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Working for a Unicorn: A Gender Aware Office

Lola Pierson
March 27, 2014

If we all think about gender more now, then in the future we can all think about it less.

For a lot of companies gender only becomes a priority topic when something has gone wrong. If you believe in equality for all and try to treat everyone equally it can be difficult to understand the strong impact of things like microaggressions and slighting language. Thinking about this stuff can be exhausting, I know it can. And when gender issues arise in the workplace it can seem like it's an endless drain. One of the reasons I was so intent upon responding to the GitHub gender debacle is because it can sometimes feel like topics like gender dynamics get raised in the tech world and everyone heaves a collective sigh: "are we still talking about gender in 2014?"

But here's the thing: this is a problem with a solution! This problem actually has many solutions!

There is a way to make a working environment where everyone feels valued and like diversity is an asset, not a liability. I know this kind of working environment is possible and exists and not just a theoretical reality and I know that because I work there. And even though it feels magical it’s actual not magic. It’s a practical reality created by my teammates.

Here are some of the things that the Figure 53 team does to create this reality:

1) We think and talk about gender.

This might seem pretty basic, but it’s actually not for a lot of people. On my first day of work we went to lunch and had a long talk about gender dynamics in the tech industry. We talked about why there aren’t more women coders and about openly hostile work environments. We talked about what can be done to change those realities. We talked about how at that time I would be the only female employee and about how we would all need to be aware of how that could impact the gender dynamics. It might not sound like great first-day-of-work-small-talk, but it actually was great. We were talking about ways that I could be comfortable and I didn’t have to initiate the conversation. My teammates are laid back and amazing people, but on my first day of work I had no way of knowing that. I had no way of knowing whether or not bringing up gender would brand me as a self interested feminist who only ever wants to talk about gender. Having been around longer my teammates (and boss) were in a position of power and they chose to use that power to bring up an uncomfortable topic and make sure we were all on the same page.

2) We never assume that gender dynamics are figured out and settled.

Workplace environments are constantly shifting, especially in the tech industry. Employee turnover, various project stages, sales cycles, and even individual moods are all constantly changing. These changes have a direct impact on all of the dynamics of the company including gender dynamics. At Figure 53 when we heard about Horvath’s recent accusations about GitHub we took that as an opportunity to look at our own company. Rather than separating ourselves from the evil unknown enforcers of sexism we took the time to look at the way we do things and talked about what we could maybe do better in the future. This kind of self evaluation is key for ensuring that sneaky sexism doesn’t sneak into even the most well intentioned environments. When we heard about GitHub our response wasn’t “that could never happen here,” but rather “what can we do to continue to make sure that could never happen here?”

As a result:

3) Our policies evolve as our company does.

Right now Figure 53 is still relatively small, but we are growing. Our discussions about our growth always include a discussion about how we continue to ensure a safe and comfortable working environment. Our task isn’t easy: how do we create a safe and comfortable workplace when there are no rules and we all basically do what we think is best? Specifically for our next stage of growth we’re adding concrete HR responsibilities to an employee’s job description so that we have a dedicated and experienced teammate who can serve as a mediator if any uncomfortable situations arise, but we’re still evaluating even that. We’re constantly asking ourselves, "is that enough at this stage? Do we need to do more?"

4) We pay attention to what isn't working.

It's not that everyone at Figure 53 behaves perfectly all of the time with perfect awareness of all perspectives and all social dynamics for all of the various demographics in the whole entire world. You can’t reasonably expect that from anyone or any workplace. Humans comprise companies and humans make mistakes. I’m not saying that our workplace is always perfect (though it is close). I’m saying that if there is an inappropriate offhand comment or a faulty assumption of some kind then I’m not the only one who notices. And I’m certainly not the only one who responds to those moments. When the GitHub gender issues resurfaced last week we had a long talk about them in the office. And when I told my boss I’d like to spend the day writing a blog post about gender in the tech industry he immediately responded “absolutely!”

5) Everyone’s experience is valued.

It can be easy in specialized industries (such as tech) to unintentionally silence or ignore the voices and opinions of women or minorities in the name of efficiency. I’m not a programmer and I’m not a designer. Last year I completed my MFA in theatre, which cemented my resume as the least useful object for getting a job in the tech industry ever, with the possible exception of my diploma in Human Rights and Playwriting from my undergrad. I’m currently the only woman at Figure 53, and I also have a completely different skillset from the rest of my teammates. This situation has the potential to lead to a disregard for my opinions because of my lack of a certain type of technical knowledge (as it has in my previous experience), but part of our Figure 53 culture is rooted in the idea that various viewpoints from varied experiences make a product stronger. I can’t write a line of code, but I eat, sleep, and breathe theatre, which means my opinions on making products for theatre can provide a different perspective. Because my ideas are listened to and considered our products are better and I feel valued and respected. These two states don’t work against each other, they work in tandem.

All of these things add up.

We’re not perfect yet. Maybe we never will be. We’ve noticed our small crew is rather homogeneous and we’re working to correct that. We’re actually working to correct that by talking about practical steps we can take to diversify. It is easy to say “we value diversity: women and minority voices are important to us.” It’s harder to actually expand our pool and hire from those groups. It’s easy to believe in equality, it’s harder to actually divert resources for its implementation.

I say this to you now with no exaggeration: I have never, not once, felt that my work was undervalued because of my gender at Figure 53. That statement may not be all that shocking to you if you’ve never been treated differently because of your gender, but in my experience Figure 53 is a unicorn. But that doesn’t mean other places can’t be unicorns too. My differences aren’t seen as an obstacle to the progress of the company because they are embraced as being integral to the company’s success and personality. My workplace is a safe haven for me where I can just get work done, and as a result I’m more productive than I have been at any other job. Since all of my teammates are thinking about gender a little more I can think about it a little less. There’s an intentionality behind our culture just like there’s an intentionality behind our products. I hope one day we can all think about gender bias much less and focus even more on making and selling interesting and cool products. It won’t happen accidentally and it will take a lot of work, but every company has the potential to be a unicorn and I like to think that Figure 53 is leading the way.