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Louda Peña from Thoughtworks on Making Diversity Normal

| Posted by Shane Hastie Follow 11 Followers , Louda Peña Follow 0 Followers , reviewed by Shane Hastie Follow 11 Followers on Aug 02, 2017. Estimated reading time: 7 minutes |

Key Takeaways

  • The effort that goes into building a diverse and inclusive workforce is intentional and prioritized
  • Technologists are in a very fortunate position in this world, and that we should be the agents of progressive change
  • A diverse workplace begins with an understanding at the corporate level of why it’s important, and unapologetically embedding it into the organization's culture
  • All organizations should address unconscious bias which is pervasive
  • Awareness and recognition is a first step towards mitigating the negative effects and creating a more inclusive workplace

Following on from the awards and recognition that ThoughtWorks has received for inclusiveness and diversity,  InfoQ spoke to Louda Peña about what it takes to foster a genuinely diverse and inclusive workplace in a global technology company, and her own experiences being part of such a culture. 

InfoQ: Please give us some background on the awards ThoughtWorks has received recently.

At the 2016 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, ThoughtWorks was honored to be named by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) as the winner of the Top Companies for Women Technologists program. ABI’s U.S. program recognizes companies committed to building workplaces where women in technology roles can thrive. The program uses a rigorous methodology to analyze data from participating organizations and in 2016, sixty companies participated with more than 1.4 million US employees, including 552,000 technologists across 10 industries.

The recognition and resulting headlines are helping us amplify our impact. Not many people are aware that ThoughtWorks, founded in 1993, has grown from a small group in Chicago to 4500+ people spread across 42 offices in 15 countries. 

InfoQ: How does ThoughtWorks approach diversity?

Certainly it was a tremendous honor to be recognized as the Top Company for Women Technologists, but as a ThoughtWorker, it came as no surprise. One of our three foundational pillars is to advocate for social and economic justice which translates into taking actionable steps that result in progress. It’s our belief that a wide range of experiences and backgrounds contributes positively to the quality of our products and services and at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do. We have been focused on this fight for inclusiveness for a long time and while we are encouraged by the progress we have made, we are by no means done.

The effort that goes into building a diverse and inclusive workforce is intentional and prioritized. Our interview process, based on two-way dialogue, is intended to provide candidates a clear view of our core values and philosophies about social justice, and more. It’s also an opportunity for candidates to share their authentic self with us. We do our best to ensure there’s a varied group of people conducting the interview. Cultural fit is paramount. It’s not a matter of agreeing, per se, but ensuring that people who work here will be happy among their colleagues. We believe everyone deserves a safe space and that the only thing inherently wrong with a diverse work space, is a lack of one.

Our leadership team at ThoughtWorks has been helpful for me, as well as others, to witness. They provide examples of a path to leadership. I’ve typically worked in environments where boards, C-Suites, and management were made up of people that sent the message that those positions were unattainable to me.

One thing I love about ThoughtWorks, is that there isn’t this magical number we’re trying to achieve to prove our diversity. Granted, the number is helpful when trying to explain our strides, but the fact is, we sense that we’re among a balanced group of colleagues. It’s a really special feeling. I realize in saying this that there are areas where we can improve, but to me, we’re well positioned for that improvement.

InfoQ: Why does diversity matter so much?

There are so many ways I can answer this question, but let me begin with me; I’m a 40 year old, gay, latina female. On so many levels I’ve been exposed to hate; towards my sexual preference, my dark skin, my gender, and now that I’m older, also my age. The combination has been a challenge over time. Being able to function in a workplace where my identity is an asset, frees me up to think more creatively, feel comfortable having opinions, and empowers me to speak out about injustices that I see internally and of course, externally.

If you can now imagine that we have 4500 people who are able to function without being seen through a lens of gender or race or identity, but for our knowledge, curiosity, and enthusiasm.

