Within tech, we definitely have a diversity problem. And the negative impact of an industry devoid of diversity means we all suffer.
In this episode of the True North podcast, I talk to Jeff Gothelf, Andy Budd, Jared Spool, and Georgie Bottomley about what we can do to fix this problem.
Ben Newton: Hi. We don’t have any jokes or a fancy intro for you this episode, but that’s not because we’re lazy. Rather it’s because we’ve got something special for you. Over the last few weeks we’ve been speaking with some of the biggest names in UX about what they think are the most important issues in the design and UX industry. Names like Jeff Gothelf, Andy Budd, and…
Jared Spool: Well, my name is Jared Spool. Or I am Jared Spool. One of those. I am Jared Spool and my name is Jared Spool, which is a hell of a coincidence.
Ben: We’ll hear more from Jared and the others later in this and future episodes. We’re excited to bring you a miniseries where we hear their thoughts on the future of design, the problems within the design and UX education systems, and in this episode we’re going to look at the issue of diversity. To help us explore diversity we spoke to this person.
Georgie Bottomley: I’m Georgie Bottomley. I am currently working at Atlassian as a UX researcher and I also co-founded Ladies That UX, a monthly meetup for women that work in the UX space. One of the big problems we’ve seen for women in the industry—but I think this is true probably for anybody who is a minority within our industry—is the old adage if you can’t see it you can’t be it. I certainly know when I started in the industry I had no role models and I had quite a crash of confidence, to be honest with you, when I kind of turned around one day and thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never met another woman that does my job.” You know? “Do they even exist? Have I picked a career where, you know, I can’t succeed and I can’t excel?”
Ben: Despite her early concerns, Georgie is someone who’s excelling in her work and is widely admired by her peers. She’s also someone who is actively doing things to address a specific area of diversity, being gender. So now have a quick dance to the theme music, and let’s get into the story.
Hi and welcome to True North. My name is Ben Newton and I’m from Loop 11. This is the podcast where we share stories of discovery and innovation. So as I mentioned today we’re going to discuss the multi-faceted issue of diversity. The first hurdle we as a podcast needed to face was were we failing the Bechdel test?
Andy: So the Bechdel test is a thing they use in movies and basically it’s like, “Does this movie have 2 women talking to each other about a subject that isn’t to do with a man?” So, you know, like a relationship or, you know, my feelings, what have you. But actually is kind of moving the plot forward. And so a lot of people have kind of talked about the kind of conference on the web Bechdel test, which is, “Does your podcast have women on it talking about a subject other than diversity?”
Ben: That’s Andy Budd. He’s a co-founder of the UK agency Clear Lift and is behind conferences UX London and Leading Design. He’s also an internationally-renowned speaker and author.
Andy: What often happens is podcasts or panels or articles will go for months and months and months without having any women onboard and then the only time they have a woman on board is when they want to talk about diversity. So I think it’s kind of a weird balance. I think you have to have more diverse people speaking on a topic of diversity. I think if you have only women on that podcast, I’m sure that’s not what you’re planning, that could look like you’re failing that Bechdel test.
Ben: After a panicked moment of introspection and a rapid review of previous episodes, we realize we passed the Bechdel test. So breathing a grateful sigh of relief the first thing we wanted to do was understand what others thought diversity was.
Georgie: As you’re probably very aware, within tech we definitely have a diversity problem. And diversity, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean what you look like. It actually means an awful lot about how you think.
Ben: That’s Georgie again.
Georgie: One of the problems that we see is that if all of the people in the room think the same they’re gonna analyze a problem in the same way and they’re all gonna come up with very similar, if not the same, solutions. And, actually, in order to do our job better we need to have a diversity of thought within that space so you get different angles on the problem, you have different personal experiences and different backgrounds so you have different ways of understanding what that problem is and how it potentially behaves, and then you also have different systems and ideas for how you can solve that.
Andy: I worry about large tech companies in Silicon Valley where very, very young people with very little life experience get bused down to the campus, they get their laundry done for them, that don’t ever have to leave the campus because they’ve got free food, free massages, free gyms, and then get bused back home at the end of the day. And those people often never… You know, maybe for days or weeks at end never come across people who are different to them.
