Seema Lakhani is head of product and head of Wattpad Labs at Wattpad.
As a woman of color in a leadership role in tech, I can tell you what is scarce in today’s tech industry that I’d like to see more of: women of color in leadership roles, women in leadership roles, or anyone of color in leadership roles.
This is a problem everyone should care about.
Diversity is about more than numbers. It’s about people.
The state of diversity in tech can be historically described with one word: dismal. Across the industry, the people who have dominated funding, hiring, and leadership — shaping how the world connects, interacts, and lives — have mostly looked the same. Tech is just starting to come to terms with what all of this means, but at the very least, leaving out perspectives of huge groups of people will prevent these tech companies from achieving their lofty global objectives.
I work at Wattpad, the global entertainment company for original stories, based in Canada. We have a community of over 65 million users all over the world who have shared more than half a billion stories. From the US to the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, and everywhere in between, Wattpad users read, write, and share stories in more than 50 languages. Our product and community have become a home to tell so many diverse stories from different voices, from Muslim love stories to stories featuring characters of color to LGBTQ+ experiences.
We’ve built our product and team by embracing the variety of perspectives, identities, and experiences that make up our user base. We’ve seen firsthand how a diverse and inclusive company culture creates better products, stronger teams, and a better world for everyone. As a result of our work to create a diverse culture, more than half of Wattpad employees are women, and 49 percent are people of color. These numbers extend to our leadership level, where nearly half (44 percent) of our leadership team identifies as female and 44 percent are people of color. We also have an industry-leading, fully kick-ass, all-women product team!
So how did we do it?
Creating an inclusive and positive space for our community and our employees was part of our culture from day one. Building a company in Canada definitely helps. Canadian immigration policies have historically been more open and accepting than other parts of the world, resulting in a diverse population. In 2017, when other countries were closing their borders, Wattpad successfully lobbied the Canadian government to institute a fast-track visa program for skilled tech workers. We’ve since hired new staff from around the world, moving through interviews and visa processing in a matter of weeks.
To be clear, Canada is not free of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. But as a result of the country’s willingness to accept refugees or create immigration policies aimed at boosting innovation, more than 20 percent of Canadians are immigrants. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city and where Wattpad is based, nearly half (46 percent) of the population was born outside the country.
Canada’s social supports are also a critical part of creating an inclusive and more equitable environment. Universal healthcare means both workers and employers are not burdened with expensive insurance plans or afraid of having their finances destroyed by unplanned illness. Health care is not a privilege afforded to some but a right everyone shares.
Related to this is Canada’s maternity- and paternity-leave policy. In Canada, women can take up to 18 months of paid maternity leave, ensuring they can maintain some economic stability when they have children. It also means their jobs are protected and must be available when they return to work.
Recently, the Canadian government also introduced new paternity-leave measures. Fathers can now take all or split the parental leave time with mothers. This step means parental leave can more accurately reflect how families choose to share the work of child care.
While there is still more policy work to be done to improve the lives of women and minorities, these foundations help create a society that supports more diverse workforces — and ultimately stronger economies.
At Wattpad, we’ve long said that diversity is our strength. Part of this comes from the global nature of our product. Another part of this comes from the perspectives of our cofounders. Both of Wattpad’s cofounders are Asian men. One is an immigrant. But even more important is the fact that Wattpad’s founders have committed to diversity by stepping back and allowing women, people of color, and other minorities to be the loudest voices, shaping the direction of diversity and inclusion initiatives while providing significant leadership support and backing.
We’ve made diversity and inclusion part of our culture, foundational to how we think, build, and interact with our users and one another. We care deeply about diversity and inclusion and know that the work is never truly done. We continue to invest in initiatives that drive equity and hold everyone to a high standard of inclusion. We’ve even made it one of our core company values.
We’ve learned a lot along the way, so here are some tips for creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace:
Show Me the $$$
It’s great that our cofounders step back to make space for marginalized voices. But this gesture would be meaningless without providing the resources to enable real change. This requires allocated budgets and dedicated time from people. We’ve been able to do this via our Diversity & Inclusion Committee. The team has financial and people resources, sets measurable goals, invests in company research and education initiatives, and reports results to our board. As a result, in addition to understanding where we can improve and what we need to do to make an inclusive and equitable workplace, we also have the resources to execute on it.
Set Baselines and Create a Transparent Environment
The work of creating more inclusive workplaces needs to start with transparency and consistent processes around career progression. Clearly setting and communicating baselines for things like performance and advancement can reduce unconscious bias. This helps both managers and staff gain a better understanding of a company’s career ladder, salary bands, and the promotions process, helping to ensure fair and equitable advancement opportunities for everyone, particularly the marginalized.
Make Inclusivity Part of Your Process
Communication matters. How we talk to one another and the nonverbal signals we send are important when creating a culture of inclusion. Everyone needs to understand how their words affect others if we are going to create a working environment where everyone feels safe, valued, and able to speak.
Some people are naturally quiet or come from high-context communication cultures, where language contains more nuance and implied meaning. On the flip side, many men and low-context communications cultures (which are primarily American and Western European) are often blunt and loud, and they may seem aggressive in their communication styles. The result can be that loud voices remain the loudest, while everyone else goes unheard.
We are actively tackling this by helping everyone understand how communication, when done right, can enable greater understanding and empathy. Understanding how different people give and receive feedback and how to structure meetings in which everyone feels safe to speak are essential to creating a truly inclusive company culture.
These tips are just the start. The work we all need to do to create more diversity in tech goes well beyond this list. We also need to ensure we are listening to the voices and experiences of the marginalized, that we help raise up those voices, and that we all engage in the hard work of educating ourselves about discrimination and how we can be allies to those who are underrepresented.
Diversity is about more than numbers. It’s about people — empowering people and building a better world for everyone. I got excited about tech because of the promise of having a large impact on billions of people. It’s the promise of the industry. It’s seen in the mission statements of most great tech companies. But to achieve that promise, we need to build cultures inside our companies that value diversity as the key to that change. I’m fortunate to work at a technology company that gets this. I hope that those in power in tech see it too, or they’ll never achieve the great promise of the industry.
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