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From Program to Process, Designing for Equity in the Workplace



Aubrey Blanche discusses how to evolve a program to create fair experiences for every employee and build better, safer products.


Aubrey Blanche is The Mathpath (Math Nerd + Empath), Director of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp, and a startup investor and advisor. She is the inventor of the balanced teams approach to building proportional representation and a culture of belonging in the workplace, as well as the Balanced Teams Diversity Assessment in the Atlassian Team Playbook.

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Blanche: I'm so excited to welcome you to talk about how to build more equitable organizations and products. Before we get started, how many folks here would say I care about diversity? How about, in the last week, I've taken action to include someone? How about, I have an active practice of equitable design. I'm here to tell you that what I see most often is that lots of folks will say that they care about diversity. To be honest, care doesn't mean shit if you're not taking action. Because when you say I care about diversity, without taking action or perhaps developing a practice of equitable design, you're making yourself feel better, while still making sure that opportunities aren't given to people who deserve it. What we're going to do here, is talk about ways that we can move that care to action and to real change.

First, I want to ground us in why we're here. That's because of people, because there's an incredible, diverse set of human beings in the world who have different perspectives, ways of thinking, working, and building. The way that we've traditionally done things doesn't take into account their brilliance and their capability, and keeps that from being expressed in the world. We need to do something different.

Roman Aqueducts Analogy

I want to talk a little bit about Roman architecture. Yes, I know that's where you thought this is going. What you're seeing here are the Roman aqueducts, which are incredible feats of human engineering. They carried water from outside of ancient Rome into the city to allow it to support a significantly larger population than they would have otherwise. There's something we often don't talk about with the aqueducts. That's that the pipes in them, just like in Flint, Michigan, were lined with lead. I want you to think about your organization. I want you to think about your processes, the way that you build products. Those things, those processes are like the pipes. They're lined with racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and all your other favorite isms. Our work as equitable designers, as people who want to create diversity in the workplace is to get the lead out, get the ist out.


I am a mixed indigenous and white woman raised in a native and white household. I'm a healer and a get-it'er. I'm a social justice advocate, and a social scientist. I'm a math nerd and I'm an empath. They call me the mathpath. I'm also the director of equitable design and impact at Culture Amp. I spent nearly a decade working in the tech and financial systems to help make them more equitable. This is a lot of what I've learned from that work.

Where We've Been, Where We're Going

Let's ground ourselves in where we've been, so we can see where we're going. Like I care about diversity, the time for statements of intention, not good enough. We're moving to a world in which we take accountability for the outcomes we achieve or don't, and keep learning from them. We're moving from thinking about D&I programs, so checking the box, do I have ERGs? Do we have leadership programs? To structurally redesigning our organizations. Asking thoughtful questions about what's true. Developing interventions based on research. Then, re-measuring and listening to the organization to see if our interventions worked and created more equity in the outcomes. We're also beginning to think less about companies and talk more about teams. The reason for that is pretty simple. We know that in order to take action, people need to feel empowered to create change. Your average mid-level manager when you ask them to say, "Empower women." Their answer might be, "What do I do? Buy Dove deodorant?" They aren't necessarily sure what they can do to change the culture of the whole company. They can almost immediately change the culture of their team. If everyone took responsibility for changing their team, the whole company would shift.

Equitable Design Principles

I want to talk a little bit about the design principles I use to do equitable design. The first is consent. It's really important as we do this work to make sure that people aren't being coerced. Whether that's making sure that people are compensated for their time doing DEI work, or making sure they don't feel pressured to do it outside of their regular jobs. Like how we tend to use our black colleagues as racism tech support, instead of doing the Googling on our own. Don't do that. Next, marginality. As we design, we think about designing for the margin, for the edge case, except we flip it and we don't think about it as an edge case, but rather a stress case. An idea here would be designing for disabled, black women, instead of starting with gender in your DEI programs. Because what we know is when we start with gender, we really only build programs that support straight, cisgender, economically privileged women. Frankly, that's just not good enough. Designing for the edge, we don't break ourselves into us versus them camps, we design for we, and everyone rises together. Community. We rely on the community to tell us what's happening with them, but also to help us generate solutions for what they need. Know that this isn't about an individual hero, but of us all working together and doing each of our parts. Then, our role in that community is different based on who we are, and the power, role, and resources we hold. The last is progression. Borrowing a little bit from agile, this is not a one and done job. We're constantly learning, iterating, asking more questions, and moving towards our idea of perfection. We're interested in progress over that perfect solution, because we know that the more access and space we create, the faster we'll move, over time.

