Mitigating "Unintentional Inequity" with Upwork's Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Dr. Erin L. Thomas

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This episode features an interview with Upwork's Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Dr. Erin L. Thomas, as she discusses the ways in which bias shows up in the workplace. Dr. Thomas also discusses the concept of “unintentional inequity” and reveals strategies and practices that companies can employ to reduce unconscious bias at all stages of the employee life cycle. Discover why data and understanding diversity demographics at every level are so important in workplace planning.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

ERIN THOMAS: When I talk about unintentional inequity, I'll start with the inequity piece. There, I'm really thinking about a few truths. One is our society is completely unfair and built on injustice and built on power and control. That's just a fact. The second truth is that companies are built within those same societies and they inherit those same dynamics, and so that means that, three, the third fact here, that if an organization wants to make meritocracy and opportunity more a reality than myth, it takes a lot of active work and a lot of undoing the very fabric of how businesses typically run. And that work, to your point earlier about the journey, that work is probably never ending because those societal forces, and your own organization's forces if it's been around for more than a few months, are going to continue to create this flywheel of inequity.

DOUG FORESTA: Addressing systemic inequities has become a defining challenge of our times. Leaders' understanding of their role and responsibility to others and to society is being questioned. On October 4th, Jennifer Brown will release the second edition of her bestselling book, How to be an Inclusive Leader. She will share insights from over 20 years of experience working with organizations to create workplaces where everyone thrives and belongs. Her widely-acclaimed Inclusive Leader Continuum provides a framework to lead individuals through the personal learning journey they undertake to become inclusive leaders. News stories, strategies and discussion guides equip leaders at any level to take action and step into their role in affecting change.

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The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and, therefore, more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies. She and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty.

And now, on to the episode. 


Hello and welcome back to The Will Change. This is Doug Foresta. Today's episode features the conversation with Dr. Erin Thomas, head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Upwork as she discusses her role at Upwork and talks about the concept of unintentional inequity and what it means. She also discusses Upwork's Glow Up and Rise Up programs.

Before we go into the episode, I just want to give you a little background about Dr. Thomas so you have a little bit of an idea about her. In 2020, Dr. Thomas was named to Fortune's 40 Under 40 as one of the most influential people in technology. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and BBC, as well as being recognized by Forbes, Human Rights Campaign, the National Association for Female Executives, and Equal Opportunity Magazine.

Prior to Upwork, Erin was a managing director at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion consultancy. She holds a PhD in social psychology, a master's of philosophy in social psychology, a master's of science in social psychology and a bachelor's of arts in psychology and international studies from Yale University. You'll hear in the conversation how Dr. Thomas talks about her academic background and how that comes into play in her current role. All this and more. And now, on to the conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Dr. Erin Thomas, welcome to The Will to Change.

ERIN THOMAS: Thanks so much. It's so good to see you.

JENNIFER BROWN: I should say welcome back because I believe, although I'm not sure, we enjoyed a community call with you, and a lot of our listeners on The Will to Change were a part of those early community calls that we started in that fateful March of 2020 and have continued to follow us, and probably follow you and a lot of the other incredible voices that we brought on in those early days to help us make sense of what was going on. And, wow, what a couple of years, so I just want to welcome you and invite you to share your diversity story with our audience.

And by that, we just mean when was the spark ignited for you in your early days or throughout your years as a practitioner, your studies, because I know you're a big academic as well. But take us back to contextualizing who you are, where you are these days, but take us back. Tell us that spark that created you and the amazing voice that we witness today and somebody who's really contributing to our field in the way that you are.

ERIN THOMAS: Thanks so much, Jennifer. It's so good to be back with you. I'll just say you're part of my spark in my early days as a practitioner.


ERIN THOMAS: Yeah. Every time we connect, I think about the first time that I met you in person after being such a fan of your thought leadership around employee resource groups. And you turned out to Grant Thornton when I was a little baby manager and you worked with our LGBT+ ERG, but it was such an awesome day and, yeah, it's been cool to circle around you for so long since. In terms of my earliest sparks, it was pretty young. I don't think that's surprising to anyone who's worked with me or who knows me well that I had a plan, and it was before there was a DEI industry or there was any sort of acronym that could land me.

I was always very curious about people. I was always very research oriented. I come from a family of scientists in different respects. When I learned that I could put those two together and I firmly believe would make a difference in the world, I pursued my PhD in social psychology. I worked and I hustled a lot during grad school. I broke a lot of institutional rules about what you're allowed to do with your time and money because, for me, the biggest opportunity was getting outside of the academy, using that skillset that I built and actually working with what I consider real people with real workplace problems.

