech have in common with the National Football League? At least one element: The Rooney Rule.

Introduced by the NFL in 2003, the Rooney Rule (named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who headed the league’s diversity committee) is simple. It requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head-coaching and general manager vacancy.

This change quickly increased the NFL’s number of minority hires from 6 percent to 22 percent.

black white coaching percentages

Companies like Facebook and Pinterest have adopted their own version of the Rooney Rule, often translating it to the idea that at least one woman and one underrepresented minority be considered for every open position (sometimes, every open senior position).

2. Transparent target goals

Who’s using it? Twitter, Pinterest

17% of all Americans are Latino, 13% of all Americans are black, 6% of all Americans are Asian, and 62% of Americans are white. 50% of Americans identify as male, and the other 50% as female. 

Tech companies’ numbers generally don’t reflect these percentages very closely. Pinterest acknowledged this after releasing these demographic numbers:

Pinterest target goals

So Pinterest did something pretty unique and transparent to address this. From their blog post:

“We think one reason it’s been so hard to get numbers to change is that companies haven’t stated specific goals. So today, we’re doing something unprecedented—we’re going on record with our hiring goals for 2016. We’re also sharing details about the new programs and improvements we have planned.”

Here are Pinterest’s specific goals:

Pinterest goals

Following suit was Twitter; here are their goals for 2016:

Twitter goals

Transparently sharing specific inclusion goals feels like a great method to create accountability and honesty around how things are going.

3. 20% time

Who’s using it? LinkedIn

According to Fortune, LinkedIn is among the most gender-diverse of high-profile technology companies—at the end of 2014, almost half of LinkedIn’s employees were non-white.

tech diversity overall

How did they get there? One clue might be in this interview with Erica Lockheimer, Linked’s director of engineering growth and women in tech.

Erica explains that  20% of her time—and therefore a portion of her salary and bonus—is tied to LinkedIn’s overall diversity goals.

Several others in management have a similar arrangement, and at least another 50 employees have dedicated 5% of their time—and a portion of their overall annual pay—toward working on diversity at LinkedIn through things like unconscious bias training and “acts of inclusion.”

20% time is a cool strategy because it takes the mission outside the realm of just a select few at an organization and makes it something everyone can work toward, together.

4. Embedding engineers at schools

Who’s using it? Google

Here’s a cool strategy from Google: the search giant is embedding engineers atHistorically Black Colleges and Universities, where they teach, mentor and advise.

Google has software engineers in residence at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, Fisk University in Nashville, and Spelman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta.

Googlers teach courses and also train students on skills like how to send a professional email and how to master a technical engineering job interview.

5. Diversity through design

Who’s using it? Slack

Recently, Slack added a new way for developers to connect to the app, via the“Add to Slack” button. Quite a few users noticed that the hand in the illustration wasn’t the “usual” look for design:

Add to Slack

The seemingly small detail of skin color in the launch graphics resonated with many users.

Diogenes Brito, the designer on the project, wrote about the decision beautifully:

“Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of color who saw it? The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was. They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying white people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.”

Seeing yourself recognized and included in design is a powerful feeling, and Slack recognizes this in multiple ways:

For a small start in this direction, check out this great connection of stock photos of tech women of color (you might recognize the top image in this post!)

6. Unconscious bias training

Who’s using it? Facebook, Google and more

Our brains aren’t so great at making rational decisions. There are literally hundreds of cognitive biases that trick us every day. Here are just a few:

cognitive biases

(Check out your own inherent biases around race and gender by taking a quiz here.)

How can we retrain our flawed brains? Some say a start is to be aware of our biases.

Companies like Google and Facebook are working hard on unconscious bias training for their teams, and sharing some great resources with all of us. (Seriously, both those links are gold!)

7. Blind auditions

Who’s using it? Mozilla, Dolby

Speaking of unconscious bias, here’s how orchestras in the United States uncovered and worked through one of their own biases.

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. By 1997, that number was up to 30%!

What changed? Orchestras began using blind auditions, where performers stayed behind a screen as they played, unseen by the judges. (Kinda like TV’s The Voice).

blind audition results

According to a 2001 study, blind orchestra auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.

Could blind auditions work for tech, too? The startup Gap Jumpers makes software that creates a blind audition conducted via computer. Companies like Dolby Labs and Mozilla have already signed on to try this unique method.

Over to you!

We’re excited to explore many of these strategies at Buffer soon, and will share with you how it goes!

How are you working on bringing more diverse perspectives to your team, or to make your workplace more inclusive for all?

I’d love to hear what strategies you’re thinking of or working on, and any thoughts you might have for Buffer as we work on building a more diverse team!

  • Hung Quang


    • Thanks for checking this one out, Hung!

      • Hung Quang


  • Sridhar Rajendran

    Hey Courtney,
    It is good to hear Buffer is taking an active step to promote diversity. However the title Belonging Booster doesn’t sound so apt. Maybe something else?

    • Ah, thanks, for the feedback, Sridhar! Would love to hear any titles that might feel better to you!

      • Sridhar Rajendran

        How about Lady Gaga? She seems to be pretty diverse :)

        • Hmm, I think she might have that title on lockdown already. ;) It’s a great one, though!

  • eccoyle

    Diversity developer?

  • eccoyle
    • Ooh, I like both of these! Thanks for the great suggestions!