Ben: What Andy’s talking about here relates to the individuals. But when you have enough situations like these within a company or a department, a kind of hive mind forms.
Andy: I also think you get institutionalized thinking, and I think institutionalized thinking is incredibly dangerous. Many of the companies that have folded over the last 5 or 10 years have folded because of institutionalized thinking. You look at Lehman Brothers, you know, and the thing that sparked the most recent economic crisis if you include the Brexit, which is another form of crazy institutionalized sort of thinking. Or if you look at Kodak, that’s also institutionalized thinking, and institutionalized thinking comes from a lack of diversity of voices and opinions. I mean, I think it’s crazy to try and think you can build tools for billions of people if the people that are building those tools are largely white, middle-class men.
Ben: So you could be forgiven for thinking that companies don’t understand the problems at hand or aren’t even aware of them. And maybe that was the case not long ago, but today the challenge has shifted.
Jeff: I work with a lot of large … medium and large companies these days and I can tell you that it’s at the forefront of all of their conversations.
Ben: That’s Jeff Gothelf, the renowned author of Lean UX and a soon to be released Sense and Respond.
Jeff: I hear it over and over and over again. They are recognizing… There’s a keen awareness from the executive levels all the way down that this is an issue and that there is absolutely an effort being made. Now how long until that impact is felt at the hiring level and others is… It’ll vary by organization. But just sitting in on a lot of conversations lately I can tell you that it’s front and center.
Jared Spool: When you talk to people in industry about the diversity problem, the big thing that you hear is that it’s hard because there’s nobody in the pipeline. Right? Everybody in the pipline is in the over-represented communities already and the under-represented communities are not producing folks. And part of that is the economics of the situation.
Ben: That is Jared Spool. Apart from being one of the pre-eminent figures of the global UX community, he’s also the co-founder of the new school for designers called Center Centre. While preparing for the school’s first intake, Jared was exposed to the difficulties many minorities face before being hired by a company is even a consideration. These issues revolved around paying for their tuition and the associated loans and credit scores they needed.
Jared: And the loan criteria recommendations that we were given was to use people… You know, in the United States we have credit scores that are put together by a company called Fair Isaac. It’s a score called a FICO score. And the medium FICO score for adults in the United States is 723, which means that out of… From a scale of 300 to 800 it means that you probably have less than a 5% chance of defaulting on a loan if your score is 723 or higher, which, as a medium score half the population is higher than 723, half the population is lower than 723. But one of the things we came to learn is that there are certain populations that actually have much lower medium scores.
If you’re in the black community or in the Hispanic community in the United States your medium score is actually closer to 400, which means that you probably have a 60 to 70% chance of defaulting on a loan. So they often don’t get loans and because they can’t establish that they have good credit, because the way these things work you have to have credit to show that you can pay it back. And because they can’t show that they’d pay it back, they are in this position where they can’t get more credit. Right? So it’s this awful downward cycle.
Ben: So as we can see, many people who are categorized as a minority don’t even get a chance to enter the education pipeline. We’ll hear more from Jared later about how Center Centre is looking to address this inequality. But for now we’re gonna hear the story about how Georgie made her way from the theaters of London to the offices of Atlassian. In her own words she got into UX…
Georgie: …completely by accident. So one of the things I love about UX is an awful lot of second-careerists. I think that’s something that’s incredibly lovely and charming and I really hope that we don’t lose that as we’re seeing more and more different educational, I guess, establishments starting to do kind of UX training. So I did my degree in stage management and technical theater, so stage management is very much the person on a production that’s kind of like the glue. So you’re making sure the director has what they need, you’re making sure that the actors turn up on time, you’re there at the side of the stage, you know, handing the actor the prop before they go on to make sure that everything is kind of running smoothly.
I unfortunately broke my back when I was 9 and had fairly extensive surgery when I was 10 and while I’m fine, you know, I can kind of walk around and dance and things, working in theater is incredibly physically intensive. So you do very long hours, you do an awful lot of standing on your feet, it’s quite a bit of heavy lifting, and I got to a stage in my 20s where I just couldn’t really cope physically. So I realized that I needed to find another job. And I had absolutely no idea what that meant or what that might be. Theater had always been, you know, my passion and something that I always dreamed I’d end up in.
