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Portrait: Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian

Creating an equal playing field is about more than just teaching someone coding skills

Gabriela Motroc
diversity
Hands of woman image via Shutterstock

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian.

Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian

Aubrey Blanche is the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian. She got into tech completely by accident — she was working toward Ph.D. at Stanford and realized that wasn’t the correct path for her, and the tech industry was next door. So she ended up in technology because she needed a job, but it turned out that she loved it.

She has always been fascinated by “how things work.” Her first role was at an enterprise software company, basically explaining how the software worked to customers. From there, she moved into diversity and inclusion (D&I) purely out of a frustration with the severe demographic imbalances in the industry, and what she felt was a lack of social scientific work in the area. Now, she gets to approach solving issues of representation from a firm foundation in empirical research, while making it possible for people from all backgrounds to join and be successful at Atlassian.

Aubrey started college with a focus on vocal performance, but graduated with a degree in Journalism and Political Science, with a focus in Middle Eastern languages (Arabic and Farsi, which she does not speak well anymore). Then, she went to get her Ph.D. in Political Science studying government contracting, left, and ended up in the tech industry.

In hindsight though, each piece of that journey provided me the tools for the work I’m doing now.

Aubrey’s ultimate goal

My mom is my hero. I wrote about this in depth in my Medium essay but the long and short of it is that, with no college degree, my mom bootstrapped a successful business, all while caring for her family and adopting her daughter (me!). She was my first introduction to entrepreneurship, nd has shown me what perseverance really looks like. My ultimate goal is to do enough good in the world to make her proud.

But I also couldn’t have accomplished what I have without the help of the teams around me. Sometimes that was my family, who relentlessly told me I could do anything I wanted, or it was my friends and peers who helped me understand how to learn while in school. Now, I rely on my teammates at Atlassian to help me get s#!% done, and to help set an example of how our entire industry can be more thoughtful, precise and impactful with D&I work.

Although no one ever stopped me, there have been times when it felt like things were more challenging because of my gender. I had a professor once say he struggled taking on female students because he couldn’t do things like talk about their research over dinner, and so he avoided taking them on altogether. Apparently, it never occurred to him to simply not discuss research over dinner to level the playing field.

A day in Aubrey Blanche’s life

My job is to work with leaders across our business to understand what could be holding our teams back from achieving the level of D&I we’d all like to see, and then to help design interventions so people of all backgrounds have an equal chance to join Atlassian, and to succeed once they’re here. My formal job title is Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, but I tend to focus more on the problem I’m trying to solve than what my title is. Thinking of me as an “HR person” limits the ways that I can approach problem-solving.

I’m not sure I have a typical day, which is a part of the fun. But the one constant is my hunger to know more about the space I live and breathe. This generally manifests itself in my morning Twitter and Medium habit, two accounts I’ve largely curated to surface all of the news coming out of tech D&I. I’ve intentionally curated a set of diverse voices to help me think more broadly and to have empathy and understanding for a broader set of people. My “typical” day can include anything from a brainstorming session about how to develop and measure the impact of a new leadership program, giving a briefing on how our unique approach to measuring diversity can help move the needle, or researching the best way to evaluate candidates so we’re able to hire the right people for Atlassian.

Diversity of thought really does make a difference.

I’m incredibly proud of the work my team has done to improve the way we measure workforce diversity and prove that diversity of thought really does make a difference. Last year, we introduced a new paradigm in the way we measure diversity, and that’s at the team level. You can check out our team-level analysis at atlassian.com/diversity. Using the team as the unit of analysis felt natural, and came out of discussions with our D&I, Comms, Engineering, and HR teams trying to understanding the best way for us to goal set and measure progress. 

Additionally, one of our most exciting new programs at Atlassian, and one that I’ve been proudest to help launch focuses specifically on the challenges and unique strength of women of color. Atlassian is helping to make our teams more diverse by running a “high touch” scholarship program for Black, Latina, and Indigenous women through the Galvanize Full Stack Program. Creating an equal playing field is about more than just teaching someone coding skills. It’s also about equipping them with the resilience to overcome challenges, growing their professional networks, and helping them cut their teeth on early-career learning experiences. The program we’ve worked to set up goes beyond financial assistance, as recipients are paired up with an Atlassian developer to act as a mentor and cheerleader throughout the process. Our recruiting staff also works with recipients to set them up for success after the program and offer them a paid internship at Atlassian.

