Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Belonging at Atlassian, joins the program to discuss the research that Atlassian has done about creating more equitable organizations, and why they have chosen to make that information available to the public. Aubrey also reveals a language shift that they are using at Atlassian, and the importance of having conversations at a team level. Discover the innovative approaches that Atlassian is taking when it comes to gender diversity and the skill sets that DE&I professionals need to develop.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- What life was like for Aubrey growing up (4:00)
- Why Atlassian is focusing on balance and belonging vs. diversity and inclusion (11:00)
- The benefits of having conversations at a team level (15:00)
- The leadership competency of future leaders (18:00)
- How prospective employees can learn about the culture of an organization (24:00)
- A diverse labor pool that tech companies often overlook (31:00)
- How Atlassian is innovating when it comes to employee resource groups (34:00)
- How organizations can be more inclusive when it comes to gender (44:00)
- The skills that DE&I professionals need to develop (47:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Aubrey, welcome to The Will to Change.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Hey, Jennifer. So excited to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Me, too. So my last time I was in the same space as you was at this amazing conference that both of us frequent called Lesbians Who Tech out in The Castro in San Francisco and you were presenting and dazzling everybody as the technical and diversity wizard that you are. You are all these things and I’m so excited to have you here today.
You also have a role leading diversity at a company called Atlassian and I would love to know more when we get into our discussion, what is the company about, what about your role, and how you actually see the role evolving because there’s a community of us that lead this work in organizations and it’s always really fascinating to hear your view, how you’re innovating the role, what you think is needed most for the future and then all of us to calibrate with that and for me certainly serving all of the people that are in your role in so many different kinds of companies. I have my own thoughts on where I think it’s going and what we need to be paying attention to, but I consider you a real innovator in the space and I’m always following your work carefully and seeing what’s on your mind and knowing that it is super cutting edge. So thank you for joining today.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Thank you so much. That’s so nice. I so perfectly remember meeting you one, because you did my favorite thing in the world which was gave me a book. And then the book was really awesome so that was a one-two of excitement, but yeah, I’m so excited to be here and chat a little bit about what we’ve been doing because I get so inspired by different domains and what other D&I folks are doing, so I love talking as a way of getting feedback on what we’re working.
JENNIFER BROWN: Perfect, we’ll do that today and more. So, Aubrey, I know you have an interesting diversity story. We always start The Will to Change with our diversity story, so why don’t you just jump right in there and tell us what you want to share with us about who you are and why you’re super duper passionate about this at this stage in your life.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yeah, so I would say that looking backwards it makes total sense that work in the equity and justice space, but I’m not sure I could’ve landed here on purpose. And I come from probably – my family, we joke that we’re like the most American family. But what I mean by that, so I was raised by a dad who was trained as an engineer who was like, “Aubrey, you’re great at math.”
I think my story it tells itself about why I do what I do, but I grew up in basically the most American family you can think of and probably also a family that you would say is feminist even if no one used that language when I was growing up. So my dad was trained as an engineer, but he’s a corporate attorney and my mom is an entrepreneur, but I grew up hearing, “Aubrey, you’re amazing at math,” and I really thought calculus was fun. So I didn’t really get that women didn’t do math and science. And then I’m Latina and I was adopted into a family where my adoptive dad is Native American and French and my mom is a second-gen American on both sides of her family, Irish and Belgian.
So growing up we have this very almost post-racial house where we celebrated all of our cultures equally and I didn’t know that there was like a hierarchy out in the world and so I did experience what I think I would call now racism growing up in a way that wasn’t intended to be malicious, but group projects I was told, “Well, Aubrey, you sharpen the pencils because Mexicans do the service jobs.” And when I got to college I do pass for white so I got to delete that experience and those sort of two things juxtaposed together really taught me about how people are excluded from systems and I don’t know, I’ve always cared about fairness and so I said well, I have access and opportunity to change that and so I’ve dedicated my life to that and, honestly, it can be difficult, but I love it. And I think I’ve been given so many opportunities it’s the best way I can think to pay back that luck if that makes sense.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, of course that makes sense. That’s the biggest theme on The Will to Change is how to use your voice. That moment when you realize that what you have gone through or experience or what you were raised in or what you were exposed to equips you so well for the journey and for realizing your passion and then turning it into what you do for a living which is amazing. How did you think of what you were exposed to at the time as equipping you really uniquely to do the job that you do today? And I’m sure you can answer in a million ways, but is there a way that you think about the gifts of your own diverse identities that you might share with us?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yeah, absolutely. So, I would say that there’s probably – and maybe this is true of the best practitioners, but I think everything in my life has led me here. I think there’s me, as a human, I’m queer, I identify as a Latina woman, I do have some chronic disabilities so I just fit most of the boxes number one. But I think one of the things that has really helped me is that I’m trained as a social scientist. So I’m very into systems analysis and experiments and I think that that’s helped me in this work because we’re seeing this evolution and you mentioned earlier about how this role is changing going from what was best practice implementation but maybe with a little bit less empirical underpinning than some other things. And we’re really moving into a space where people are starting to understand that solving for these issues is structural and that we need social science and these methodologies in order to make sure that what we’re implementing is effective at creating equity and opportunity. So I think that’s something.
