Joy Smith and Gord Tanner on Post-Pride Continuation of Discussions on Workplace Inclusivity
Gord Tanner and Joy Smith began founded Making Space to give LGBTQ+ individuals who work in tech – particularly those in Waterloo Region – a voice of their own. In order to foster inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, and representation in technology, the two aim to bring the community together, thus, providing a space for marginalized voices to be amplified.
Tanner and Smith describe makingspace.tech as a collective guild of people working to carve out safer spaces and curate them for the underrepresented groups in technology. They hold monthly meet-ups and fireside chats to accomplish this.
At Kiite, we wanted to ask some questions about how to foster a more inclusive workplace and educate ourselves about the process. Sharing these ten questions is a first step toward continuing conversations about LGBTQQIAP2+ folks in tech now that pride month is over. The issues highlighted this past June won’t just disappear without action, so we want to learn how we can make Kiite — and other companies — better for years to come.
Here’s how they do it.
1. What, do you believe, is the current state of LGBTQ+ diversity in the tech workspace?
Joy: That’s an interesting question. I recently read a statistic that 55% of American workers are okay working with the LGBTQ+ community, which is a bit disturbing considering this is supposedly good news for the LGBTQ+ community — that only half of your coworkers are okay with you even existing.
Even anecdotally, there’s still a long way to go to actually make these workspaces more welcoming. What most people don’t understand is that for many in the LGBTQ+ community, being openly out or transitioning is a matter of safety, not just the fear of losing your job or being overlooked for promotions because of biases, but physical safety. That’s something I think everyone needs to be more aware of.
Gord: While there are a number of people who are out, I feel there are a number of LGBTQ+ folks already in the tech industry working, but still closeted. Even though Canada’s laws protect discrimination, the reality is many folks are rightfully scared and concerned about disclosing their identity and the repercussions that come from that.
2. How can Kiite (and other local startups/tech companies) make better, more inclusive, choices?
Joy: That is one thing we want to create as a group – a toolkit that has actionable items and policies that tech companies and startups can put into place to make their work environments both safer spaces and more inclusive.
Ultimately, it comes down to culture, which is typically directed by leadership. It shouldn’t only be a function of HR, but a priority and an ongoing conversation organization-wide that needs to start from the top-down. When management actively participates in meetups and works with groups like MakingSpace.tech it signals an openness and desire to be inclusive. In addition, it shows that they’re making it an organizational priority, which is important – signaling is the first and most important step.
However, equity and equality are things that require ongoing effort, so a willingness to be open and to have ongoing conversations about how to support your staff (which on a surface level seems like a straightforward thing, but often gets lost in the day to day shuffle) is key.
Gord: I would always recommend bringing in someone to help work with your staff to break down the unconscious biases (Spectrum locally is a good resource). Having your staff acknowledge and recognize these roadblocks can go a long way to make someone feel welcome and safer. The culture of your team is based on what your leaders let people get away with, work on building a space where people can be called in and learn how to be better. Assumptions about gender, sexuality and relationship orientations can sneak into our language. Working to be more inclusive with your team’s daily language can go a long way.
3. How can being openly out at work allow for workplaces to better accommodate LGBTQ+ individuals?
Joy: As an ally, it’s hard for me to answer this as it’s outside of my experience. I can conjecture from what I’ve heard from my LGBTQ+ friends and their experiences that this is a double-edged sword and carries with it a lot of costs in emotional labor that workplaces need to acknowledge, respect, and value.
For those who choose to be out at work, they provide much-needed representation and often help to advocate for the needs of the entire community, and for many who are not out, they are often judging (whether those companies are aware of it or not) the quality of that workplace by how well, or how poorly, their out coworkers are treated, which ultimately determines whether they join the company, or how invested they are in that company if already employed. Having a workplace where people feel safe enough to be out is a huge boon for a company because people are more likely to invest in and thrive in environments where they feel safe and embraced to be their authentic selves.
However, there are costs, and I think that workplaces need to understand this so they can use better language and make better choices. From what I understand there is a certain ‘tokenism’ that happens in smaller companies where a person who is openly out may be expected to “speak for” or “represent” the entire group, which can be exhausting and dehumanizing as our sexuality and gender are only facets of a complete human being, and yet that may be what they are singled out for, and that’s something we have to work to prevent.
Gord: When people are able to be their truest selves openly, they are able to start advocating for what they need to feel safer. It is just as important to do the work needed to make your space a safe one for someone to feel comfortable coming out. When folks are able to feel relaxed, creativity more openly flows. Building an intersectional and inclusive space goes beyond just the LGBTQ+ community and works towards those goals could help every marginalized group in tech.
4. More LGBQ folks are out in tech than trans* folks, why do you believe that is?
Joy: Unfortunately, we live in a society where being trans still carries a greater level of risk, costs, and even overt danger. We like to believe that Canada is an accepting and inclusive place, but the statistics about hate crimes, sexual discrimination, and violence that openly trans people are statistically more likely to experience is incredibly depressing.
Gord: According to the Outlook study done in Waterloo Region, trans folks face greater challenges navigating the world (here). The best thing we can do is to listen to what the trans community is telling us and help build a space where everyone feels safe, welcome, and appreciated.