And there was never a plan B or a sense of what else I might do. So I funnied about for a bit, I worked in lots of different offices to get a sense of what’s going on. I’d never worked in an office before and I thought they were all exactly the same. I thought they were all gray and everyone wore suits and it was all really boring, and then completely by accident I ended up working at a little digital agency in London. And I walked in on my first day and I went, “Oh my God, I get this. Oh, I understand what’s going on.” Working in tech is just like working in theater. Like, I cannot tell you the similarities. It’s crazy. So you’ve got the techies, which in theater they’re like the lighting and sound people, and in tech kind of the developers.
And then you’ve got the designers that kind of flounce around and, again, they’re the same in both. And you’ve got the directors and you’ve got…You know, it really is so similar. And I walked in and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m home again. I can understand this.” Like, “I can navigate what’s going on.” So I worked with them for a while and I really, really think of that time almost as an apprenticeship. They did end-to-end client services so they’d go in and do the strategy right through to, you know, training the client up on the product. So I got to do a little bit of everything, which was amazing to really get a sense of how a project runs and what’s involved and what needs to happen.
And from that I started getting more and more involved in the kind of strategy, understanding problems, setting direction type place. I was obviously reading a lot and going to lots of meetups and all this kind of stuff and heard this phrase “UX” and thought, “Oh my word, that sounds really interesting.” And so, you know, sort of found my place in the UX space. But, yeah, very much, very much by happy accident I have to say.
Ben: And that happy accident was only the beginning. As we just heard Georgie was a frequenter of industry meetups. And that’s where we jump back into the story.
Georgie: So I kind of realized I was the only woman in the village and went to a local kind of meetup chapter for UX. Again, realized that there were maybe only 3 women in the room and I walked over to the women and sort of asked them and said, “Oh my God,” you know, “Hey,” you know, “Are we the only women in the industry? Have we done something awfully wrong?” And we had a really interesting conversation and that’s probably what started me to think about, “Wow, we are…” Up until that point we were very kind of lone voices in the night. Not really knowing each other, not having that kind of… Like, I guess, that stable foundation behind us saying… Knowing that it was possible, I guess. Just knowing it was possible.
One of the big problems we’ve seen for women in the industry, but I think this is true probably for anybody who is a minority within our industry, is the old adage if you can’t see it you can’t be it. I certainly know when I started in the industry I had no role models and I had quite a crash of confidence, to be honest with you, when I kind of turned around one day and thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never met another woman that does my job.” You know? “Do they even exist? Have I picked a career where, you know, I can’t succeed and I can’t excel?” So going to that meetup and having that initial conversation then prompted me for very selfish reasons to start Ladies That UX.
I wanted to meet other women in the industry, I wanted to know what they were doing and how it was working and, you know, what I could be when I’m a grownup. So that’s very much how and why we started Ladies That UX.
Ben: From that starting point Ladies That UX has grown to be in 50 cities around the world and has a presence in all the major tech hubs. But looking at Georgie’s initial motivations for starting the group, I have to ask, did she find the role model she was looking for?
Georgie: So 3 years in tech is an awful long time. Things move incredibly quickly, the industry changes, but equally people progress in their jobs quite… I guess a lot quicker than other industries within tech. So what was really lovely, the first ever Ladies That UX meetup we had was in Manchester. We went out for a burger and a beer. Lizzy, the other co-founder, and myself were absolutely terrified and, you know, we’d put this event up on Twitter and we had an event page and… And 8 whole women turned up and we were just absolutely beside ourselves because it was 8 women up until that point we didn’t even know existed. And it was quite a mix, and certainly our events are a mix.
So that first event was probably some juniors, some mid-weights, and then probably, I think there was one person there that was looking to transition into UX. And over the years that has changed. I think we still have that, so we still have juniors, mid-weights, and seniors and we will have some women coming along that are looking to transition into the industry. I think certainly with UX becoming as kind of zeitgeisty as it is now, there are a lot of people who are kind of getting onboard and thinking, “Oh, you know, what’s this UX all about? Maybe I should do some of this.” It’s been really lovely for me personally to create these relationships with other women in the industry and see them grow and see myself grow.