This program is a huge step in the right direction towards diversity and inclusion at Atlassian, and we hope to continue developing and fostering programs such as these in the future. I couldn’t be more proud to see it come to fruition. Our first recipient is already working as a full-time developer at Atlassian.

Factors that contribute to low representation of women and minorities in tech

There are a number of different factors that contribute to low representation of women and minorities in tech. We’ve heard the commonly cited “talent pipeline” issue but this idea fails to account for the industry’s effect on that number and the fact there are significantly more underrepresented minorities (e.g., women, racial minorities, etc.) in technical training programs than are currently employed in tech. Before we can meaningfully talk about a “pipeline problem,” we have to effectively employ the pipeline that already exists.

Which leads us to access. Access to education in technical fields are crucial factors that motivate individuals to choose a career in technology. Students must be presented with technology as a viable, interesting career option to choose it down the road. In many schools, there is simply no access to technical education, and this is more likely for schools that serve primarily minority students. 

Even where good STEM education exists, teachers show a subtle bias for male students in math and science, which translates into internalized attitudes about who has potential to succeed in technology. Another area we need to address is our unconscious bias, caused by culturally relevant stereotypes, which can lead companies to under-hire from existing talent pools, and which are strong drivers of high rates of attrition for members of underrepresented groups, such as women.

And lastly, tech culture — from increasingly long hour to events focused on alcohol or cutthroat competition — can be very exclusive of women and other people who don’t fit the “tech mold.” More than 50% of technical women leave the industry by mid-career in the United States, and they overwhelmingly cite the culture as the key culprit. We need to focus on building truly inclusive cultures if we’re going to see more women participate in tech.  

Unconscious bias can lead companies to under-hire from existing talent pools.

How can we unlock the value of diversity?

We first need to solve for two very important questions: what does success really look like, and how do we measure progress? Take, for example, a recent survey Atlassian ran of more than 1,400 tech workers to understand how they feel about D&I: roughly 94% gave the industry, their company, and their teams a passing grade, and roughly 50% said no improvements were needed at their companies across many demographics such as race, age, gender, etc.

Now compare that with the industry makeup: General consensus is only about 2% of the tech workforce is Black and 3% Latino, while 24% of the technical workforce identifies as female. Clearly, we need to do a better job of first defining what success looks like (see my blog for more on that) and educating people about what we’re really working toward.

Then we need to improve the way we measure progress. For example, many companies today use their overall corporate diversity metrics to track change, but while this was a great first step toward transparency, it’s not sensitive enough to indicate whether the value of diversity is being unlocked or whether even small degrees of progress are being made. 

The truth is, no one company is going to solve this critical issue on its own. It’s an industry-wide issue that needs an industry-wide solution. We all need to continue to strive for transparency and improvement, share our learnings along the way, use better ways to track and measure success and work together as an industry to achieve the truly equitable outcomes we all want to see.

Tips & tricks to make it in tech

For women who are entering tech, I would tell them:

  • Do your research. Just looking at corporate diversity numbers won’t tell you how welcoming and supportive of diversity any given company is.
  • Educate yourself. Read about the common behavioral patterns driven by bias, and read about the confidence gap. I’ve found that when women understand these patterns are common, they’re better able to deal with any self-doubt that might come up.
  • Find your people. Having a community of people you trust–whether at your company or not, but preferably both–is for most people a huge driver of staying in technology.
  • Pay it forward. It can be challenging to help others when you see yourself as outnumbered, but in order to really make progress, we all need to work together.
  • Have fun. Take some time once a week to do something with your craft that makes you happy. Doesn’t just get caught up in the daily grind.

 

Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is an online editor for JAXenter.com. Before working at S&S Media she studied International Communication Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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