I was working on my graduate work studying terrorism and military strategy which doesn’t feel super applicable, but the skill set that I picked up while doing that work is really core of what I use all day.
JENNIFER BROWN: How did you pick that topic? I’m just so curious.
AUBREY BLANCHE: As you can probably tell I’ve always been motivated by inequity and unfairness and I was chatting with somebody who was just being discharged after spending of tour of duties in Iraq and they were given an opportunity to go work for Xe which was Blackwater which is a company like many that provide privatized soldiers basically. And I asked, “Why would you want to do that?” Because I was trying to understand what the options in front of them were. And something that they said to me around significantly different rules of engagement for uniform military versus privatized military contractors just made me question why would that be? Why are there different rules for different types of folks in theater? And that turned into a whole research program that I ended up starting a PhD to examine, but I have to admit I did not finish.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s okay. You’ve been up to some pretty important stuff, so you’ll get there.
AUBREY BLANCHE: No one told me dropping out was trendy in the tech industry, so I’m pretty grateful I ended up in the area where it worked out.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true, but I like the ring of “doctor” on you someday.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Maybe.
JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe. It could be a little pretentious. (Laughter.)
You just alluded to the shifts in language and I think we’re all questioning and the words are being questioned by our constituents and those that I think you and I are really passionate about representing the interest of, right? So we might have talked about this work. It’s funny you say it’s less empirically-based. It’s so true when people ask me, what kind of skill set do I need to go into this work and I am always really hamstrung in describing the needs, the skill sets, the technical skills that you need in order to be a Chief Diversity Officer. What does that mean? Because we all come at this from such different places, but I think we can agree that diversity was a compliance and perhaps a representation conversation and litigious one as well as it started. And then those jobs were created, we introduced inclusion into the conversation, we started to talk about the how that’s represented by inclusion and not just the what or the who which might have been represented by the word “diversity.”
But it’s continued on in some ways past those words, it’s still morphing and you’re in the middle of a hotbed of the questioning language and what’s next and what resonates particularly with younger talent that’s really represented in tech. So tell us about the evolution and what are you all doing about the words? Which ones are you working with now and why do you think we need to cast off some of the language that we’ve been using and where are we going to instead?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yeah, so I think there’s a couple of impetus for this both my personal experience qualitatively having one-on-one with folks as well as more rigorous research that we’ve done. I think backing a little bit, Atlassian a couple of years ago I realized that in my role I lacked very useful benchmarks about sentiment and behaviors around what we were calling diversity and inclusion at the time in the tech industry.
And so what we actually did was we created a survey that looked at both companies and individuals and we now run that annually as a globally representative survey of attitudes and behaviors towards diversity and inclusion in the tech industry and that’s something that’s available at Atlassian.com/diversity/survey. Because when I collected the data it was so compelling I realized that other practitioners could benefit from seeing it and there really was no value to us keeping it to ourselves.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for doing that. That’s so generous, that’s good.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yeah, as a company, Atlassian, we constantly talk about working open and so, for us, that means sharing our practices. You’ll see that with the Atlassian Team Playbook, but we try to do that with everything that we’re learning about how to build a more equitable organization and it includes this shift in language that we’re using. So, we’ve really moved away – and you can see this Atlassian.com/belonging our latest update on our progress and our numbers, is we’re really shifting from talking about diversity and inclusion to talking about balance and belonging. And it’s not just a language shift although I can totally see why people might think that, but it’s driven by a couple of different trends, so to start at the end of the ampersand I fundamentally don’t think that inclusion is good enough.
As you said, this field really started as a compliance-based, don’t get sued type of approach.
JENNIFER BROWN: Pretty much.
AUBREY BLANCHE: The evolution is really that it’s not about bringing up the floor of treatment, but really around maximizing the experience of the employee because we know it helps them be happier, retain, they’re more productive, their work is better, right? It’s good for the business, but it’s also good for the individual.
And I think inclusion the metaphor that I use is that gives me the feeling like I was invited to a party and someone was like, “Well, you can show up because some people canceled. We’ve designed a space for us, but it’s fine if you show up.” And belonging, psychological research tells us, is a fundamental need of every human, but also that it feels just a little bit more emotionally resonant with folks, right? That feels like being invited to a party and someone saying, “It would really mean a lot to me if you were there,” or, “Welcome, we built this space for you.”
And so we found that that was a core part of switching to belonging and internally we’ve seen so much engagement with that, I think, because people connect to it on a really basic level whereas the word inclusion and now going back to the word diversity has taken on some meaning based on the history with it that I think is actually getting in the way of the field’s progress overall. When people diversity and inclusion because it’s really traditionally associated with gender and racial diversity it means that folks who don’t perceive themselves to be in the “diverse” categories really tune out.