Does This Help Create Equal Power or Opportunity?

If there's one question that could animate all of this work for you, it would be, does this help create equal power and equal opportunity? If you ask that in every choice you make in business, in every process that you design, in every survey that you run, every product that you launch, what you'll find is that you'll be doing equitable design.

Start With You

Before we get into how we do this within systems, I have to talk about how it starts with you. The first step is to know yourself. If you were one of those folks who were saying, "I care about diversity," but no to, "I've taken intentional action to include someone this week." It's really important to know why. The why is crucial, because if you don't know what's blocked you before, you'll run into that same roadblock again. Maybe it was a lack of interest. It was a little bit of privilege that you could look away. Maybe it was a lack of knowledge. This is a moment where shame and other feelings could come up. I encourage you to, one, read some Brené Brown, but, two, let those feelings sit with you, but don't sit with shame. Guilt can be motivating, so use that. Understand that while you've made some choices that might not be the ones you're proud of today, in the past, you don't have to make those choices in the future. That's a really powerful place to be.

Next, we have to question everything. So much of the way that we do things is because people didn't care or didn't know about the outcomes of their actions. Always ask, why can't we choose differently? The answer is, we almost always can. Next, I want to be really clear, you already know how to do this. It requires the skills you already have: budgeting, goal setting, execution. These are things you know, but maybe what you need is to fill in that knowledge gap and fill in those perspectives. Again, going back to our third principle, you get that from community.

Take Rest, Don't Quit

I want to be really honest, that you can't do this work from a purely intellectual standpoint. This requires deep empathy, feeling and connection with other people, and that can be exhausting. I want to acknowledge that taking rest is a critical part of this journey. Taking rest is different than tapping out. Make sure that when you take rest, you know what you're doing so that you can tap yourself back in. Because there are so many people that we work for and with, who don't have those options to quit, and so we have to figure out how to keep going too.

Defining Outcomes

I want to talk a little bit about the language we use in this space. Something I'm a little famous for is that I actually hate the word diversity. There's a couple of reasons. First, it's so blurry that it means almost nothing. The word diversity for a long time has helped us get away with corporate white feminism, when pretending, for example, that we're pushing for black equity. I would encourage you to get away from this word and use the specific words that you mean. Are you talking about anti-racism, access and disability, gender equity? Be specific, it's a lot more powerful. Inclusion. I talk a lot about inclusion, and how to measure it and all of that. I would welcome you to think that being included is the bare minimum of acceptable. It's like saying that we tolerate difference, as opposed to celebrate it. Ultimately, we want to get to something a little deeper, and that's belonging. Think about creating a space where people can belong, where they're seen, appreciated, and valued for who they are, not just included in a space that wasn't meant for them. Think about creating a process of equity rather than focusing on the outcome of diversity. Why does this work? Because it turns out that when we focus on creating equitable processes, the outcome is representation. We get there the right way, not by just slapping a couple people of color on our careers page, but actually fundamentally rethinking the way that we hire and build to create authentic representation, where people's brilliance can be brought in and brought to bear on the problems we're solving.

The New Playbook - Effective Assessments

I want to talk about the new playbook and how we're going to do this. I want to talk about assessments, because we do them when we're hiring for performance, thinking about high potential leadership programs, or maybe even just doing user research interviews. There are some core components to designing effective assessments. You'll see how this comes back to design and some really basic measurement. First, we have to define the outcomes we want. In hiring, that might look like the ability to do x, not, so and so went to a fancy school. That's a terrible proxy for ability. We want to make sure that our processes are structured and documented. We know that the more wiggle room we have the more human biases creep into our processes. The more structure we can provide for people, the more objective and the more clear we can help them be. Anything that we do needs to be audited. Because we know even when we design with the best intention, it doesn't always achieve the outcome we want. Because, remember, no one solves structural exclusion at scale, and so we need to make sure that we're keeping ourselves honest, not just at the beginning but over time to make sure that the systems aren't veering off their intended purpose. The last, we need to make sure there are feedback loops for the individuals involved, whether that's end users of products, employees being assessed on their performance, or candidates in a firm.

Does This Assessment Measure Privilege or Ability?

