Aubrey Blanche of Atlassian on how to impact the future of gender equity in tech

Swati Kumar
Aubrey Blanche
April 15, 2019

For the first in a series of posts about the current and future state of gender equity in the tech industry, I had the opportunity to talk with Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Belonging at Atlassian. Describing herself as a designer of equitable organizations, Aubrey has had a wide range of experience that helps her to understand the nature and prospective future of gender equity and puts her in the unique position in talking about the direct impact (or lack thereof) of the #MeToo movement on tech.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up in your position at Atlassian?

My background is a bit different than many people in these kinds of roles. I was originally a journalist and then transitioned into academic political science. So really, I'm trained as a social science researcher.

When I realized that my PhD was a little too much school, I ended up leaving and entering the tech industry. It turned out that I loved technology. I was pretty quickly confronted by how homogenous it was, which made me feel very isolated as a queer Latina woman. My first thought was “We are in California...how are they so few Latinx people in this industry?” I started working on the women's and LGBT* communities at work, and eventually started running experiments with the company to understand whether their processes were effective at truly hiring the most qualified people for their open roles, the biggest challenge for tech companies (rather than just hiring who matches the predominant stereotypes of tech workers).

That pushed me into a formal diversity & inclusion (D&I) role. Four years ago, Atlassian called, and offered me the opportunity to build their global function. Obviously, I said yes and the rest is history.

So what would you say has been your greatest key to success particularly as a woman in a male dominated industry?

I haven’t taken the usual advice in my career, which has been really powerful. What I mean by that is that a lot of the advice for women of color tends to focus on telling us how we can act more like older, white men. And I don't think that's particularly useful, to tell us to show up as long as we don’t show up like ourselves. I've been lucky enough to have a lot of leeway to show up as I am, which tends to be a short, very opinionated, loud, pink-haired Latina.

I think it surprises people, but it also helps change what leadership looks like. And I can’t say that I did that on my own. That came from having an incredibly supportive community: it takes a village to make anyone successful.

Do you think the impact of your gender on your position in the workplace has evolved at all since you've been climbing through the ranks at these various organizations?

For me, my gender is probably less influential to me than my ethnicity and my LGBTI identification. I pass for White so in many cases, I haven't experienced the kind of barriers that other people of color have experienced. But at the same time, I do wonder if those categories impacted the opportunities I’ve gotten.

What would an ideal, diverse, tech company environment look like to you? What would the future of gender equity look like?

Most importantly, we should focus on what it would feel like. Ideally, you're going to see and experience a lot of people who are different from you. For the tech industry, we’ll see more of visibility of folks with disabilities and people of color, especially in leadership roles. The cultures that will best foster that, are the ones that prioritize openness towards new experiences and challenge existing paradigms about people.

Can you remember where you were and what your reaction was when you first found out what would be the beginning of the #MeToo movement back in 2016?

My first reaction was, “This happens all the time, maybe people will pay attention now.” Being open and transparency about what is wrong is so important in the process to create change. Frankly, I'm thrilled survivors and advocates, myself included, are now having this discussion publicly as opposed to whispered among ourselves.

What did you expect the impact of the movement to be on the tech industry?

My expectations were relatively low, to be frank. I've been very heartened with some of the small changes we’re beginning to see, but there’s a lot more work to do. Google getting rid of forced arbitration agreements is so important for issues of harassment and discrimination are so important. We don’t use those kinds of agreements in our employment contracts at Atlassian, and I hope the rest of the industry gets on the right side of history on this issue.

So would you say you're satisfied then with the progress made?

Absolutely not. I'm happy to see that there are big structural changes happening, but we're really only 2% of the journey in. I think we can make the biggest progress is in making sure we're not only centering the experiences of White women specifically. Over the last five years, the representation of Black women in technology dropped by 13%, while many of the gains of the latest investment in diversity & inclusion have gone to White women. I’d like to see a more intersectional lens taken here, which would bring up everyone.

Those are very sobering numbers. What are your predictions for the future of women in tech over the next five years?