I built this career one step at a time, and I stay in it, I think, mainly because of all the dynamism I see in our society and especially the tailwinds from 2020, I think, I'd miss out on if I weren't still in this space and really trying to ride that wave of momentum that I think the whole world has woken up to. I see a lot of promise, and I also see a lot of promise every day with the employees and colleagues that I work with. I just care about people. I care about people having better lives, and that's the mission of Upwork as well. It's all pretty copacetic right now.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Oh, you're in such a good spot. I've seen you grow. I've witnessed you blossom and become such an important voice, and so thank you. I love that we were in our baby-steps time together figuring it out. I'm curious. Some of us in this work come from academia. I'm curious, what does your discipline and history in academia enable you to do, and where does the academy fall short in terms of understanding, like you just alluded to, the real-world application of this work and what the job actually is and what the state of organizations really is? I'm just curious about that because I think we get a lot of questions, and I mentor a lot of folks who have these questions to say, "What should I really invest in for my path? What's going to equip me the most to do this work effectively in the organizational context?" And I never quite know how to answer that. I'm not an academic. I have such an org/development background, but also a career as a performing artist, so it's a mishmash of things in my case, but I am curious about that for our listeners.

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah. I think definitely, in terms of skill sets. I mean, I think almost every professional would benefit from thinking like a scientist, being able to really pinpoint what a problem actually is, getting to the root of it and then building tests and experiments to try to solve those proof points. That's just endemic to how I operate and think. I think, both because of my nature, but then obviously the true skill being built through my time in the academy. That's one thing, that data-driven approach, that research backing is just really core to how I go about my work.

I think the thing that the academy, at least in my field, did not prepare me for and I think a lot of folks still struggle with this is recognizing that change and change management is not as simple as sharing facts. You're not defending a thesis. People often don't actually care about the facts. It's not how we make decisions. I think that can be really hard. It's hard for me still because I love architecting plans and basically architecting initiatives and basically large scale interventions.

That's not how organizations really shape out. They're super dynamic and fluid, which makes them beautiful and really engaging. And I love being in-house, but it also makes them really unwieldy. You can't control every little variable like you can in an experiment, and so these pieces of influence and affecting change and appealing to heads, hearts and hands, I certainly was never taught. I had to learn it as I went along, and I still learn it every day because, in a high growth company like the one I'm in, I never quite know what will work. I know where we have to get. I know what we could try. I never actually know how it's going to shake out, and that's the ride that I enjoy. But it's something that I think you learn with experience and everyone finds their own style.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That's beautifully said. Yeah. It's funny, when I mentor folks around the skill sets, change management is literally the first thing I say. It's funny that you bring that up. It's not DEI technically, but DEI is the ultimate test for change management, effective change management because all this stuff gets in the way. Humans are complicated and unpredictable. You can have a great plan, and you have to change gears and directions and be very humble to that fact that you just described and to that process and change with the system and guide and steer and, like you say, working through influence, not with a direct accountability, which is also a huge part of this job.

Wouldn't it be nice if it were this vertical structure and we could give orders and have them happen? But especially on a topic like D&I, it's full of complications. And those human emotions I have found, I don't know if you agree, can really derail the facts and the plan and things that really look good on paper, but are completely unpredictable. They're like wild cards.

ERIN THOMAS: A hundred percent, and I think, as a practitioner, you have to be extremely low ego, which I'm still growing into. Especially coming from the academy where you're groomed to be totally pretentious and deep-seeded in your own thinking. It's an unlearning process for me, for sure. Yeah, you can't be too beholden to any one way, any one hypothesis, any one approach. That's not the way to win folks over and to bring them along a collective journey. I think that's the personal piece that is a lifelong work for me is just getting out of my own way and thinking about all the different paths to reach a goal.

I think, so often, roadmaps are depicted as linear. That's not really what a roadmap is. You've got to think about the five different ways you could get there and be able to pivot and bob and weave. And also, I think, importantly, have enough going on in your portfolio of impact so that when something doesn't work out, when a result doesn't prove itself out, you're not completely derailed, you've got other irons in the fire.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that's such a good advice. That's so true. And that, by the way, everybody, that's a test of a true practitioner, I think. What you just described as being prepared for any eventuality and being able to tweak, being not attached, low ego and working through different scenarios around how things are going to go and really what success looks like. I think what you're talking about, it reminds me, too, that it's the journey. It's sometimes not even the destination. It is, but I see this tension, this wonderful tension in our work between the destination and the journey to get there and how you make people feel along the way mattering, in some ways, perhaps more.

This comes up, for example, when we talk about D&I goals for representation. Maybe we wake up one day and we say, "We're not going to meet those," because we live in this chaotic, unpredictable world where we're battling for prioritization. We're battling to control a lot of these variables that we can't, and there's more variables coming up all the time, but then the question is, okay, let's revisit. But how do we revisit? And what have we learned, and what can we celebrate, and what is progress? It's this tension, but I enjoy it because, look, goals and targets are super important, but it's the buy-in and the how do you teach to fish? How do you create a sustainable effort? If that means going slower, if that means revisiting what we thought we could accomplish, and we're revisiting on a constant basis what's important, it's almost like rolling. It needs to be rolling because we are all figuring this out as we go and organizations are changing all the time.

