Championing DE&I and Creating Safe Spaces as a Product Leader

As the tech industry continues to face its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) issues, most of the focus appears to be on hiring. Getting people into the tech industry in the first place is absolutely critical for furthering DE&I in Product, but how well does the industry treat them once they’re through the door?

If you’re not in charge of hiring processes at your organization, and you’ve noticed that your organization has a diversity problem, it’s easy to feel powerless. But even as an entry-level Product Manager, you’re a leader. Whatever level you’re at in your career, you have the power to champion DE&I, and create safe spaces for your team members.

A Quick Guide to DE&I

Some misunderstand DE&I, or only focus on the ‘diversity’ part and forget the rest. So let’s break it down before we dive into how you can be a DE&I champion for your teams.

Diversity: Having a variety of identity markers (race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religion, nationality).

Equity: Ensuring that, regardless of identity markers, everyone has the same opportunities and breaking down an individual’s barriers to those opportunities.

Inclusion: Creating safe spaces, where people not only feel accepted but welcome and actively encouraged to participate.

Working on DE&I at an organizational level always has to start with diversity. But having diversity without equity and inclusion is like throwing a dinner party where everyone is invited, but only your favorite people actually get to eat.

How to Champion DE&I as a Product Leader

1. Creating Safe Spaces

There’s a lot of talk about the need to build safe spaces in an organization, but the concept can feel more abstract than actionable. Safe spaces rarely happen accidentally, and take at least a little conscious effort from leadership. There are some simple but powerful steps that you can take.

Start by noticing who speaks in meetings. Are there people who hold back and don’t say anything, and are there people who become steamrollers and talk over others? If you notice that someone is being talked over and interrupted, make a point of circling back to their point; ‘sorry, Charlie, what was it you were saying?’

You may notice that some teammates don’t feel comfortable speaking up in meetings even if you do make the space for their voices to be heard. See if they feel more comfortable speaking with you 1-1 after the meeting. Alternatively, create collaborative documents that teammates can drop their ideas into at any point. Create a Coda or Notion doc, or a MURAL board for big meetings and let people know that they can comment or leave their input after the meeting.

2. Challenging Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases can be tough to spot by yourself. After all…they’re unconscious.

Challenging unconscious biases in your teams starts with noticing your own, and that might involve having an uncomfortable conversation with yourself. There’s no shame in having unconscious biases, and it doesn’t mean you’re morally wanting. It’s more important to work on your biases and make sure they don’t impact the products you build.

Unjustified assumptions are the enemy of Product Management, so if you find yourself making an assumption take a second to ask yourself ‘where did that assumption come from?’

Notice when you’re surprised that something has challenged your assumptions and ask yourself ‘why does that surprise me?’

You should also listen when people try to correct your assumptions, instead of doubling down. Use it as an opportunity to educate yourself, and to consciously break down those biases that you’ve been carrying around.

Check out: How to Overcome Cognitive Bias and Grow in Product

3. Championing Inclusive Product Design

Being a champion of diversity doesn’t mean just for your teams. It also impacts the work you do. Spread awareness of inclusive product design across all teams involved in building products, rather than just leaving it to the designers. Not only will this help you to build a better product that serves more of your potential customers, but increasing empathy for diverse customers will have a domino effect of increasing empathy for diverse teams.

Find out more here: What Is Inclusive Digital Product Design?

4. Facing Tough Conversations

DE&I generates conversations that some people, including you, might not be ready for. But as a Product Manager, you’re already used to tough conversations. So whether you’re trying to start an employee resource group, question some of your company’s hiring practices, or requesting more DE&I initiatives, approach the conversation in the right way.

  • Come loaded with data. If it’s applicable, do you research and have useful data to hand. Even if you don’t present it, knowing the objective facts will help you to feel more confident in your argument.
  • Start out casual. Approaching a difficult conversation with too much aggression or formality can put people on their guard. Starting out casually to show people that DE&I conversations are nothing to be afraid of.
  • Stay calm and confident. If you show how awkward you feel talking about DE&I topics, then that’s what makes the conversation awkward.

5. Being Transparent and Intentional

Sometimes it can feel like working on DE&I means admitting that you have a DE&I problem, which feels shameful. But you don’t have to turn your DE&I initiatives into an underground operation. Getting your teams involved can actually be beneficial.

In her #ProductCon talk Kasha Stewart, Head of Product at MoviesAnywhere (owned by Disney), went over how she attracts, grows, and nurtures diverse Product teams. One of the insights she shared is that she gets her teams involved in shaping the DE&I initiatives, and sees creating a safe space is a collaboration.

It’s a must-watch for anyone wanting to champion DE&I and create safe spaces for their Product teams:

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