I'm pretty optimistic. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that companies would be talking seriously and publicly about pay equity and pay parity. I’m seeing people just joining the workforce focus more on fulfillment and inclusion in their workplaces.

What is the major blocker for women in tech?

Men who refuse to give up power, or change the culture that’s benefitted them. Research out of Australia showed that only 17% of men are actively advocating for gender equity in the workplace despite the majority of men saying that they support it. Lots of folks focus on growing the pipeline when that's not the problem: the problem is that tech culture is not built for women to be successful in.

What does that look like? Women are more likely to be seen as “abrasive”, be punished for negotiating their pay, and be told they’re “not a team player” when they self advocate. That’s driven by unconscious bias, but men aren’t helping to interrupt those patterns.

Organizations that say women need to advocate for themselves, actually tend to blame women more for their lack of advancement. Research shows that men and women tend to act similarly in the workplace but are treated very differently for that behavior.

Would you say that women have been doing their part to overcome the adversity?

We've been shoving against the glass ceiling for a while. If there were anything I’d offer, it's that we should be active allies to each other. For example, women who are able should women with disabilities, White women should support women of color, etc.

We're talking about the employees of a particular company, but how about the leadership, the structure, the corporate groups? Do you think that they've been doing their part, and if not, what could they be doing better?

Many companies invest in D&I, but most companies have not invested in structural solutions. They won’t make significant advances by simply having cultural celebrations and unconscious bias training.

Companies have to be looking deeper and making bigger changes:

  • Have you designed your assessment process in a way that’s bias-resistant?
  • Is your performance review equitable?
  • Are you auditing your promotion rates?

What is your opinion on the state of gender diversity or diversity in general at Atlassian?

I'm proud of the progress that we've made. We've made significant gains in gender balance across our team, which has been driving not only be increased hiring for underrepresented people, but also increased retention. That means that folks are happy and feel valued, which is critically important. We're also proud to have improved representation not only in junior levels, but in our senior leadership at well. Our latest data is available at atlassian.com/belonging.

Do you feel like there's been a lot of progress that you've witnessed specifically since you joined the company?

I recently met a new leader at Atlassian, and he had told me that he heard our culture had become kinder over the last few years. To me, that was an enormous win. But what gets me the most excited is that it’s not just me--or even our People Team--making that happen. That’s about each person coming to work and making the environment better for their teammates.

Is there anything else big that you're currently working on, that you want to work on that you think is worth mentioning?

I think the big things that we're thinking about now are really about ensuring that folks are learning and growing. We're also studying how people collaborate at Atlassian to understand where we might be able to nudge folks into more inclusive collaboration behaviors.

If there was one thing the rest of the industry could learn Atlassian about building a stronger and more diverse team what would it be?

We need to focus on teams. At Atlassian, we report on the balance of our workforce at the team level. Why? Because that’s where you get the experience and benefit of diversity.

What advice would you give a young woman starting out in the tech industry on how to avoid gender blockers at work?

Find your squad: those people who will support you when you hit whatever blockers you encounter. There are many of us working hard to create an industry that is equitable, but blockers still do exist. In the meantime, develop your support community, mentors, friends, people you can share your successes and your challenges and struggles with because that's what's gonna get you through.

And what advice would you give a young man or anyone that identifies as the majority on how to avoid becoming or inadvertently supporting gender discrimination?

Be humble and listen to the women and trans and non binary folks. Our world is designed for you to not value the voices of underrepresented people, so fight against that. Believe us when we tell our stories.

When we tell you something, it might seem surprising. Respectfully, you’re probably not the best person to judge whether someone is real or imagined. What happened if you believed us, and acted accordingly?

Imagine the world we would have if each person every day did one thing, just one thing, to create opportunity for someone who is more marginalized than themselves. That would be a pretty different world and it wouldn't require a lot from each one of us. Our ability to do that is predicated on listening openly to each other, and being willing to take action where we can.

A big thank you to Aubrey and her team at Atlassian for taking the time to talk to me! Keep an eye out for our next interviews with BlueJeans and Freshworks and for our upcoming white paper on how we can brighten the future of gender equity in tech.



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