To nail something down for several years from now always struck me as great aspiration, but that change management could go a million different ways, and we just have to know how to strap in for it. is that true for you at Upwork?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah, it's totally true. I think another piece of that is, if you're meeting or surpassing every single goal you've set, you're not setting the right goals. Again, we're a super high growth company, and our CEO, Hayden Brown, talks all the time about, if you're stop lighting your goals, green means you met or surpassed, yellow means maybe you're teetering, and red means you missed it, you should have some reds. You need to aim high, and you need to have the diversity of work going on, some things you need to do to keep the lights on, to keep the function running, to keep the status quo, but you should also be ... Excuse me. You should also be making some big bets, and, I agree. I think that's part of the fun. Whenever I get pushback on the ambition of my team's goals, I'm like, "Yeah. Yeah. I don't know if we're going to make this one. That's the point. Let's try. Let's figure it out." And importantly, to your point, let's stay growth oriented about the tactics we're using, about the processes, the procedures, to your point, all those pieces of the change management cycle so that we're able to codify what we should replicate when we set goals and what we should do away with, or revise or tweak moving forward.

So I think it's both, I don't think it's just the journey, the results matter, but the journey is definitely a part of the celebration once you reach goals.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That low hanging fruit, the principle of change management, the celebrate the small wins. And sometimes we're impatient with the pace of progress. And I wonder if there are moments, I mean, I wanted to ask you how you've inflected through the last two years? You've probably gone on a journey, we all have, a very personal journey about, again, attention of being excited that there's so much attention on this topic and frustration, perhaps, that is deeply seeded and very personal for a lot of us to say, oh, we're just waking up now? Really? However, being grateful for the wake up, grateful for the want to do more, the greater interest, the greater commitment.

You said you were fundamentally rather optimistic right now. And so I'm curious, did you have a low point in the last couple of years? Has it felt kind of a steady climb for you from a fulfillment perspective and an excitement around we're finally getting to something where we can make the differences and the changes that are long overdue? I wonder where this summer, late summer of 2022 finds you?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah. I think I've been on, like a lot of folks, a whole roller coaster over the past couple of years. I definitely reached some low points. I'll say that. And I think it's important to really honor them because they've definitely helped me approach my work and my whole life more healthfully. But I think a lot of the lows that I experienced over the past two years were a pressure that I was putting on myself. The pressure that I felt, frankly, being put on me from a lot of people, from all aspects of my life, to deliver in these key moments in, I think, US and world history. There was this tidal wave of awareness, of emotion around inequity, around injustice. And I never want to miss those moments. I think they're quite rare, especially to the magnitude that we saw after the murder of George Floyd. And I was really internally driven to make the most.

And I, like a lot of folks, was able to ignore of myself in that over-functioning crisis response mode. And it's a blur, honestly. Looking back on some of the interviews I did, the thought leadership. I'm just like, wow, I was not there. I was responding and trying to rise to the occasions and it's just not a sustainable place for anyone to be in. So I'm super fortunate and thankful for having time to step away and just regroup. And then come back to my amazing organization with, I think, a much better perspective and a fuller team, which is also really helpful. It's not just me here. I've got a small team of folks who are helping to drive this institutional and organizational change.

But I think when it all nets out, I definitely do feel optimistic and hopeful about the future of DEI work within organizations. It feels much more foundational to me now than it did a couple years ago. I don't think the pressure, the healthy pressure that the workforce is putting on organizations is going away. And I think that's a really good thing. We're in an industrial revolution and I don't think work will ever look the same. We've got Malcolm Gladwell talking about remote work as of yesterday. Everyone's talking about what is this moment we're in and what will it become? And I think that's really great as the balanced scales of power and control get a little bit more leveled between workers and their employers. And I think that's a boom and a lift to anyone who cares about equity and inclusion in the workplace.

So I feel really curious about what this is all going to shake out to be. And I know that in our org, we've made a lot of great strides and we're entering our next chapter of DEI work after almost three years of having a strategic function.

JENNIFER BROWN: You say curiosity, I think that's such a great place to inhabit. I think that's number one, change management, curiosity, lots of listening, lots of flexibility. And you're right, this is not going away. We need to be listening a lot more to different voices to shape the organization. And I know you agree with me on that. Voices that have not been at the table, voices that have not been considered and therefore we're left with a workplace right now and historically that doesn't speak to a lot of us, where we don't see ourselves, where we don't hear our values reflected. And I think so that door has opened and I've got my foot propped in it. It is not closing no matter what I do.

ERIN THOMAS: Stretched out. Just making sure, filling it back in.

JENNIFER BROWN: Gumby, right? I'm like, no over my dead body. No, if it's the last thing I ever do, I have to keep this light on and we have to fight not to go back to sleep. We have to fight to make sure people that we capitalize on, if I use that word, maybe galvanize as a better word, galvanize the waking up. That we jump into this and know what to do with the moment. And I guess, I wonder if you think the DEI field was ready?