And our survey last year actually showed that that was true. So we asked who is diverse? Or which of these groups are “diverse?” And overwhelmingly, even outside the US, people answered with two answers, white women and black American, and certainly those are types of people, but they’re not the only ones. And it also didn’t account for folks who may fall into multiple groups. And so what we found was that the word diversity was actually meaning a much more restricted set of people than we meant and so we were getting less engagement than we would have. So we changed to talking about building balanced teams. First of all, that makes sense because no one is going to die on the hill of, “No, I want an imbalanced team.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I like it. Yeah, why argue with that?
AUBREY BLANCHE: But I think that it also helps us actually get closer to what we mean, right? So first, it removed that initial emotional fraughtness that a lot of people might have, especially, for example, straight white cisgender men, right? I hear all the time, “I’m not diverse,” and like, “That’s not your fault. It’s a group construct. And second of all, there are situations where someone like you may be underrepresented. Or maybe you have marginalized or intersectional identity that hasn’t been thought of, right?” You could be a straight, white, cisgender man, but you could be an immigrant, you could’ve come from a lower socioeconomic background or you could have Autism, there are lots of ways that your uniqueness counts and we want to make sure that you feel like that within our program.
And so, the second half that I think is really exciting about this change for us internally is that it helps us focus on the team level and it helps us have more direct and specific conversations about those traditional areas of systemic exclusion. So after this shift we’ve been able to have more direct conversations internally about anti-black racism than we were having before that. I think it’s because we say, “Is Atlassian, is this team, is this group imbalanced? In what ways?” And then we get closer to talking about the problems that are creating that imbalance so that we can get closer to focusing on the solutions.
So it’s been really helpful for us, and my hope is that by sharing other companies, if it resonates, can actually move that way and begin to make large structural progress as well.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s excellent. I love that. Just that one shift in what you lead with all of a sudden opens up and gives people permission to feel trusted to enter the space and enter the conversation. I also love how you describe that everybody, effectively, has a diversity story or stories, many of which are not visible for people, and that all of us are diverse in so many way. Sometimes people really pay the price for talking about that. Using that example, I wonder, what kind of pushback have you gotten as you’ve tried to really open this frame? Do you feel that some folks are feeling like they’re going to be left behind that perhaps were the traditional focus of these efforts, if you know what I mean?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Absolutely. That’s such a great question. I think the answer is yes, that could be possible if we weren’t really intentional in describing what it means and being intentional each time it shows up.
For us, there’s this concept around diversity of thought that everyone talks about.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
AUBREY BLANCHE: In theory, I’m like, yes, that’s true, but what we know is that that diversity of thought is actually mostly influenced by the diversity of our identities and life experiences. It’s mathematically possible that you have a group of people from the exact same backgrounds who have diversity of thought, but it’s so unlikely as to not be a reasonable assumption.
For us, we’re trying to build a balanced team. And one of the ways in which we need to do that is to remove these structural barriers from traditionally underrepresented groups. So, you’ll see how we’ve approached that in our last report at Atlassian.com/belonging. We said we’re making this shift, and also, by the way, we haven’t over the last couple of years increased our representation of our black employees in our U.S. offices. And we directly called that and also said, “Here are the new investments we’re making this year to make sure that we make improvement there.
It’s really important when you make the switch to both create space for more types of folks to enter the conversation, but also make sure that you’re signaling and investing to continue removing those structural barriers from groups who have traditionally been thought of when you think of diversity and inclusion, and hopefully soon balance and belonging.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love how you said that. I get asked a lot about the optics of how you present your journey. How overt should we be or how public should we be about our numbers? What if our numbers aren’t changing?
I often say if you make this a priority, it’s almost secondary what your numbers actually are. Of course, they’re important, but the effort really matters and the way that you are tackling it is so much a part of the story. Not to say that that can be all that you do, because some companies, you and I know, are all too good at getting the positive PR and not doing any of the work, right?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: I do think that this new leadership competency in general is being vulnerable, being truthful, being authentic, acknowledging as an organization and as leaders that we don’t have all the answers, but what really matters is that we’re pursing that and we’re doing that in a really robust, consistent way and we’re really walking the talk.
I love that you used that example. I hope folks that are listening, when they’re thinking about their organization, it’s important to show, particularly your own employees that you’re asking the right questions. You may not have been successful yet in shifting it, but I think, to me, if I were an employee hearing that, I would say we are on a journey, and that makes me feel good about being here.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yes. I think that’s right. One of the biggest mistakes that companies make is they put up these things and the say, “We care about diversity and we’re a diverse and inclusive place.” And I think that’s actually the worst possible strategy because if you’re a marginalized or underrepresented person, you know that’s bullshit. Right? You’re not fooling anyone. And so I think, it’s much more powerful to share your goals where you are, what you’ve done, and what you’re doing.
