Dropbox’s Judith Williams on diversity and human resources


One of the corporate world’s foremost experts on diversity and inclusion, Judith Williams, is generating new talent and fresh attitudes at Dropbox. As the former Global Diversity & Inclusion Programs Manager at Google, Williams oversaw the tech giant’s widely praised unconscious bias training programme that exposed the hidden prejudices behind the lack of diversity in the technology industry. She has also applied her skills in Hollywood, where she led training on unconscious gender bias for J.J. Abrams and the Bad Robot productions crew before they filmed Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Williams shares her insights on creating diverse, inclusive workplaces in this interview.

Q: The technology industry has been flagged for having a male-dominated engineering culture. To what extent do the biases found within tech culture apply to other industries today? Is tech culture already starting to change with the rise of start-ups and diversity initiatives?

Bias is a wide problem – finance, advertising, and media face the same challenges when it comes to gender and ethnicity. We’ve seen well-meaning programs in tech and we’ve seen some progress, but there’s more to do.We hear a lot about the pipeline challenges in tech, and we need to expand access to technology education, so that we build a more diverse labor pool that we can draw from, but if we focus on pipeline we only solve one part of the problem. We have to take on the culture, address the biases, and ensure that we create a workplace where people feel included and want to stay and build a successful and rewarding career.

Q: In an article for the New York Times and a January 2016 Dropbox blog post, you emphasise that workplace policies, employee benefits and work arrangements can only go so far – it is the day-today employee experience that makes or breaks an inclusive environment. What are your top suggestions for optimising the daily workplace experiences of women and minorities?

Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and a lot of other companies have rolled out unconscious bias training. And those classes are a great starting point to make employees aware of their unconscious biases and how they may be affecting the decisions they make in the workplace. However, training is just the first step. We have to look at rebuilding our processes to correct for bias, and creating prompts and reminders, so that managers and others have tools to minimise bias when they are making key decisions.

Q: In a USA Today video, you mention the relationship between inventing technology that shapes the future, and factoring in everyone’s voices and needs to design this future. What kinds of HR practices do you see more companies adopting to secure diverse ideas about organisational direction?

We know that employees find diverse workplaces more enjoyable. As a result, I’ve seen HR leaders being very intentional about recruiting and retaining top diversity talent. We can think about beginning with the employment value proposition that we offer; we know that all employees, but especially employees from diverse backgrounds value having a manager who demonstrates a commitment to diversity.

We also need to think about that in the way that we recruit. Are we reaching out to different universities? For example, in tech, we have seen the rise of boot camps – usually 12 week programs that teach students what they need to start out as software developers – and that means we are seeing talent being educated in a different way.
We need to make sure that our evaluation criteria and our processes keep up with these innovations in technical education. We also need to consider that our employees need the flexibility to care for their families, and have a successful career. When we bring different employees into our companies, our culture needs to flex so that it demonstrates that it values people from different backgrounds. This is beneficial to everyone.

“The first step is to determine where you want to have impact.”

Q: One of the big issues facing diversity initiatives is the debate between merit and representation, including quotas for Boards. What is your take on this issue? Would you say that there is innate merit in diversity?

The business case for diversity is pretty clear: research shows that diversity improves financial performance, helps leverage the talent of employees, increases innovation and group performance, builds reputation in the marketplace, and provides greater customer insights. We know that there are smart people everywhere, but not all of those smart people have the same opportunities – this is especially true at more senior levels and boards. We need to employ a range of tactics to bring these people into our companies and to develop them once we attract them. This is also why finding ways to make sure that people from diverse backgrounds feel included in tech is so important. Imagine the kind of products we can create and the impact we can have in the world when we have employees with different backgrounds and life experiences problem-solving together.

Q: You are well known for your successful implementation of unconscious bias training at Google. What are the benefits of this type of training programme? Were there any surprising outcomes?

Increased awareness of unconscious bias invites a lot of people into the diversity conversation who have not felt included before. If we understand that we all have unconscious biases then we are all called to mitigate them. So it brings allies into the conversation, and the diversity challenge is one that we all need to work together to solve. One of the things that was most surprising to us at Google was that once we opened the conversation and gave employees a language to talk about bias they did. We saw more people calling out bias, we saw more people suggesting ways to improve our processes. There was a lot more engagement than we expected, and that’s a positive outcome.

Q: While the issue of diversity is central to the workplace, the foundations of opportunity and discrimination are embedded in wider society. What stakeholders and institutions have the best ability to equip women and minorities with the skills, education and morale they need to excel in the workforce?

As an HR leader, the first step is to determine where you want to have impact. At Dropbox, we are best able to affect the practices that impact candidates in our pipeline and our employees. So we make sure that we are consistently working to ensure that we create a culture where everyone feels included. Outside of Dropbox we partner with organisations that are focused on expanding access to technology and technology education especially for minority students and young girls. Finally, not all corporate diversity programs have their desired effect; but we need to keep trying. When demographic diversity increases, it unlocks the diversity of ideas and experience from everyone at the table. This is good for problem-solving, and building stronger teams and companies.

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