I get to ask this question a lot, why are we not further? Why did 2020 catch us unprepared in a way, or perhaps that sort of felt like the bottom fell out? And I look at a statistic, for example, losing so many women from the workplace in the course of the chaos. To me, that kind of reminded me of these, I guess I wouldn't say missteps with DEI, but just where all of our best efforts have not necessarily created concrete progress. And so that caught us, I think, and kind of proved somehow, and I'm not putting blame. I just am very curious. And I want to ask somebody as brilliant as you, when you're asked that question, so how has the field changed and what maybe did we miss historically, what would we have done differently if we know what we know now? And what are you doing at, I'd love to give you a chance to just say, because you're one of the most innovative leaders, how are you tackling things differently? What have you learned about your strategy and our strategies as a field where we needed to do things differently? What are we implementing now that we never would've done in the past?

It's a fascinating question because we've been in this for a long time, I for nearly 20 years. And I'm like, wow, what could we have done differently all this time that might have generated more urgency, more strategic interventions or awareness for knowledge, more commitment, more allyship? And yet somehow it only feels like all of that kind of came to the surface in 2020 in a new way.

ERIN THOMAS: I agree. Yeah. I think the main thing that was missing, and I think why a lot of companies kind of faltered or realized that they weren't shored up enough to either handle the internal appetite for more or the external pressures that created the need for more, is because in a lot of orgs, DEI is still not very foundational. It's still not very integrated into actually how business works and is run. And so when all you've got is this menu of programs or menu of small scale pilots and workshops and ideas and aspirations, to your point earlier, that's not enough to withstand all of those pressures that I think every single one of us felt over the past couple of years. I think that is starting to change. And I think we're also, just as a business community, realizing, and the pandemic, frankly, just helped all of this and maybe just made all of this true, the fundamental needs of human beings in terms of belonging and connection and an emotional attachment to purpose and where they're spending their waking hours.

And I just don't think we always appreciated that. I think only when our very humanity was very seriously threatened, did companies start to wake up to the fact that we have to, especially in the US where we don't have a great number of societal supports, we have to honor and carry those fundamental needs of humanity within our workplaces. And is that fair? Is that what the role of the employer was supposed to be? Some might argue no, but it's where we are. And I think that that's what a lot of companies are trying to build now, more systems, more sustainable infrastructure in terms of just where DEI sits and how it's matrixed and the level of authority and autonomy and influence and impact and budget and resourcing that these functions get.

At Upwork, one of the things that we really had to double down on early in the pandemic, because it just became clear that this was going to be with us for a while, and that has been something that's helped us grow as an organization on the whole, is really getting in front of what Better Up calls this crisis of connection. Being home, being isolated, I don't think requires us to be back in the office in order to feel that connection to work, but it does require something vastly different from what a lot of companies were doing earlier in the pandemic.

And so one program that I'm super proud of that we built that was entirely focused around building community and connection for our leaders of color is called Glow Up. And I'm really proud of it, not only because of the quantitative results and what it's yielded for employee satisfaction and belonging and feelings of connection and facilitating the true technical work that our leaders need to do to be successful, but also because we worked obsessively over this program design to make sure that we weren't slipping into more traditional leadership development. We really had to resist this easy reflex of making it a technical skills program, a technical skills training. Certainly, our delegates got skills, but we centered really exclusively on transforming this group of 30 plus leaders from a cohort to a community and did a lot of heart work that I don't think you often see, especially in a high growth company, in a fast paced company. But we've proven out the stickiness of affording leaders, and I think all employees time and space, not only to connect with others, but also to connect with themselves.

And I think getting out of this rat race hustle culture in which you have no capacity to even check in with what it is that you're executing on and if it makes sense, and if it's aligned with what you're supposed to be doing and with what you're passionate about, we just can't afford that. So taking the time two hours a week to invest in that introspection and to build bridges and emotional ties with folks that you might see in meetings all day, but know nothing about has really proven to be worthwhile. And we've run two iterations of this program. And I think it's very much a blueprint for what a lot of L&D needs to look like in this age, in this era of remote work.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. I love that. It reminds me a bit of the programs we've run for development of high potential, underrepresented talent for certain clients. And just getting into a room and it gets actually, I wonder if it got really emotional. I'm sure it did.

ERIN THOMAS: Oh yeah. I cried all the time.

JENNIFER BROWN: All the time. Yeah. Because you're just carrying so much and you're not only carrying the expectations of so many people. And then being asked to maybe speak for entire communities or being the token or whatever happens to us in organizations, to just be and allowed to just be, and in all of our flaws or in all of our imposter syndrome in all of our, not knowing the answer or being fatigued, compassion fatigue. A lot of times of us that are underrepresented, we want to carry that weight. You said earlier, I was just stumbling through just trying to show up because I knew it was not about me, it was important. But the toll it takes is intense.