Again, I’m a queer, lesbian woman. I don’t expect for me to never experience a microaggression. Sometimes they happen. But what I do expect and what I promise to candidates when I talk to them, if they’re thinking about whether Atlassian’s the right team for them, is we’re doing our best to grow to minimize those types of issues, but if they do happen to you, we will absolutely resolve them. And if you join, we’ve built a lot of things for you and you will have an opportunity to help us define what “done” or what “better” look like.
And I think that I’ve had so many folks who said, “That was really refreshing, thank you for not trying to lie to me about perfection. I’m not expecting perfection, I’m expecting serious investment and improvement over time.” And that’s something we’ve been able to show really publicly I think because, again, we work open. We think that sharing and transparency is the best way to hold ourselves accountable.
I truly believe, having been here almost four years now, that that openness about our journey and the fact that it is a journey has helped us make a lot of progress.
One other tip for companies, this comes from Kieran Snyder, who is the CEO at Textio, which is a fabulous company, and we do use their product, but I’m not paid by them, I promise. She always says she asks companies, “What are you doing differently this year than last year?” I would say you’re not on a journey if you’re not doing something different this year than you were last year and expecting different results.
That’s what you’ll see at Atlassian. We’re constantly turning over our programs and approaches based on the challenges that we’re seeing and reinvesting where we saw great impact, and pulling back and divesting from stuff that just wasn’t the right solution.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you and I were talking earlier about how candidates can sus out what’s really true about a company that they’re evaluating, working with, and for. As candidates, asking wrong questions like, “What are you doing for diversity? What is your commitment to diversity?” And then recruiters often not even knowing how to answer those things beyond just the corporate language that they’re given, if they’re given that, and if they’re comfortable sharing that.
I think that there are so many things that go wrong in the candidate interaction and yet there are so many candidates looking for a place where they can resonate, where they can feel safe to contribute, where they feel that they can thrive and they’ll feel that sense of belonging. How in the world do they measure that from where they sit? What kinds of advice would you have?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yeah, that’s such a great question. It’s one of the things I worry about the most. Obviously, I want tons of fantastic folks to join Atlassian, but much broader than that, I know how hard it can be to be an underrepresented person in the industry, and I want folks to land in places where they’re going to grow and thrive.
And I think that people ask totally the wrong questions. So asking, like, “Does your company care about diversity?” Or like, “What is your commitment to diversity?” Are really bad questions because everyone knows the right answer and doesn’t have to provide you with specifics.
I think that candidates can – I would love for companies to have better signal, but I think candidates taking that on themselves to ask the right questions can be really powerful. If you’re an underrepresented candidate and you’re meeting with the average interviewer or hiring manager, instead of asking them, “Tell me about your diversity strategy or programs,” which that person may not have a view into everything that’s going on. Ask them, “How diverse is your team? How have you thought about that? What have you done to help build a more balanced or diverse team over time? How do you make sure that all voices are heard or considered in a meeting?” Things that are relevant to their day-to-day job will tell you a lot about the environment.
It’s totally great to ask a recruiter, “Can you send me some more information about the diversity and inclusion strategy or programs that are available in my group, in my office, at this company?” Or even asking a recruiter to connect you with a particular identity group. If you’re a parent, maybe you’re a working dad and you ask the recruiter, “Are there any dads at Atlassian that I could connect with to learn about what their experience is there?” or, “Do you have an LGBT group that someone would be willing to tell me about their experience?” That’s where you’re going to get the real info. Yes, you can totally back-channel and “whisper network” it, but I think it’s also okay to ask the recruiter.
It’s also find to ask to speak to someone on the D&I team if you want to get a little bit deeper insight. I think about my role, I don’t necessarily expect everyone on our recruiting team to be able to articulate our whole D&I strategy, but they should be able to talk about what they’ve done to connect with more underrepresented candidates, how they think about creating a positive candidate experience.
And those things will tell you whether it’s really in the fabric of the organization or not, not whether there’s a paragraph on their careers page.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful advice. How specific you were is really, really helpful. I’ll tell you, I’ve gotten pushback on that whole concept of connecting a candidate into the existing employee community base that shares their identity. I get a lot of pushback on that.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Really?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Maybe it’s your environment where you have the open culture, but some of my really traditional, large industrial companies, Midwest, south, everyone is afraid to name the elephant in the room. Yet, you’re trying to attract diverse talent that may or may not naturally come to live where you are because there’s not a lot of community there that looks like them. And yet, people hesitate to say, “Is it tokenizing this person for me, the white recruiter, to be connecting this person of color into our ERG so they can speak to someone about what it’s like to actually work here?”
I believe it would really help, and it’s such a welcome network-building mechanism on so many levels. Many people are uncomfortable with the rationale for doing that, but you and I know it’s so helpful, actually. It’s a bit counterintuitive, I guess.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Absolutely. There’s an interesting point there, looping back to intersectionality. It’s really easy for us to assume that someone’s primary identity is the one we see.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
AUBREY BLANCHE: If you ask me to rank my identities, I would say woman of color, then queer, then woman. Being connected to a woman’s group, for me, wouldn’t be as impactful as connecting to the Latinex community in a company.
