Tech has a diversity problem—and many justifications for why things are the way they are. There’s the pipeline problem, the revolving door for women, the lack of female role models, and issues of subtle bias, not to mention the steadfast belief in the idea that the industry is a meritocracy—that is, managers hire only the best and most qualified candidates, independent of other factors.
Lately, however, a growing number of people are starting to view “the way things are” as unacceptable. Research has shown that decision-making groups with gender and racial diversity outperform more homogeneous groups—both in coming up with more creative ideas and in making more money. (If your “meritocracy” leads to a homogeneous workforce, you’re not maximizing your profits, it turns out.) Tech companies, as they finally start to make diversity a priority, are releasing employee demographic reports to make themselves accountable. Many are pledging millions to fix problems inside and outside their companies.
Smaller tech companies might be just as well-meaning but simply lack the resources to assess their own workforces and apply the data toward building more diversity into their businesses. That’s where a new startup called Doxa says it can step in.
Billing itself as a data company that matches women with the right tech companies using “OKCupid-style” algorithms, according to its CEO and cofounder Nathalie Miller, Doxa uses survey responses to build a picture of what it’s like to be an employee at a given company. Doxa especially digs into “gendered work experiences”—the ways people of different genders experience their jobs and workplaces. Their surveys take into account both quantitative data (pay gaps, the composition of teams) and so-called “softer” qualitative data (for instance, how respondents feel their co-workers value their opinions). Doxa launched last week with employee data from 10 partner companies in its system, including such recognizable startups as Instacart, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Shyp.
The one thing Doxa’s partner companies have in common is that while they’re all of a certain modest size, they’re also growing fast. These are the types of companies that are often so preoccupied with building products, dealing with investors, and ironing out a plan to go to market that it’s easy to see how a certain kind of deliberateness in hiring new employees with diversity in mind could end up taking a back seat for managers.
But Miller argues that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off. “Part of our message is you don’t have to wait until you’re enormous and then have this afterthought about thinking about inclusion,” says Miller. “You can start early.”
Miller knows about working for a company in high-growth mode firsthand. Joining the grocery-delivery startup Instacart as its 20th hire, she experienced the exhilaration that comes with having an important role in a business that was expanding right before her eyes.
In the year that she worked at the company, Miller remembers, Instacart raised more than $260 million in funding, and the team ballooned from 20 people to about 120 people by the time she decided to leave in the fall. When Miller started at Instacart, the company had about 200 independent contractors working as shoppers. When she left, Instacart had signed up 4,000 shoppers. “It was just this insane growth spurt, and we were hiring like crazy,” Miller says.
But the problem with growing that fast, Miller eventually realized, was the incredible pressure not only to find the right match for each of the many positions that needed to be filled but to find those people as quickly as possible.
“It was this situation where you ended up having coffee with a lot of people, and you just had to rely on your gut, that first impression,” Miller says. “But when you’re hiring hundreds of people at a time, it’s really hard to make the right choices. It’s like feeling the regular pain of hiring, but on steroids.”
After the company had brought on several batches of people, Miller says she found herself in a precarious situation with a new hire. “A guy, a recent hire, approached me at one point and said something to me that I think he meant as a compliment,” Miller says. “He told me he had organized a group of guys to rank the sexiness of the women at the company, and he said to me, ‘You’re No. 1 on my list.’”
Miller was indignant. “I was like, ‘Excuse me—this is not a frat house, this is not how we are,’ ” she says. “And it’s true—that’s not how the men at Instacart are. He just had this total misconception about what would be appropriate.”
Luckily, Miller says, the company dealt with the situation swiftly. “There’s no tolerance for that type of thing at Instacart,” she says. But while Miller says she’s proud that the managers came to her defense and took a stance to make things more comfortable for all women at the company, the incident stayed with her.
“I thought to myself, Does it matter that we did it right at this one company with this one person? It was great, but I decided I wanted to build a whole company around this problem and solve it at the high level.” And so Doxa started to come together.
In the fall of 2014, Miller, working with University of California, Berkeley, statisticians, developed a questionnaire that she could hand out to companies to help them build their profiles as well as a system that could be used to analyze the employees’ answers. After Miller had identified several companies interested in the tool, she worked out an arrangement by which the companies internally distributed the survey to enough employees—that is, a statistically significant number—to make the company profiles valid.
The survey includes about 40 questions and takes about three minutes to fill out, Miller says. Most of the questions are multiple choice, though a few questions are open-ended, which Miller says are designed to elicit candid testimony about what it’s like to work at a particular company. The questions themselves ask respondents about themselves in a way that gets at certain traits that might describe the employee or the company or the culture as a whole. For instance, Miller explains, the survey wouldn’t ask a respondent, “Are you competitive?” Instead it might ask if a respondent viewed competition as healthy in working relationships.
After enough responses are gathered, Doxa builds a company profile. The profile might include details on what percentage of people are happy at the company, the average age and length of employment, regular hours, if people tend to work on the nights or weekends, and how many hours are spent on meetings per week, among others. Users can also peruse personal testimonies to get a sense of how people feel about working for the company. Right now, Doxa has made a “window” of data linked to their partner companies available to the public, but more details are shared internally. It’s also taking sign-ups so that employees can petition their companies to work with Doxa.
Miller acknowledges that Doxa’s methods are somewhat limited in scope, since the questions are targeted and not every employee has to answer the survey. But she thinks of Doxa more as a useful tool than the definitive picture of where a company stands in terms of diversity. There’s also potential, she says, for Doxa to supplement top-down efforts by companies who often dig into existing human resources data to come up with their employee demographic reports. Or—since analysis of existing data can take time—if companies want results faster, Doxa provides an alternative.
“Companies want to become places that are great, supportive systems for women, men, and everybody,” Miller says. “We hope we can be a tool they can use to figure out how to get there, and point out the places where they’re doing well and where they need some improvement.”
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