And to pour back into a community that you want to retain is leadership development. I mean, honestly, I don't know if that's a skill it's some space and some investment and some permission and some encouragement to connect with each other, like you said, so to realize I'm not alone. I don't need to fight this alone. But to pause, I mean, you talk about the radical self care means, your organization literally makes space for you to, like you just said, get back to, well, why am I doing this? What is important to me about this? What do I want to be about, what do I want my impact to be? Who do I want to do it with? How do I want to feel? When am I in flow? When am I in my, I feel sort of the closest to my truest and most deepest contribution, which I think actually the workplace is a wonderful place to bring that.

For many of us, it is where we find ourselves because that's such a deep part. How we contribute is so fundamental to our sense of belonging, but even just our humanness. So I'll bet they were emotional. I mean, it sounds like a wonderful program and I'm so glad you're reinventing. You're right. I mean, leadership development has been done. I look at my bookshelf, Erin, and I know you'll relate to this. Until a year or so ago, it was all white men telling me what leadership meant. And it's just when you realize like, oh my gosh, where are the voices? The other voices that are hacking this and redefining it, and what does this field even mean? Even now having gone through what we've gone through, we really need to reinvent it. And so that's super exciting.

ERIN THOMAS: I think, just one thing, that will be a theme of a retro on this program now that we have really sticky data with it, is that importantly, again, in terms of fighting the reflexes of traditional L&D and leadership programs was also being really balanced in how we approached various topics and making sure that it wasn't all about adversity. I think that was one thing that was really important to us as well was just celebrating, to your point, the humanity of each and every leader who was there. And sure, we talked about challenges, but to your point as well, we also really celebrated and published people's purpose statements and passion drivers and aspirations and needs and skills and did lots of skills and network exchanges.

And I think that's another wave, I hope it is, for the future of L&D and learning more broadly is just because your participants happen to be from an historically or socially marginalized background doesn't mean that has to be the entire conversation. There's lots of joy here. And so making sure that we were being honest and truthful and real without it being just an opportunity for us to lament or stay in our own way. We were able to really build a collective intelligence that, again, has yielded long tail outcomes. And I think that's an important provocation as well.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's beautiful. I mean, being LGBTQ, the program we do that I'm thinking of, it was a flip from, this is how it's been difficult for me to what has it being difficult for you enabled or created or fostered? And what are you proudest of? And what do you have to contribute now from a place of, perhaps, some success and getting some traction? Not to say, I need to give back in that traditional sense, but more like what powers me as a leader? And I think this is that next generation of leaders that we need to foster through the pipeline to assume their rightful and overdue place, to assume that seat at the table, to bring all of that to bear in the decisions and the products and the customer interface and relationships and all the things that I think we, as those who've been of outside of a system, and I will acknowledge I'm partially inside a system also. So I sort of inhabit these interesting insider/outsider at the same time.

But wherever we find ourselves in the change equation, being ready to really pull up and bring to bear all that beautiful, it's empathy, it's lived experience, it's wisdom, it's knowledge, it's a new way of thinking, it's a new way of solving problems, that comes from the combination of all of the pieces of who we are. And when you say that to LGBTQ people, all of a sudden you sit a little higher, at least in the program I was thinking of. That there's like a, okay, wait a second. Maybe I've been carrying this around for a long time and it may not be serving me in the same way that I could be utilizing it. Let me discard that. That served its purpose. And yet I am here now, and I'm actually a very unique addition and problem solver.

And just stepping into that and feeling the empowerment of it, I get goosebumps thinking about it because I love watching groups to say, oh my goodness, this is me kind of healed, in a way, and ready to bring everything that I can bring. And I'm not saying the healing ends, because it doesn't. But I think it's always a question for us. What do I do with what's been true for me, my lived experience, what do I do with it? Do I use it as rocket fuel? Do I believe that I'm unique and brilliant and that I'm needed in this equation, that's going to propel an organization forward? And boy, do we need leaders then to believe everything I just said.

ERIN THOMAS: Right. Well, and that's exactly what I was saying.

JENNIFER BROWN: You were going to say.

ERIN THOMAS: Right, both. You need to believe it. Because if you don't know unwell and you need to write your own story and you're operating in a bigger context. And so one thing that was really beautiful, and I think very ceremonious and important for us, was I love that imagery that kind of came into my head as you were talking of kind of taking bricks out of your backpack. Well, some of those bricks got to go somewhere. And so we took care to really carve out what was in participant's sphere of concern versus influence? What was an individual challenge or opportunity and what was more structural, organizational? And really passing that baton back over to our leadership team and to our HR team, which I'm a part of, and really laying out those headwinds that we're getting in the way of that purpose, of that drive, of that ambition to say it's both, yes. We, as individuals of all backgrounds could always be growing and improving. And also this is not a bootstrap issue.

So what does the org has to do to be able to receive us in all of our excellence was a part of the conversations we had during the last month of our program and really capsoning with that handoff so that our participants knew that we recognized it wasn't just on them. And so that we had some codified areas of opportunity from a structural perspective to chip away at so that we can realize their potential.