The way that you approach it that’s the most respectful of folks in the identity that’s important to them, maybe they care about being a volleyball player more than they care about being a black person. That’s not for us to decide. It’s to say, “We always want folks to feel like there’s a sense of connection and community at Atlassian. Is there anyone from any particular group that we might be able to connect you with to help you understand what that experience is like?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.
AUBREY BLANCHE: And let that person offer it. Maybe they do want to be connected to that identity-based ERG member. Maybe they just want to talk to someone else in marketing. Let the candidate decide what information they need to make the right decision for them.
For companies that are really nervous about connecting underrepresented candidates to underrepresented folks internally, I would say that it’s actually a really good time to stop investing in recruiting around diversity. If you’re worried about what someone internally might say, maybe you want to put those dollars and that time towards building greater feeling connection, professional development, and sense of belonging with those underrepresented folks so you feel more confident about what they’re going to say about their experience when they chat to candidates.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hear, hear! Love it. I’m amazed. Say the same thing to all candidates because you have absolutely no idea who’s sitting across from you. There’s so much more that can be hidden than is visible. Be equal opportunity and don’t make assumptions about the candidates themselves. That’s the only way we can go. We’ll probably be surprised and shocked by how much interest there is on the part of candidates, particularly younger talent, in connecting into those groups as they identify.
You said that it’s so important that it’s up to the person to identify, not up to you to assume what group they would be a part of.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s revolutionary. It seems really simple, but it’s big.
AUBREY BLANCHE: For me, I have a French last name and green eyes and very light skin. No one would ever peg me for Latinex without me coming forward with it.
It’s also important in tech, as you mentioned earlier, we have a major ageism problem. At Atlassian, it turns out that some of our work we’ve gone from about 12 percent to 20 percent Atlassians over 40 over the last three and a half years. A big portion of that was that we tried to build a culture where folks could drive at any point of their life or different points in their life. That comes from authentically connecting with folks because we know that folks over 40, especially women because of the double issues of systemic exclusion that they face, it’s been shocking to me how much we’ve grown that community, which is awesome for us to see.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s great. Honestly, ageism is going to be one of the next big domains that we, in our role, are going to need to be focusing on. As people live longer, as they want to make their contribution.
I just interviewed Chip Conley on the podcast that’s coming out next week. He wrote a book called The Modern Elder. You might know, he was a hotelier, and then he was the advisor to the Airbnb board. He rode that exciting journey with Airbnb and was the modern elder in the room, which is funny. He laughs about it. “Yeah, I’m in my 50s, and now I’m the elder.” Not “elderly,” the “elder.” Now he has something called the Modern Elder Academy in Baja, of all lovely places. The whole purpose of it is a retreat to discuss what is my purpose at this point of my life? Where do I want to make a contribution? I’m distressed because I do think companies have a habit, a really bad habit, of discarding talent and following that bright, shiny object.
At a time ironically, we have more to contribute when those of us who are aging into that cohort are at the peak of some of our intellectual powers, our emotional intelligence powers, and our ability to relate and connect the dots and think big picture macro. There are so many benefits to being that age and there are so many blind spots of a majority younger workforce just because of the wiring of the brain and how we become more sophisticated and nuanced in the ways that we work as we get older.
So, I love hearing that. Do you predict that we’ll see inspirational signs of an attention paid to that in the tech world, or do you think it’s still the cult of the younger worker and everything is about them?
AUBREY BLANCHE: I think that there is a shift happening, although I’d love for it to be a little further along. We were the first company three and a half years ago, to release age statistics as a part of our diversity report. That was partially driven by we had the data and partially because ageism is incredibly irrational.
We have a great blog on our website by an Atlassian who wrote about how ageism is actually just prejudice against yourself.
JENNIFER BROWN: Because we’re all going to experience it?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Right, if we’re lucky enough to live that long.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we are.
AUBREY BLANCHE: You said it in such a more sophisticated way. I actually am just like, why wouldn’t you want to hire folks who are more experienced? They’ve had a lot more time to mess up and learn than younger people have. They have more knowledge by definition. I am starting to see a shift there. I think there are a couple of different reasons it is happening, but I am just glad that it is. First, I think there’s been some more discussion about ageism. You’re also seeing that the poster people for that obsession with youth are aging and they’re realizing that maybe they were completely wrong.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Then the third one is simply how difficult it is to find talent. This is very much a candidate’s market and when you get down into folks who have product management, or engineering, or security experience, the idea that we get rid of people because we put an artificial expiration date on their contributions, we have way too many open jobs for that. My hope is that that pressure will help us see and more accurately create opportunity for folks who have that depth of experience. I think that’s where you get folks coming in with maybe less context and then folks who have really deep knowledge of underlying problems and systems and lots and lots of experience at solving problems is where you get a lot of the magic.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. You’re right, we’re in a war for talent. Why is this not a critical part of our talent strategy? I couldn’t agree more. You’re experimenting in things like your speaker series and your affinity group model with broadening the lens of the types of diversity stories that some of us have and are experiencing. You’re getting bigger audiences when you are introducing new topics and getting a lot of interest, too. Can you share a little bit about the topics you’ve been presenting and who has been showing up and how you analyze perhaps this is a huge unmet need?
