Building a Culture of Inclusivity
Today’s blog post is written by Emma Smith, Designer & Creative Technologist, PatronManager.
Let me set the scene. The Director of Engineering was pacing up and down the aisle of desks, casually checking in to see what everyone was working on, all the while muttering a question under his breath: Is Steve wearing makeup and nail polish?
Steve wasn’t wearing makeup, but I was, or at least I had been the night before. I snuck off to the restroom to double-check that I’d washed it all off, my mind racing about the letter I’d sent to HR the week prior, coming out as transgender, and asking for support. They never responded.
At that point, I was “out” everywhere but at work. I loved my job. I got to work with smart people solving tough problems. It was one of those tech jobs that’s almost absurdly cushy. Every morning we ate a catered Scandinavian breakfast. From my desk, I could see all the way up the East River. The job was fantastic in all respects but one: I had to erase myself to be there, which in turn, erased all that was good about the job.
Who knows? Maybe that odd inquiry into makeup habits had nothing to do with me. Maybe I was just paranoid. Even so, why was I paranoid at my job to begin with? New York State law was clearly on my side. But that meant almost nothing in this environment where the culture wasn’t there. So when someone from PatronManager reached out to me and said I might be a good fit for a new position there, I jumped at the chance.
I just celebrated my one-year anniversary with PatronManager. I’ve been thinking back to my first week on the job, which was wonderful in the strangest of ways. Those early days were filled with the most ordinary events one can imagine. In fact, those days were so common to life in an office that I struggle to describe them in an interesting way: The Product Team had me weigh in on designs for a mobile app. Our engineers walked me through the nuts and bolts of how our software is built. I went hunting for sticky notes. They were very well hidden, but someone from the implementation team helped me find my way to a little beige cabinet in the hall.
It was fabulous, that week of non-events. Does this sound strange? I suppose it might, but after years of standing apart, it was life-changing to feel “normal.” Those ordinary hours returned me to my humanity, for what could be more human than to be one of many, working together for a common purpose?
Bit by bit, I got used to it. It was strange not to worry about locking myself in a closet. Strange and wonderful. I was filled with joy. All that energy I’d spent to maintain that wall was suddenly freed to do better things.
There is much talk these days about diversity and inclusivity. This conversation is, of course, long overdue. But the point I’m trying to make here is about something slightly different. Inclusivity at work is almost always framed in terms of anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and sensitivity training. Good policies are essential, but they are just the bones. Without the living flesh, blood, and breath of culture, they are nothing but a skeleton.
Laws and policies make a space safe, protecting us against the worst of the worst. A good culture, though, makes a place livable. When I finally found my way to a place that was livable, I began to thrive. It’s strange how little we really need. There’s a knock at the door, someone calling you by your true name. With no particular effort, suddenly there comes forth a tremendous amount of energy, joy, and creativity. The human person is incredibly resilient, but we’re really not meant to be split in two. Given half a chance to live in integrity with who we really are, we thrive. It’s the simplest thing in the world. And it’s huge.
A friend of mine who does recruiting for a large tech company recently asked me what can be done about the problem of diversity in tech. Of course, I do not know. Probably no one knows. In some sense, we’re trying to solve the problem of centuries of human history.
After a moment of thought, I offered this: “Put as much energy into hiring allies as you do into seeking out diverse candidates.” A good culture cannot be legislated, but it rubs off. Pack the house with enough allies, and give those who are a little behind a chance to catch up.
We trans people know what good culture looks like. We can spot it from a mile away. Our lives depend on it. Make a good culture, and when you do, we’ll show up, and we’ll be incredible.