JENNIFER BROWN: What a great design. That's incredible. So that's the Glow Up program. Is there a Rise Up as well that you want to share?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah. Rise Up is our formal sponsorship program and what we're really trying to do as we're growing and evolving as a function is get really coherent, to that point earlier of piecemeal programming, really trying to connect our different programs and create a really big ecosystem for DIBS, as we call it. And so for Rise Up, we've taken engaged, Glow Up alumni at the director level and paired them with VP sponsors. And so a formal sponsorship program, we're working mostly with the VPs themselves around what sponsorship looks like, small tactics that we can pull from the Glow Up experience to enable relationship building and evolution of that relationship between director and VP has been where we've been on this journey. But it's a really nice little test bed for where are VPs, just in terms of understanding key concepts like political capital and obviously everyday privilege and how it is they can use that or the extent to which they believe they can use that in order to further others' careers.

And then where are we with the directors in terms of their feelings of readiness and their levels of advocacy for promotion? The entire goal of rise up is to accelerate time toward and likelihood of promotion from director to senior director. And we've had, already, in I think six months of programming, a couple of success stories and one that just came back to me the other day. Yeah, it actually warmed my heart because there's so much of this work that you don't see the impact of. And I had to remind myself of that. And one of our VPs actually reached out to me and I'm so grateful for him because he shared with me the fact that his protege, for lack of a better word, his protege's manager reached out to him to get feedback around a potential promotion of his protege. And because of Rise Up, this sponsor was able to give glowing and really emphatic endorsement for this director. And that helped. That is exactly what the program was designed to do and it helped this director get promoted to senior.

And, one, gay and two, I think just a reminder to folks listening that there are probably lots of stories like that around the things that you're building and scaling that you'll never hear about. And I just thought it was such a wonderful reminder of the reach of small efforts. So that was really cool. And we're going to keep this program growing so that we can continue diversifying our ranks of leadership.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. Oh, there was so much in what you just said, such a fan. And the research shows that sponsorship alone has the most to do with our velocity for those of us who are underrepresented, because, to me, it represents the sharing of power. And for those of us who are listening, that don't know the difference between sponsorship and mentorship, sponsorship in particular means the sharing of capital with someone. So vouching for someone, mentioning their name, attaching your reputation to them and saying, I am saying that this person's ready. I'm saying this person's capable. I'm saying we should think about this person. Or challenging in a talent review. Say you're in a room and that person, well, I just don't know. I don't know if they're executive presence they're or they're ready, whatever, they haven't done it before. And you see these things, these discussions happening you step in and you say, hold on, has that always been our criteria for promoting people?

And the real ally knows, or the accomplice in that room, knows what to look for in terms of the biases that are just so easy and common, that just, unfortunately, they enable or derail decisions all the time. And so to be a sponsor means that you are intentionally pulling that talent up. And you are looking out for them. And it makes a huge difference to have that power be shared. Because as you know, Erin, we study organizations, it becomes less about technical skill the more high we get and more about relationships. More about trust, more about, oh, is this person ready? Who says? And who is willing to really vouch? But to be given a shot where somebody may not have brought your name up is so much the battle. And I love that you're being intentional.

The other bone I have to pick with sponsorship situations is it's never formalized. So the fact that you're formalizing it, but the fact is that previously, and in most organizations, I get the pushback on, oh, I need to have chemistry with somebody or I need to know them better in order to attach myself to them. And I get it. And yes, it's important. But if we let that kind of, I don't know, be organic in that way or very kind of haphazard, or like you say, under the radar screen, we aren't going to achieve what we need to achieve as quickly as we need to achieve it, which is that we have inequities in every organization. Bar none. And I believe through proactively investigating somebody's work and saying, I am going to be a sponsor. It's not a question of if, and I will sponsor people that don't look like me. I will do that. And here's how I'm being held accountable to do it, propels, I think, these relationships and doesn't let us sit in this. Oh, well, I don't know. I don't really have a vested interest or I can't really, I'm not comfortable or I'm not-

ERIN THOMAS: It's the entire point. Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's the point.

ERIN THOMAS: That's why we're doing this. So yeah. I mean, those are the kind of circular logic that I just love to just ... Sorry to interrupt you, but but that's the entire point. And so when we were building Rise Up, we did ask a couple questions of these perspective sponsors and these were VPS who we gave them a blurb about what we were trying to do, asked them if they were interested. And of course, we've got this coalition of early adopters who raised their hands. And we asked the extent to which you're familiar with this person in the work, but also the extent to which you believe you can become confident about them. And it was information to help us pair, very intentionally pair, the directors with the VPs. But to your point, if someone said, I don't know anyone on this list. Okay, then the question is, are you willing to build a relationship? Because this is the entire point is folks need ability, they need advocacy. And so are you able to take those steps and do you have the capacity to do that? If not fair, but I don't think we should stop at those really downstream justifications for not engaging because we'll never get out of that vicious cycle.