I always get this feeling when I’m keynoting that when I open up the floor to all of the aspects of diversity from cultural identity to generations to education background and socioeconomic to abilities, so many more people feel they want to know and want to be in that conversation. They feel seen and heard. I think that’s what you’re getting at with balance and belonging.
How are you thinking about those perhaps single-identity groups we’ve traditionally thought of whether it’s the black network or the Latinex network, women’s network? Are you innovating with those? Then what additional aspects are you programming around that are getting a lot of attention?
AUBREY BLANCHE: I would say I really have a “yes and” model. But I’m generally pretty dissatisfied with the way that things like employee resource groups are often implemented. I think they’re overly bureaucratic in many ways and so I don’t end up really getting to the purpose that they’re there for. For us, those employee communities, I call them “belonging communities” are much less structured and fluid in their goals over time.
I try to think of myself as a support system for that. Support the groups in defining their own outcomes and their approach to getting there. We have a variety of programs that are actually unified in trying to create a space where, if there was a way I could sum it up, it’s you can bring your self that you want to bring to work.
That means we do a lot, we’re a very, very distributed global company and we actually leverage Atlassian tools, and our collaboration tools a lot for this.
We have Slack channels, as you can imagine most companies do, for different communities. General, balance and belonging discussion for black Atlassians, for underrepresented people of color, for women, by geography and we try to connect people with their people when they come in. We also have a centralized space that’s focused on all aspects of inclusion and the blog there it’s called Side by Side, because the idea is belonging happens because of what we all do for each other. We have to be brave and show up.
But that blog is really focused on people’s identities and personal experiences with a secondary goal of teaching your teammates how to better support people like you. Instead of me teaching, because I am only a limited set of identities, having folks teach in their own words about their experience. We bring in speakers and things like that. I’ll talk a little bit about how that works.
As an example, last year, one of the things that I got a lot of questions about, and I think you see a lot of movement in this space to better consider folks with a wide variety of disabilities, as well as those with autism which is sometimes grouped into disability although I think a lot of folks in the autistic community don’t prefer that. What we actually did was we found Tim Goldstein. He’s amazing. He has Asperger’s, but he educates about the special abilities that folks on the spectrum have as well as some unique challenges that they might face.
We had a great turnout at some of out other speakers, but we brought in Tim virtually and we had a 4X increase in the folks that called in for that talk. That was awesome, just to get engagement. But what came from that is perhaps even more powerful.
I didn’t know this at the time, but an employee had called in and was watching the talk and had an epiphany that he was probably on the spectrum, but wasn’t aware. He ended up going to get checked working with this healthcare providers and found out that he was, in fact, an autistic person. Eventually came out to his team with some specific requests about the way that they work.
A few months later, unbeknownst to me, because there isn’t any tollgate to post on our blog, so it’s really when you feel the need you can ping me for feedback but it’s open for any employee to use when they’d like.
He wrote a story about what it felt like to have someone come into work that was like him and show him that the way he was and the way he worked was actually normal, it was just a little bit different than the people around him, and how that led him to actually get a diagnosis which helped him get support, and how his team had changed their practices to better support him and his work style. Then shared that with 2500 people at the company on this blog. I was sitting there literally crying at my desk trying to prepare to go to a meeting.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. I’m getting full-body chills.
AUBREY BLANCHE: You think about it. I messaged him and I was like, “I want to tell you thank you so much for sharing that story.” But I think that’s what it is, we try not to really invest in structured programs as much as create spaces for people to show up. Obviously, not everyone is going to be comfortable writing a blog that 2,500 people see, but that’s something you see on our blogs, certainly folks talking about autism and the challenges and opportunities there. Talking about what it feels like to come back from maternity leave or how it feels to have a miscarriage and then have to come to work. Everything from wedding photos to maybe having an anxiety disorder and what a flare-up feels like. Being a working parent, being over 40 and questioning whether tech actually wants your contributions.
We just had an employee write this fantastic entry about how micro aggressions are like getting spinach in your teeth and you should treat getting feedback about them the same way. Talking about racism and anti-blackness. I think that’s it, when you create this space for people to do that, they do use those. Then, we use our digital spaces in Confluence or on Slack to create smaller communities where folks who might not be comfortable in a bigger setting can also show up. That’s our “Out-lassians” group, which as you can probably guess, is our LGBTI-identified folks and things like that.