To take that question we asked earlier, to flip it into an assessment question we would say, does this assessment measure privilege or ability? For example, in the U.S., we know that going to a top 25 school, the best predictor of that is how much money your parents make, not how incredible you are, not the ideas you have, not the hard work that you've put in. Again, focusing on those outcomes.

Example - Hiring

Let's give a little bit of an example from hiring. First, we determine the skills that we need someone to have not the particular experiences that got them there. Because we know that you get the same skills from making sure your kids get to daycare, dance in school, and getting dinner on the table as you do running a global P&L. That's complex stakeholder management of your time and financial constraints. Again, thinking about skills, not having a narrow view of what experiences get you those skills. Then, design an assessment that allows someone to show their capability without making assumptions about what they know, or especially, skills that can be coached. No computer science pop trivia here. Then, write a better job ad. There's incredible resources out there to show you how language changes who thinks that they can apply. If you want to hire the best people, you can't be biasing yourself.

Collect data on who's applying and your passthrough rates. Making sure that you're not seeing huge variations there. If you see women of color are dropping out at the onsite interview, it's probably not because they're not capable, it's because you've designed something poorly to capture their brilliance. Go back, re-look, maybe tweak. Audit your passthrough rates. As you're collecting that data, look for what's happening in the funnel, whether that's a sales funnel, or here, a hiring funnel. Optionally, you could add something like a reassessment path that would allow for people who dropped out but you think they may have been a victim of the system to take a look again. It doesn't mean you'd necessarily change your decision, but making sure helps you have a more objective overall process, which creates equitable outcomes for people coming to your organization.

Example - Perform Review

Let's adapt that for a performance review. Design your assessment. Test the system. Maybe you do some mock trials with it with some managers. See if you have huge variations in how people show up or how they're rated. If you do, maybe you need to redesign. Audit the system when it's live. This is so important. I can't stress it enough. If you can do it just in time before things are locked, the better, but reactive is better than nothing. If you're doing performance, reveal your audits if possible, to the calibration groups. It turns out that providing transparency helps reduce bias and helps people make those more objective decisions. Re-audit your final outcomes. Make sure that you didn't human bias it by slipping it in. Again, we're always checking our work. Enable employees to challenge inequity when they feel that they've experienced it. Giving people power over outcomes is a great way to enable procedural justice, but also to actually make people more accepting of the outcomes of the process, even if they're not the ones they would have liked.

Leading Your Team

I want to dive into a couple of ways that you equitably design team meetings and one on one interactions. First, meetings. Balance the attendees. Make sure everyone should be there and they don't all match. That probably means you don't need to think just about seniority, but also about specialty or life experience. Send agendas. This helps people prepare, but also make sure your meeting is actually just a worthwhile thing to have. Make sure that you interrupt the interrupters. We know that underrepresented people are more likely to be interrupted and have their ideas co-opted. It's also just plain rude. Rotate the housework. Don't ask for volunteers, put folks on a schedule. Certain folks are socialized to serve more and that's no good. Also, consider challenging the devil's advocate. A lot of times, especially when people bring their personal experience in, people like to debate it. That's not really on equal playing ground when one person's lived experience is up against one person's thought exercise. It's not nice, don't do it.

Now, one on ones. To build a trusting and equitable relationship, try this. First, share your intention. Let people know what you're trying to do. If you're having feelings about the whole process, process with your people. Don't ask people who are different from you, those that you're looking to support across a line of difference to process your feelings. A good example of that is this year, asking black folks to process white, or white passing like myself, folks' feelings. In that case, process at the color line. Ask for feedback and demonstrate that you can take it. Say thank you. Adjust your behavior. That will help you align your impact with your intention, and ultimately, your intention doesn't matter if your impact was way off. Accept that trust takes time and people might not do it right away. That shouldn't change that you're still trying to equitably design your relationships and your actions. Stay aware and check in. Know that building a relationship in trust means you have to care about the person and their broader community. Update your Twitter feed. Change your news sources. Make sure that you're reaching out thoughtfully when something happens that might impact them. They may not want your support, but knowing it's there can be important.


My ask of you is to make it real. You are the person who can change the world, you can change your sphere of influence. I hope that you do. The thing is, this doesn't require you up and in your whole life, but taking every little choice that you're making and adjust it by 1% to create a little bit more equity. If we all did that, the world would be a lot better place. You already have the skills, the community has the knowledge, and we can do this together.


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Recorded at:

Jun 23, 2021

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