JENNIFER BROWN: So true. I mean, you talk about unintentional inequity and I want you to define that concept and what I'm thinking, you're going to say and elaborate on is it is so much needs to be made intentional. And I think that's where we're at. And not to push people away, not to say you're horrible person. I love Brene Brown parses between shame and guilt. And I've always found that so helpful. Guilt is regretting something I didn't do or say, an action that I didn't take, or an action that I did take that I regret, but it's a learning opportunity, versus shame is I'm a bad person, which is a hard place to act from. So I think a fair amount of guilt is important because we should always be evolving. We should always be revisiting what we did or didn't do and how we might have participated in something or let something go that the person we are today would not handle the same. But I wanted you to define it, unintentional inequity, and tell us, should this inform the way that we look at all the things that we've been talking about?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think this is a term that better suits most of the dynamics that I see within organizations. I don't think I've talked about unconscious bias in a good five or seven years. Because I think it's overused, frankly, and we misuse that term. And I think most things are not unconscious bias. Most things are blatant isms or unexamined or just laziness. I think there's a distinction between that whole bucket and what is truly heuristics and flaws in decision making.

So when I talk about unintentional inequity, I'll start with the inequity piece. There, I'm really thinking about a few truths. One is our society is completely unfair and built on injustice and built on power and control. That's just a fact. Second truth is that companies are built within those same societies. They inherit those same dynamics. And so that means that, three, third fact here, that if an organization wants to make meritocracy an opportunity, more reality than myth, it takes a lot of active work and a lot of undoing the very fabric of how businesses typically run.

And that work to your point earlier about the journey, that work is probably never ending because those societal functions and because those societal forces and your own organization's forces, if it's been around for more than a few months are going to continue to create this flywheel of inequity. Which I just really think about as a sort of disparate amount of access to opportunity and to equal outcomes.

And then the unintentional part I always put in there because, to your point around guilt and shame, I do believe that most of these forcing functions are really endemic to how companies run. And I think that a lot of these patterns are not by conscious design. And yet, it's kind of going back to what you just said. It is the responsibility of every leader who says they're committed to DEI. If you're a coin base and you say you don't care, then fair. I think that's actually helpful information. But if you're a company or a leader within a company who says you care about equity and you care about diversity and you care about inclusion, then we have to pull apart all of these different variables that contribute to the fact that, when you look at your org chart, when you look at who holds the books, when you look at access to board presentations, or when you look at promotion rates, or when you look at even terminations and layoffs, you'll start to see patterns. And if we were truly equitable, we wouldn't.

And so getting in front of this defense mechanism of it's not intentional or not by design helps us just pull back the, what is versus it feeling like a judgment that we're all in this space trying to do good work and trying to disrupt hundreds of years of foundation that has been serving us in the wrong direction.

JENNIFER BROWN: And language is so important. I really appreciate your coming up with an alternative because I agree with you. Unconscious bias, we've looked at it. We might know the science we've been through the trainings and yet where does it leave us from an action perspective? And so I love this alternative way of speaking about it. How we speak about things can make the difference. So much of a difference in the energy that we're met with, the participation or not that we are able to garner has so much to do with how we're speaking about the problem and the assignment of blame. I mean, to me, like you just described it so beautifully, it is the product of hundreds of years of omission and a lack of attention and a lack of intention. Perhaps the intention was to exclude. Yes. So there is intention there. But I honestly, I don't know. I mean, right?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah. That was definitely the intention.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yes. That is there. However, and we need to fix that, but the unintending participants, what I think we can do now is to explain how the lack of action, it's the silence, it's the sitting back and not participating. It's not understanding my role in it. I don't think I have anything to contribute or I don't know about that on a personal level. I mean, it's all the, I call them deflections. But it is. It's a narrative that we use to get ourselves off the hook for sure. But it's also probably a little genuine too, which is the confusion about now that it's all been pointed out to me, what are we intending to do and how are we going to do it and what is my role to do it?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I think the risk of more education around systems and structures is then folks might start to misunderstand the role of the individual. And balancing the two, being able to point out these again, system based trends and dynamics, while also being clear about the fact that, as a company, as an organization, we are just people. We are people making decisions. And so we actually have a lot of power and a lot of control over the extent to which we invest in disrupting patterns and outcomes that we don't like, that don't align with our values or our mission. So it's both. It's the power of the individual and the recognition that collective action and collective power can actually change the tides of these structural debts and deficits and omissions is, I think, where this field needs to go. And hopefully there's other practitioners out there doing that work.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh yeah. You know it. I gets back to, I have this visual back to the Glow Up program that you described of that final recapping and assignment of duties. And it's sort of removing the brick from your backpack, but knowing that brick is important and who am I giving it to and who owns it? And what do I own as an individual? And understanding the difference between how I need to change and I'm going to feel uncomfortable for sure, but that's how growth is happening. It's that it feels uncomfortable. It feels squishy. It feels uncertain. I'm afraid. I don't know. I can't predict. I'm awkward. All of that is a signal that we're pushing ourselves, that we are trying to evolve. And yet that, I think your distinction between the individual and the system and your role in utilizing whatever you have access to, which is so much of the privileges that we talk about these days, that people don't even know, they don't see them in that way. And then they don't understand that with a small action that could cascade a value and something of benefit to others. And that actually changes the system.