  • Sylvia

    Courtney, it’s great to hear diversity is something that’s aimed for at Buffer in an intentional manner! Just curious to hear what steps you guys are thinking of trying first? :)

    • Hey Sylvia! Great question; I have an intuition we might try the Rooney Rule first. My hunch is that it will tell us right away whether we need to hop much more into active recruiting, which could be a really neat area to explore next. :) Super open to any suggestions at all, if you might have any thoughts to share!

      • Sylvia

        Sounds like a great place to start especially considering your team is hiring! I’m not sure if you already do this, but since you have members in various countries, possibly you can converse with people in their native language? I believe that culture is inherent within language so that may help to shape interactions and feel more inclusive.

        • That’s a great idea, Sylvia! I think you’re absolutely right! It’s been really fascinating to see how our remote, international team dovetails with the care and detail we like to put into every communication. Language barriers can certainly be an extra challenge there!

  • Angela Sylcott

    The Rooney Rule is fine for the NFL because the league and teams already know every potential candidate’s experience and career path. The issue was that the league had a very specific, very public situation where they no longer had any explanation for why seasoned, successful, respected minority coaches weren’t being offered head-coaching jobs. The individual teams and their owners and executives make those decisions. The league itself answers to a larger audience and different public, social, and even “political” expectations than the individual teams do, and so felt compelled to do something to try to force the teams’ hands to increase the number of minority head coaches.

    Buffer’s situation (and that of regular [read: non-NFL-type] organizations in general) is different. It doesn’t sound like you have talented underrepresented categories of people in your organization hitting a glass ceiling. It sounds more like they might be hitting a glass door on the way in, or maybe aren’t even coming to the door in the first place. A Rooney Rule hiring practice wouldn’t solve this, because it would take the focus and energy off of finding the best candidates for the job—period, and instead place it on finding the one or two best [underrepresented category] candidates to meet the quota for the applicant pool for that specific position. Why not aim instead at having a deep, diverse, interested pool at the ready to select from at all times?

    If it’s a glass door, I think “blind” applications (no name, and possibly no location listed) would be a good way to go (and no peeking at social-media profile pics!). That way, when applications are being reviewed, there’s minimal opportunity for any potential bias that might prevent the applicant from being invited to the interview process (e.g., a name that fits a gender that’s more traditionally in that role, a name from an ethnicity not usually considered for that type of position) or give them a false boost (e.g., a name or ethnicity that fits a positive stereotype for that position). Maybe even add a practice project relevant to the role as an initial step in the interview process, to get a feel for how candidates would do the job (TNTP, a distributed-workforce company in the education industry, does this for its positions) Then, once candidates reach the part of the process where they’ll be talking to or meeting with Buffer personnel, it would be up to them to do their best to shine to win the job, because their background, experience, skills, and a taste of how they would do the job got them in the door.

    If it’s a matter of qualified underrepresented candidates not even coming to the door, an embedding type of approach might be effective, or even just more PR and/or marketing activities and communications toward the desired talent audiences could work to build the awareness and interest needed to get them there.

    • Sylvia

      Angela, thank you for sharing that background information leading up to the implementation of the Rooney Rule, and framing the discussion within the proper context. “Glass door” evokes very powerful imagery. If there are barriers for certain folks to even get through the door, then your suggestion of a blind application process might be a great way for Buffer and other organizations to be more inclusive and safeguard against potential biases (or even to identify and evaluate what their unconscious biases might be!).

      • Angela Sylcott

        You’re welcome, Sylvia!

    • Angela, this is so incredibly helpful; I want to offer deep thanks for your time and insight on our situation here! My slight intuition is, as you say, maybe the diverse candidates “aren’t even coming to the door in the first place.” I’ve been a bit torn about how to remedy this, between a Rooney Rule approach and a blind approach—they’re quite different and most likely couldn’t work together, so this feels like a real fork in the road. I’ve been looking for more perspectives on the right direction, so this is such useful feedback. Thank you so much.

      • Angela Sylcott

        You’re welcome! Glad I could help—I love a good problem. :)

      • Angela Sylcott

        Hello again, Courtney! I was thinking about this some more, and am curious: I know Buffer has the Diversity Dashboard to track applicants, but have you ever tracked/asked people why they *didn’t* apply? Maybe there is some useful information there.

        I’m talking about people who click on a job listing but then abandon it without applying. Maybe there’s some obstacle or “turnoff” that’s common or notable for certain groups.

        In a previous post you’d mentioned making changes to the wording and titles in Buffer’s listings to be more gender-inclusive, but that this was an awareness that came from the inside out. If there’s something else at play, or something that’s not even about the listing itself (e.g., the interface, the application process, other content in the Jobs section) that could be turning your desired audiences away, finding out what it is from the outside in and adjusting it could convert potential abandoners into applicants and broaden and deepen the pool.

        Just curious what other angles have been used for the diversity research. Thanks!

  • Daven Sprattling-Mathies

    Are there particular challenges to increasing diversity given that Buffer is an all-remote workforce? Do you think virtual teams are more or less inclined to organize based on similarities compared to physical teams?

    • Ooh, great question! I think there are both challenges and opportunities with a distributed, remote team. For me, the opportunities far outweigh the challenges–we can hire anyone anywhere in the world who can speak English and has access to a computer! Your second question is super intriguing; I’d love to reflect on that and see if I can uncover any data there!

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