It’s been a fantastic way to get to know people both at a senior level and both at, like, my own level. But also see the different challenges that we come across and how we deal with those and what that means as we progress. So I think it’s… I like to equate us to the mafia a little a bit, but I think it’s quite nice because you kind of enter into this, you know, club, I guess for want of a better word. You know, we talk an awful lot about men having their drinking holes and, you know, they all go out and talk together. That’s kind of what we’ve created with Ladies That UX. You know?
All the women get together and they chat and then, you know, you know the women in your local town and you know what’s going on and you know when jobs are happening or you know what the difficulties are when you transition from mid to senior and you’ve got a sense of that because you’re starting to build that community for yourself.
Ben: Georgie is at pains to point out that diversity is not a female-only problem and it shouldn’t be an “us against them” mentality. We know diversity is about gender, race, and age but that doesn’t mean it’s a problem for those people alone. A not insignificant part is about those of us in the majority advocating for others. Whether it’s for our friends, our daughters, or just those you know who aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve. The negative impact of an industry devoid of diversity means we all suffer.
Georgie: So I think something that’s been really interesting is when we started Ladies That UX 3 years ago we had an awful lot of people say, “Why are you starting the group?” You know, “What is this for?” You know, “Women in UX? Ha, ha, ha. Women don’t do UX.” And it’s been absolutely fascinating to see the change in the industry in the past 3 years. The industry now realizes that it has a problem—diversity is really front and center with an awful lot of discussions that are happening in the tech space. And I think having this groundswell of these grassroot communities popping up to support the minorities within the tech community has really shown the industry that it has a problem and that it needs to do something to change that.
Ben: Another made-up community that complements the visions of Ladies That UX is Designers and Geeks. Here’s Joe Robinson, he’s a Product Manager at IDEO.org and the founder of Designers and Geeks.
Joe: So with Designers and Geeks we have focused on drawing in people from all different backgrounds and also we’ve done events that are dedicated to the topic of diversity. Our most recent San Francisco events were with Helena Price who is an excellent photographer who created a project called The Techies Project. It basically looks at the backgrounds and the stories of people from under-represented segments of the population who work in the tech industry. So we’re trying to do our part to the extent that we can by running events and showcasing speakers from diverse backgrounds and showcasing some of their work. As an event and as a community one of the things that we believe that we can do and try to do is just raise awareness through the events and through the content that we put out there.
Ben: So spreading the word and having meaningful discussion is key to making an impact. But another pillar of change is ensuring enough opportunities are actually being presented. We heard from Jared Spool earlier about his new school Center Centre. What they’ve done is to raise money for a scholarship fund which is fueled by donations and thus doesn’t have the pressures of making a return to a set of investors. This then will allow Center Centre to make loans to students in minority communities that other institutions would view as too risky.
Jared: So we are looking to actually give people from those communities the ability to participate in this program in a way that other folks haven’t. And we’re very encouraged by the initial results. It turns out that our initial pool of applicants is about 52% people of color, 51% women. So we’re really excited about the diversity coming into the program and we’re hoping to actually go out into these communities, recruit people who could be fantastic designers, bring them into the programs, train them to be great designers, help them get great jobs, and end that cycle.
The end result is is that we would have a very diverse program that is putting people into the pipeline so that the tech company excuse of, “Well, there’s nobody in the pipeline,” goes away. And I’m hoping that once we prove that this is successful others will follow in our footsteps and we’ll see a resurgence in very diverse, very equally represented populations.
Ben: At True North and Loop 11 we don’t pretend to be experts on diversity but we do recognize the importance of promoting the discussion through any platform available to us. We’d like this to be the first of many episodes which we try to promote diversity and therefore we wanna hear from you guys, the listeners. Go to truenorthpodcast.com and send us your thoughts, stories, and ideas and we commit to sharing them with a wider audience. To find links to groups and people mentioned in this episode such as Ladies That UX or Center Centre go to truenorthpodcast.com and see the show notes.
You can subscribe to our show on iTunes where you can rate and review it or go to truenorthpodcast.com and join the community. Our music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. True North is produced by Loop 11. We’ll see you next time.