I mean, us putting our shoulder to the wheel is literally what changes these systems. Like you just said, it's humans. I mean, it is all of us, the organization doesn't exist without us. So if we decide to change the system and we're committed and, like you said, if we're committed and all those of you who are listening and maybe don't work for an organization that thinks this is important well-

ERIN THOMAS: But I think that well is, I think you accept what the organization gives you and accept it and stay and manage your own reaction to that if it is something that you're passionate about. Or accept it and leave if you're able to. But I think too often, I hear about, and they're typically folks from marginalized backgrounds who just don't believe what the company's actually telling them and just hope for something better. And I just think that is really, really, really damaging, potentially, to you and to your health and your wellbeing and your outcomes. And so I just say accept what a company tells and shows you and make your own decisions as you're able.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. I love wrapping our time up with that kind of advice because you are precious and your energy's important and your health, all kinds of health, is important and some organizations are on the road, however imperfectly, I think you can really tell the difference. And Erin, you and I circulate amongst a lot of folks who do this work and you know when somebody really believes in their organization. And it's not always that the organization is perfect. In fact, it's kind of impossible that they are. And yet there is a real pay attention to do you believe in your heart and soul that this commitment is there? However, imperfectly it might be being executed or led or how behind the company is, we work with so many different clients. And some of ours are very, very early days. And sometimes those are the most, the richest relationships that we have because we have the openness, the willingness to learn, the hunger for best practices, the humility to be guided.

If you have that, you can work with that. That is a lovely combination and relationship and a push and a pull that is a successful relationship. But we all know, too, when it feels like the lip service, the window dressing, the superficial sort of check the box performative stuff. And that will definitely erode not just the culture, but us as change agents over time. So really pay attention, Erin, I know you probably mentor a lot of people, but pay attention to your energy, pay attention to your positivity, pay attention to what have faith in. And that can come and go and it changes all the time, probably, for some of us that are hopping around and shifting things in our professional life. But there are more and more places for you to find yourself where there is that beautiful dynamic where things can be created together in a way that honors all of us. And that is literally reshaping the workplace.

I mean, that's what the exciting thing is. On the other side of all this that I've been waiting for a really long time, is just to build organizations where you feel at home. We feel belonging and that's a beautiful thing and a beautiful vision. But we need that full participation to get there. And Erin, it sounds like, I mean, you're still at your organization. I think that speaks volumes for what's happening there, that you have felt so challenged and so able to get traction that that's a huge commercial for them, in my mind.

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah. I'm super happy. And I'll say what has helped is the fact that we've scaled so much in my three years here. And so my track record has really been a zero to one builder. This is my third first in seat, head of role. But I think I've really stuck around because I feel like we've been five different companies because each stage of growth, I'm like, oh, this is something I haven't quite done before or not quite in this way. And I'm being presented with new opportunities and challenges. Including on our marketplace itself, which is super cool. So yeah, there are definitely companies out there like that, but I'll say, as I was building my team, the biggest attractant and the biggest question from candidates was is this real? Because most leaving companies they felt were just not matching their deeds with their words. And I agree with your motivation of there are companies out there like that. And again, I think I get excited about folks who are able to vote with their feet and keep searching for that destination.

JENNIFER BROWN: We have to hold organizations accountable to be better. And if that means that we don't take a position because of some of those discomforts and doubts and skepticism, organizations need to know that, they need to hear that and they need to respond to it and do better. Otherwise they're going to lose at the talent game. But Erin, this has been wonderful. Where can folks follow you, listen to you, read what you're writing, all of that good stuff?

ERIN THOMAS: Yeah, sure. I think the best place to find me is Twitter @ErinLThomasPhD. I'm also on LinkedIn, but I do not hang out there. So I'm not going to check messages and I don't post that often. And then I'd also say, check out We've got a diversity inclusion and belonging section there that has a wealth of our own thought leadership and even tools and templates for other organizations and practitioners. We love to open source. I think this work has been way too proprietary for way too long, and it's really fun to build out loud. So hopefully you find some resources there.

JENNIFER BROWN: Ooh, that's the title of our episode, Building Out Loud. I love it. Love it. Awesome. That is so generous. Thank you so, so much. Thanks for joining me and speed on and keep up the wonderful work, Erin.

ERIN THOMAS: Speed but also rest. I want to rest.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, yes, absolutely. Go slow to go fast.

ERIN THOMAS: Oh yeah. Thank you, Jennifer.



Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to the Will to Change, Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Thank you for listening and we'll be back next time with a new episode.