5. What do you think companies should do in order to be more accommodating to and inclusive of transgender employees specifically?
Joy: This is one of the questions we would like to help answer through our toolkit. Making sure you’re encouraging ongoing dialogue is critical, but also taking the time to talk to your employees who identify as part of the trans* community about their needs. Being open to modify your policies and procedures on a case by case basis is the absolute best strategy (though an argument should be made that this should ideally be expanded to every worker as everyone’s needs and motivations will be different across the board).
Gord: I don’t have the lived experience to speak for this question. There is no universally “correct” answer, it goes beyond gender-neutral washrooms, pronouns in your HR software or specific policies (although these are important). The most critical thing we can all do is sit down, stop talking, and listen to the communities directly affected and impacted.
6. Why do you believe it’s important for companies to be aware of (and transparent about) their self-identified diversity stats? Why is hiring for diversity so important?
Joy: Beyond it simply being the right thing to do, it also comes down to acknowledging that there’s a problem. Companies that aren’t even willing to admit that to themselves are going to stagnate in our global economy with its diverse populations, languages, experiences, and, most importantly, needs. If you’re only hiring people who look and sound like you, you’re cutting yourself off at the knees competitively in this economy and it’s pretty delusional if you think otherwise.
Then there’s the growing number of studies and statistics that show that more diverse companies have greater revenue and retention (which plays out in lower HR costs) than non-diverse companies. Not to mention that people are watching and talking about these companies (whether they wish to acknowledge that or not), and not only do your chances of finding the best and brightest talent diminish when you are less diverse, but your consumer base is also increasingly voting with their wallets which means decreased revenue. Unfortunately, we don’t have a metric for calculating missed opportunity costs, so most companies aren’t aware of this, but the ones that have made these policy changes are reporting that they are reaping the financial benefits already.
I personally come from the school of transparency. People rarely expect perfection and our ability to acknowledge our failings and difficulties makes us more authentic, thus, more attractive than if we simply pretended to be infallible.
Gord: The tech we are building is getting larger and more complicated. The interesting problems we are starting to work on now with NLP, ML, and AI demand people to approach the solution with diverse ways of thought. Having a diverse team allows you to find creative solutions, help be aware of unconscious bias, and build inclusivity into your projects from the start. The more voices you have at the table the richer the discussion can be.
7. How can a workplace support an individual who is coming out or transitioning while on the job?
Joy: This is an incredibly important question and one that I hope to learn more about through my own work with Making Space. What I’ve heard most often is the need for a feeling of safety and acceptance. A workplace that has a culture where they proactively show that they are willing to have candid conversations and are dedicated to making safer spaces for these conversations to unfold, not to mention a very explicit code of conduct and policy on acceptance and inclusivity, is going to be better able to support these individuals over those that don’t. Ultimately, it comes down to the leadership showing that they are dedicated to creating safer spaces and being willing to support their employee’s needs. A great first step is simply to ask.
Gord: Remember this is a very personal time and everyone’s journey is highly unique. Arm yourself with research into how other companies have helped, but keep your employees' experience centered and work with them.
8. What is your immediate call to action for the tech community to welcome the LGBTQ+ community?
Joy: I think it starts with getting involved – such as by joining the Making Space community and attending events. For us, it’s about getting everyone into the same room (both the community and the tech leaders) where we can have those candid conversations that help us to better learn from and support one another.
Gord: Recognize that we have been in the tech community since it started. I feel that we are at a point now where companies are beginning to respect, understand, and strive for diversity and accessibility. We can stoke those coals to use this momentum to help get a seat at the table for all voices.
9. A little gesture and kind words can often go a long way. What has been the most meaningful thing that a coworker or manager has done to support you? Or what would you have wanted someone to do for you?
Joy: Honestly, I think it’s just about those human moments where someone showed they cared about me as a person and not just a means of economic output.
Gord: I was closeted for many years before feeling able to come out. It wasn’t until I was a co-founder, after funding had been secured, that I felt comfortable enough to be out in my professional life and louder in my personal life. I know there is a lot of privilege in the position I held. It’s hard to know whether I would still be closeted in other circumstances. The most meaningful things to help foster support are the things that are done before you know how your coworkers, or employees, or friends identify.
Speak up when you hear LGBTQ+ being used as a punchline. Use gender-neutral language all the time. It’s those everyday things that make an impact. Working with building out Making Space has allowed me to connect with so many LGBTQ+ people in tech. Just being able to hear everyone's stories and provide a place to find peers and mentors for everyone has been such a rewarding experience. The personal notes and thank yous along with the support from the tech community for creating this space has warmed my heart.
10. How can we encourage people to continue talking about LGBTQ+ issues now that pride month is coming to a close?
Joy: By becoming or continuing to be involved with Making Space, of course! Seriously though, all matters of equity, inclusion, and diversity are ongoing issues that require ongoing dedication and discussion, and that’s what we’re here for.
Gord: Understand there isn’t a quick fix and making a truly inclusive and welcoming community will take consistent focus and effort. Make LGBTQ+ issues part of your newsletters on a regular basis, not just in June, for example.
Continue the conversation at their event this July 30th, here.