In addition to what you tend to see. This year, for example, we’re building very specific professional development programs for our black Atlassians based on the feedback that they’ve given us about the skills that they want to develop and what they want to see in their environment. And so for us, it’s a hybrid model of just trying to garden to create the right environment where folks can show up and be authentic, and then also investing more formally where we’re hearing feedback from our employees that we need to do better.
JENNIFER BROWN: Got it. We talk a lot in our worlds about self-identification. For example, the LGBTQ community is a classic case of knowing there are a certain percentage of those who identify in that community in your workforce, but having them not feel comfortable enough disclosing that, for example, in engagement surveys and HR processes.
We all make these decisions based on whether we really believe in what our company and our culture tells us, the little signals, right? The spinach in the teeth, does somebody receive that feedback and do they adjust? Are they well meaning? Does this place care about me and if I leap, will the net appear? Will it ever penalize me to bring my full self to this workplace?
In most of my companies, including really progressive ones, people are still closeted. They’re still not disclosing. That’s not just the LGBTQ community, but honestly it’s the community with disabilities and diverse abilities. How do you think about if we can’t measure the size of a particular community because they’re afraid to disclose, it makes everything that we do more difficult because what is the need? How do you get your hands around how people are suffering? What is interrupting their ability to thrive?
I wonder, how do you collect that data? Do you collect it? Is it not as important for you because you’re focused on other things?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Yes, I think that’s a great question. There’s one, just like the limits of data collection in the space are real. We know, for example, I can’t collect racial or ethnic data outside of the U.S. for legal compliance reasons, and I find even the categories that exist for our U.S. reporting is substandard at best.
And then there are identities that are hard to collect data on, things like caregiver status, which is something we’re looking at collecting, if that’s an opt in, but then there are some that are a little more fraught, for example, LGBTI identification, not only because folks may not want to register that in a formal system, but also it could present a risk to them depending on what geography they’re based in given cultural attitudes and laws.
So, I think the way to deal with populations where data collection is either someone might – even if they’re happy to be out at work, for example, they may not want to put it in your HRIS system for whatever personal reason.
I think that one of the things that you can do is begin a cultural transformation signals to people that this is the way that we work at X company. So, at Atlassian, our senior leaders are very open about the fact that we support LGBT individuals, and then we back that up with processes and initiatives that sort of reinforce it. So, you have to set the norm, right? Leaders say, “This is not something we discriminated against, we allow people to show up as their full selves in this way, but then you have to think really thoughtfully about the population and how you support them.
So, I’ll talk a little bit about how we’ve thought about that with our trans employees. So, we do actually have a way for trans employees, if they choose to, to self-ID. And I use that data, for example, because of some limitations about the way we have to collect data around biological sex for some health insurance reasons to make sure that I’m including everyone who’s feminine identified and opportunities for women, for example, regardless of whether they’re cisgender, trans, or non-binary.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
AUBREY BLANCHE: For that coming in over the last three and a half years, we’ve thought a lot about trans inclusion. Our founders have publicly supported marriage equality and we celebrate pride, but we also, for example, have a clear documented and easily available gender transition policy because we recognize that employees may want to have some guarantees about what the treatment they’re going to get is if they decide to transition before they ever talk to anyone, even on the people team. That’s a signal, right? It’s discoverable, you can find it, and it’s written like a bill of rights. So it’s, “Here is what you are entitled to as someone who is undergoing a transition at Atlassian.” And we list sort of the menu of everything we can help you with, and then we’ll work with you to develop a plan that meets your needs. And we’ve had some employees transition, and I think the best sign is that they chose to do it, right, that they felt that they were supported. But it doesn’t just stop with a policy, right? Our HRBP and people partner team understands trans issues and they have some resources to help support them to make sure they’re inclusive.
But even as something as basic in our San Francisco office, where we just opened in November, we’re really thoughtful about what our space has communicated about trans inclusion. So, we made sure that every single floor, in the center of the floor, so it’s maximum convenience for everyone, we have a bathroom that is explicitly designated all gender. And then because of building code restrictions, we do have to have gendered facilities. But what we did was we actually thought about, why do we have to depict the people of what a particular gender looks like? And so all of our signage, while it will say men or women, where it’s legally obligated to, all of the photos are actually of the things in the room. So not that fake little picture of a woman or of a man, but actually just on the women’s rooms, it’s two toilets, and on the men’s rooms, it’s a urinal and a toilet.
So, really trying to get as ungendered as possible. And I think trans folks see that and say, “Oh, they’ve thought about me and my needs. But also for folks who don’t identify as trans, they’ve been given a pretty strong signal that this is how we work and who we include here. And so I think for anyone trying to think about that, what signifiers can you put in your workspace that tell people that they can be safe? And then how strongly are you making it clear how to get resolution if something goes wrong, and then the third piece is how seriously are you taking it when something does? And I think those pieces together can help folks feel more comfortable to come out, but recognize that some folks may never want to be out at work and you can create spaces for them to be safe as well by creating “family-only” spaces.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Just to twist your head around a bit, at the global stage, some employees feel most safe, actually, being out in the workplace and not in their home life. When you go global and you consider that the workplace is actually the safest place for some in the community to work for a company that they know really supports them and believes in them, and those are the safest places for them to be, which is sobering and reminds us all of our privilege in living where we do, some of us, and working where we do. That’s really powerful.
