By Queenie Wong
San Jose Mercury News.
PALO ALTO, Calif.
By the time a sexual harassment or discrimination case reached her desk, lawyer Joelle Emerson was frustrated that so much had already gone wrong.
“I started seeing these patterns emerging and issues that my clients were facing in their workplaces that were repeating over and over again,” Emerson said. “I was really interested in seeing if there was a way to disrupt those patterns early on.”
In 2014, she started Paradigm, a company that is helping more than a dozen tech companies including the photo-sharing site Pinterest make their workforce more diverse.
Emerson sat down with the San Jose Mercury News to chat about how the firm is trying to solve Silicon Valley’s diversity problems before they hit the courtroom. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Describe what Paradigm does to make a company’s workforce more diverse.
A: We start with an assessment and look at what we see as the four stages in which companies have a significant opportunity to create better diversity and inclusion outcomes. Those four stages are attract, select, develop and retain. We give the company a report that identifies the biggest barriers at each of those stages, let them know where we think they should focus and recommend strategies and interventions based on social science research. Piece two is that we partner with companies on an ongoing way, have a monthly retainer model and they pay us to help them implement those strategies.
Q: How did your partnership with Pinterest start?
A: Our first project with them looked at their recruiting process, including ways to attract more diverse candidates and to create a more level playing field in the interview process and hopefully hire more diverse folks. Some of the things they’re doing as a result of that is they’re starting to recruit at different schools that have more diverse candidates. They’ve gotten rid of the white boarding component of their technical interview. Engineers typically code on a computer but in this case, they’re given a challenge and they’re asked to solve it by standing up at a white board and actually writing code. The problem with that is that’s not what engineers ever do on a regular basis. When you put people in a confrontational situation like that, the people who are going to perform well are the people who are already the most confident.
There’s a concept called stereotype threat and a lot of research that shows underrepresented people, in tech it may be women, African-Americans or Hispanics, are less likely to perform well in challenges where they’re stereotyped to be underperformers.
Q: Pinterest also announced that they’re setting up “inclusion labs” to experiment with new ways to improve diversity. What’s an inclusion lab and how will that work?
A: The idea is to look for opportunities to conduct workforce research in teams within Pinterest or the company overall, test new strategies, measure impact and ideally as much as possible, keeping in mind potential confidentiality issues, share what we’re finding with the broader tech ecosystem.
We’re starting in the fall and we’ll be sharing those ideas as soon as we have enough information to show here’s what we did and here’s what we saw. Social science studies usually take years and we’re trying to compress that in a few months.
Q: Unlike Pinterest, most Silicon Valley tech firms have not publicly released their diversity goals. Is that a mistake?
A: I don’t have strong feelings about whether it’s a mistake to release the goals publicly. What I do think is a mistake is I think most Silicon Valley companies have not set diversity goals even internally. How are you going to get people on board and know what you’re going to achieve if you’re not going to articulate a clear goal? Yet with diversity there’s a lot of resistance to doing that. What I think companies worry about is if they set goals they’ll have to lower their talent bar to reach those goals and that’s something companies aren’t willing to compromise on and don’t need to compromise on. Goals aren’t something that you at all costs will achieve. You won’t hire people who are underqualified to meet a goal. It’s just setting a target.
Q: The diversity numbers for some of the nation’s largest tech firms barely budged this year. Why do you think that is?
A: Companies make the mistake of leading with strategies that sound good but aren’t necessarily designed to address the particular barriers they have. I’ll give you an example. We’ve heard from companies that have talked about taking names off resumes to minimize bias in the recruiting process.
There’s a lot of research that shows resumes with male names get higher call backs than resumes with female names. White sounding names get higher call backs than African-American sounding names. This research exists and it’s a problem that’s been identified but we don’t know if that exact problem exists in every company. If there’s no disparity at the resume review stage, putting resources toward anonymizing resumes is not going to have an impact on who they hire.
Q: I’ve heard solving tech’s diversity problem compared to a marathon. When are we going to get to the finish line?
A: I don’t really know if there is a finish line. As long as there’s inequality in society that inequality is going to be reflected in organizations and industries. Companies that want to benefit from the wide range of perspectives we have in our country and in our world are always going to have this to contend with and are always going to need to be focused on improving.
5 FACTS ABOUT JOELLE EMERSON
1. She’s addicted to strategy board games.
2. She loves school and sometimes fantasizes about going back for another degree.
3. She spends a lot of time thinking and reading about outer space. @AstroTerry is one of her favorite people to follow on Twitter.
4. She has lived in Spain and Guatemala and speaks Spanish.
5. She has worked on gender equality issues for more than 10 years, and began her career working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Birth place: Tucson, Ariz.
Position: Founder & CEO, Paradigm
Previous jobs: Skadden Fellow at Equal Rights Advocates practicing women’s rights employment law; law clerk on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
Education: Stanford Law School, University of Southern California
Family: Emerson lives with her boyfriend, Box CEO Aaron Levie.
Residence: Palo Alto, Calif.