Embracing Diversity in Engineering Teams: Unleashing the Power
Short foreword: Thank you Clare Sayas Ronning for all your input on this piece. It took longer than expected until I felt ready to publish. Your insights are gold and this article would not be half as good without your feedback in input.
“CEB research found that in a more diverse and inclusive workforce, individual discretionary effort improves by 12%, intent to stay improves by 20%, and team collaboration and commitment improve by about 50%.” (Source: Gartner / CEB Study)
*Diversity* – a term often echoed in today's corporate landscape, encompassing a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. When it comes to engineering teams, recognizing the immeasurable value of diversity becomes even more critical. Study after study has conclusively showcased numerous advantages that diverse engineering teams possess, revolutionizing not only the way we work but also the solutions we create.
This article offers valuable insights to hiring managers and leaders, shedding light on how they can actively recruit diverse talent, fostering innovation and growth. No matter whether you are running a company as a CEO or lead a team in a large corporate organization - as a hiring manager you have the power to embrace diversity and foster it in your very own scope.
Diversity in engineering teams refers to having a wide range of individuals from different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, genders, ethnicities, and perspectives working together towards a common goal. It involves fostering inclusion and promoting equality, ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute and succeed.
Diversity brings various benefits, such as increased creativity, innovation, problem-solving abilities, and better decision-making. Always keep in mind that embracing diversity not only opens up your talent pool but in a globalized world, your diverse team also represents the diversity of your customers - both in B2C and B2B segments.
Hiring Manager / Leadership Perspective
For the past 20+ years, I had the pleasure to build and lead teams in software and hardware engineering environments. Over time, I developed my own best practices, based upon my experiences, feedback of my teams and valuable input from mentors and friends. I herewith share those with the intent to inspire as much as to learn from readers' feedback.
Advocate for diversity
When I build a team or take over leadership responsibilities in an existing team, my belief in the power of diversity is part of my own onboarding. By clarifying and communicating the “why” - using studies and past examples - I raise awareness of the topic and get into fruitful discussions and exchange with the team. I actively advocate for diversity and inclusion early on.
Job description biases
We all have a certain way of describing and structuring text - like job descriptions. Over the past years I got more and more aware of the biases, a certain way of writing sneaks into job descriptions. Free tools like those from Gender Decoder or Eploy Check my Job offer a great source to check job ads and descriptions towards biases and help to adapt. Research shows, more feminine coded job descriptions will encourage women applicants while it does only have a slight effect on male applications. Additional valuable resources are found on Textio.
Also, I always received positive feedback from very different candidates when openly encouraging applicants to “apply when you do not check all the boxes”. While it might be obvious to the hiring manager, the exhaustive list of skills, pre-requisites and experiences will not be matched 100% - it is often discouraging for potential candidates.
When you have the chance to work with a professional recruiter either in-house or external, she will guide you through the process. And in case you have to face the challenge of writing your job-ad on your own, there are tons of resources available online to familiarize you with fostering diversity already in a job-ad. Lattice is on I happily recommend.
Diverse hiring panels
As humans, we feel most comfortable around people who are like us. When not paying attention to this fact, we create a bubble being the opposite of diverse. Forbes published an interesting article on this subject. As for myself, I love to surround myself with people who challenge me, who are different and smarter than me. (And I like to challenge the people around me, which may not always be my best side….) Being aware of your own unconscious habit, is the first step towards diverse hiring - but even better is bringing up a diverse hiring panel.
When interviewing candidates, my best choices have been made when I included peers and team members with different backgrounds and get their feedback in a neutral way.
Hiring a diverse team requires diversity being a top priority. As much as attitude and certain skills, diversity needs to be on the same level - otherwise it will always fall behind. When hiring, I always have a look at the whole team, their backgrounds and personalities, and have a set of best-matching diversity attributes in mind. Especially while reviewing candidates early on based upon CV, I include diverse candidates who may not check some other boxes (as mentioned above, it is unlikely to find someone having it all!) - their background, experience and attitude may well make up for a lack of hard skill which could be learnt.
Acknowledge, that hiring diverse will take time. When hiring in central Europe for a Senior Mechanical Engineer position, the vast majority of candidates will likely be central european male candidates in their mid-to-late 30s - and likely there will be candidates with great track records of work. Fostering diversity also means to pass on those candidates who would perfectly fit with their set of hard skills.
It is tempting to give in, especially when under time pressure. And usually there is time pressure when there is an open position. I figured there are 2 main countermeasures, I use:
First - refer back to the “Why” - there is a reason behind hiring diversity which is as important as the hard skills - give priority.
Second: I always have a network of external contractors and consultants who help me bridging time. And while this helps to overcome the time pressure, it also allows to more frequently work with the external network to tighten bonds and processes - it will need an external network anyway to stay flexible, include special knowledge and grow internal expertise.
Employee view - Do’s and Don’ts - How to truly go diverse
Hiring for diversity is a complicated subject and most likely will not run smoothly from the very beginning. While meant well, some aspects may cause discomfort for others. So it did (and still does) for me. It is a constant learning and embracing failure and fostering feedback to learn and improve is the far better way than tip-toeing around decisions.
I was introduced by Clare to the book “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer and it is an excellent starting point to familiarize with diversity for organizational success. And when you think, you know it all - just read it anyway.
The following points are based upon my own experiences and even more on feedback from my former team members & colleagues.
Do: Acknowledge cultural diversity like holidays, food, traditions
When I am working with international teams, I learnt that acknowledging and giving room for diverse traditions always was a mutual joy and benefit. Tasting the sweet hospitality gift of turkish interns and the smoky wilderness of homemade northern-german BBQ sauce from an senior engineer - that's making great little team events. And acknowledging muslim holidays ensured in return the most reliable on-call-duty engineer during Christmas time in Germany. Talk to each other.
Do: Make it daily business life
Diversity in teams and embracing its chances does not come automatically. It needs continuous attention from leadership and the team to grow. A good measure for visibility and serious commitment is integrating the topic in daily business life e.g. as part of feedback, mentorship programs, dedicated KPI, representation in meetings inside & outside of the organization and events celebrating diversity.
Do: Language matters
Especially in Germany, I feel the language barrier is a burden to some managers and teams to start hiring diversely in the context of international backgrounds. And yes, it is not easy - neither for the new team member nor for the team. Acknowledge it! And start talking together (!) on how to ease it - language courses on both ends may be a good starting point!
Do: LGBTQIA+ resource groups
Employee led groups acting as safe space, support group for the community and fostering education about the challenges the group faces have proven its worth. Encourage the engagement of your employees! Here is some additional information from Goodera.
Don’t: Lean into “the one person” considered bringing diversity
As mentioned, hiring diverse people takes time and commitment. It seems all too easy to lean into tokenism. Celebrating the one hired from a minority group over and over again is not diversity - and won’t do good for anyone. Vanderbilt gives some background on tokenism and what to do about it in this article.
Final Words - Education and Dialogue
Being born and raised in Germany, my main professional experience comes with a background being based in Germany. Speaking to friends, family, team members and colleagues but also business partners and business contacts when walking trade shows etc highlights one thing - diversity is not yet embraced here and considering Germany as an immigrant nation is far from being accepted in the wide.
Let me cite Clare here, since she expressed it better than I could do and I am in full agreement: “There is a lot of work to be done, but the first step in my opinion is to start the dialogue. I think much of German business can be quite insular; there are people at the top who have never had meaningful interactions with people different from them. So getting more people in the door of different backgrounds, and giving them the time, space and training to contribute is essential.”
And starting it is all in our own hands, no matter the level we are working in. No excuse. Go for it.