I have so many things to ask you, but we don’t have a ton of time left. Aubrey, I know we did commit to talking about how the head of diversity and belonging at any given company, how that role is really changing and what skills are required. I know a lot of people look up to somebody like you, I get a lot of people who are interested in having these as jobs someday, whether they have it or not. They want to know, “How do I get to be that someday? How could I have that role?”
Quickly, what are the one or two things that you think are critical, not just now, but in the future for anyone who’s leading this kind of effort in organizations? You’ve displayed a lot of those competencies today, frankly, in the way you think about and approach these questions, honestly.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: To me, you’re an excellent example. If you were coaching or mentoring others who want to be you someday, what should they be investing in now? What should they be focusing on in order to prepare themselves?
AUBREY BLANCHE: Obviously, it goes without saying that you should be looking at critical race theory, queer studies, access and disability studies, looking at gender and sexuality, which I think is obvious.
What I think are the skills that make someone really effective in this role are, one, learn how to understand empirical research. So, you don’t necessarily need to be trained to create it yourself, but you need to be able to know how to get the right information because this job will constantly change, and the only thing I can guarantee you is you won’t know something you need to know as the expert in the company. So, get some really, really good research skills, and understand how to evaluate best practices that are given to you, both because some just don’t work, and because some just won’t work in your environment because every sort of strategy has to be custom fit to a company.
I think the other piece, the two things that I would tell you to develop, in addition to influencing skills, so go in the business book section and understand influence, because this job is all about soft power and convincing people to do things. But the last piece is get yourself a personal community and a radical self-care routine. I’m totally serious. Something I wish I had been told. The fact is, this is a high-empathy-requirement job, so you’re often the conscience of the company and the personal therapist of both leaders and other employees, in addition to needing to be anybody strategically effective business leader and someone who can analyze the effectiveness of their programs.
But, biologically speaking, we are only capable of so much empathy, something called “compassion fatigue,” that is real. There are strategies that can help you interrupt it. And I think that in this profession, I think probably just because of the types of folks who tend to go into it, we tend to be focused on the care for others and we don’t spend as much time thinking about how to care for ourselves and carry on doing the work over the long term, as opposed to burning out pretty quickly. It is easy to look up and feel overwhelmed at times.
That’s what I would say: Learn about compassion fatigue. Come up with a self-care routine for yourself. Drink water, sleep. I have a WhatsApp group, #squad, and it’s a mix of people I love and people who work in D&I and it is solely for venting, releasing, and getting support when something goes well. I think we all need that, but when you’re in this space, you absolutely have to have that to keep yourself going. It’s totally okay to step back to care for yourself so that you can care for others fully.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Let’s put our oxygen mask on first, as they say.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad you raised compassion fatigue. I think these jobs are really pressured and really difficult on a personal level, not just professionally. Imagine you’re working on an issue that impacts you personally, depending on your diversity dimensions and you’re literally teaching people about microaggressions that you’re walking around, probably experiencing at the same time as you’re teaching about them and you’re trying to eradicate them from the organization, you’re trying to speak truth to power. It’s one of the most complex roles ever.
And, yet, those of us who do this, I think we feel so privileged. You’re at the very heart of human behavior and organizational change and articulating and designing the very future of work. We’re in the center of that. I feel lucky, but I also know that the intensity is something not to be taken lightly. We’re no good to others if we aren’t good to ourselves and we don’t set up that kind of support mechanism. I’m really glad you said that. Thank you.
AUBREY BLANCHE: That’s just from my own experience. I neglected that, and I definitely had some moments where I wasn’t taking care of myself and it showed in both how I am in my effectiveness. It’s been getting all of that right that I think has been the start of really having impact, because I can show up more fully. Hopefully, other people can do that as well.
JENNIFER BROWN: Please role-model that for us, thank you.
AUBREY BLANCHE: I will do my best.
JENNIFER BROWN: Aubrey, let people know here they can follow you. I know you and I are always back and forth on social media. Where can people find your thought leadership?
AUBREY BLANCHE: I am most available to the world in Twitter. I’m @ADBlanche. I try to send out useful content and my own ramblings about theoretical issues in this space. You can find my medium through there, where I write occasionally about big ideas about getting paid for D&I or how to get into the community. And then the Atlassian website to check out our approach. Hopefully, it helps you. Get in touch if it does, especially if you’ve taken it and made it better. I would love to know how you did that.
JENNIFER BROWN: A generous offer. Thank you so much. Keep it up and take care of yourself when you do.
AUBREY BLANCHE: I’m so happy to join you today, I’m just sad we’re out of time.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Thank you so much, Aubrey, for coming on The Will to Change.
AUBREY BLANCHE: Absolutely.
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