As an organization, we believe that we’re in a very fortunate position in this world, and that we should be the agents of progressive change. I realize that sounds very aspirational, but it’s fundamental to ThoughtWorks’ identity. It’s built into our day-to-day thinking and actions. 

InfoQ: How do we make sure it's not just tokenism?

I recently attended an open space on workplace diversity at a tech conference. One individual led the group and said “I’m all about diversity. I just hired two new people and one happened to be an African American man and a woman.” Then the individual went on to avert that he would only hire for skill regardless of identity. This is the absolute wrong way to approach diversity in the workplace. Tokenism is the “oh yeah, I have an XYZ friend” syndrome, implying that you aren’t homophobic or racist or misogynist because of it.

A diverse workplace begins with an understanding at the  corporate level of why it’s important, and unapologetically embedding it into the organization's culture. Our industry is based on racing to the finish line, and that creates a profit first mentality. Putting the money above all else can be detrimental, especially when it comes to hiring. For instance, when broadening your talent search beyond the usual suspects, it will likely require more time and effort. And time is money. Only truly committed organizations will stay the course.

InfoQWhat can and should other organisations do to help achieve these types of outcomes?

There is a laundry list of activities organizations can do from creating educational programs, to sensitivity training and onboarding of new talent. The list goes on but one area all organizations should address is unconscious bias. We all have bias, yes we do! And people aren’t bad because they have a bias, but addressing it is incredibly important. Awareness and recognition is a first step towards mitigating the negative effects and creating a more inclusive workplace. A proactive approach and engaging in difficult conversations in a respectful manner helps employees communicate more effectively, leading to better collaboration.

Today’s world is more chaotic than ever and it’s increasingly harder for organizations to stay out of potentially divisive conversation. This poses new challenges and an opportunity to create shared purpose, bringing employees closer together. Providing employees the time, space and resources to self-organize and support each other is very effective. We’ve found ourselves engaged in seemingly small initiatives (with large impact) such as office greening, or weekly social groups for our LGBTQ identified and friends of, through to supporting local organizations like Black Girls Code or local political artists who need a voice such as Impact Hub. We’re engaged at local levels on a daily basis, and impacting global levels overall. 

InfoQ: ThoughtWorks is a global organisation, what differences do you see in the approaches towards women and underrepresented groups around the globe?         

The cultural characteristics and imperatives we share are consistent at our offices across the globe. It’s the tactics and execution that is different and varies office-to-office and region-to-region. Collectively we are all striving to make our company and the industry more reflective of the society that we serve.

Shared community space for partnering with and fostering local technology groups and social justice organizations is an important element in each of our offices. Employees are encouraged and empowered to use the space to host events such as meet-ups, hackathons, and lunchtime talks, just to name a few.  A few examples include:

  • London - Mums in Tech used the office space to teach an eight-week course on coding to mums on maternity leave.
  • New York - Technovation, used the shared space on a weekend to host the 2017 Regional Pitch competition.
  • Hyderbad -  Vapasi, a program focused on bringing women back to work is relaunching and providing a boot camp, spread over four weeks, intended to help sharpen participant’s programming skills through hands-on sessions.

There is no one size fits all approach. It’s up to each office to determine what works best. The end goal remains the same: provide a safe space where everyone is welcome and innovation can thrive.

What’s the rose for us can also be the thorn: It can be a challenge for us to keep the organization engaged with a large portion of our people moving from office to office. However, when it’s built into the spine of the company, it never becomes secondary to the work, it’s just simply a part of it.

About the Interviewee

Louda Peña is the Product Marketing Manager for GoCD at ThoughtWorks. Being a Bay Area native, Louda has acquired a deep love for California and all the diversity that it has to offer. During her professional career, Louda leveraged the art of marketing and technology in order to build a company before working for ThoughtWorks. These unique experiences fueled her keen ability to delve into projects in a much more strategic way. In her personal life, Louda is an avid traveler, tequila connoisseur, and motorcycle enthusiast. You can mostly easily find her spending time with her wife, daughter or hiking around her family’s ranch.

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