Remote Work as an Opportunity for Diversity in Tech

The contents of this talk and article are the opinions and experiences of the speaker, and do not reflect those of Salesforce.

Although tech companies have poured millions into various diversity initiatives, there has hardly been any improvement in their diversity statistics. Kylie Fuentes talks about why this is and shares her thoughts on how if we’re intentional about remote work moving forward, it can improve diversity in tech. 

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Meet Kylie Fuentes

Kylie Fuentes, VP of Product Management at Salesforce

Kylie Fuentes is VP of Product Management at Salesforce. She is a product person who has experience spanning consumer internet, SaaS, e-commerce & marketplaces. Kylie has led teams at start-ups, scale-ups, and large-scale enterprises, all dealing with hyper-growth in different ways. 

Currently, she is at Salesforce working on technologies that transform commerce experiences across sales channels & finance teams, so their customers can evolve into omnichannel subscription & recurring revenue businesses. Prior to her current role, Kylie was a member of the CEO’s team that led to Rodan+Fields’ growth to over $1.2B in revenue, where she also spearheaded the successful pivot of one of Australia’s best-known fashion & lifestyle marketplaces.

Remote Work as an Opportunity for Diversity

Think back to those naive people on New Year’s Eve, gathering together in close proximity, celebrating the beginning of 2020 like it was going to be the bee’s knees. Little did they know. Clearly, the plan went more than a little sideways. 

Instead, we had a year with a multitude of crises at scales that I think even now we’re unable to properly understand; health, economic, and social emergencies have been a constant in our lives for months and months on end. And while we don’t exactly know how, we do know that things have changed forever. 

You might also be interested in: Product Planning in a Post-COVID-19 World

Chinese Mandarin traditional characters for the word "crisis"

This symbol is the Chinese symbol for crisis and it’s often said—mistakenly—that it’s the composition of two characters: one for the word danger and the other for the word opportunity. Well, it turns out that that’s not exactly correct. 

If we want to be precise, in reality, it’s more like the characters for the word danger and incipient point, or the precise moment when things begin to change either way. The point being that in times of crisis, there are also opportunities for paradigm shifts.

A lot of the discussion about how the pandemic has impacted our work lives, and our whole lives for that matter, centers on things that are pretty obvious. In the case of work, that’s really meant we’re talking about how we’re spending less time in the office and we’re spending more time at home, and the consequences of that in our daily lives.

But I’m really interested in what happens as a result of that: the secondary consequences downstream, and in particular, how that might impact diversity in tech. So before we get too deep into this, I need to be fully disclosing to you that I am not an economist, nor am I an expert in diversity and inclusion, but I am deeply interested in this topic because I see my own journey reflected.

My Experience With Diversity

I always get asked where my accent’s from and people never get it right. You probably wouldn’t guess that I’m a Spaniard, but I grew up bouncing between Spain and Australia so I’m from both of those countries. My mother is actually Irish, so I’m just from all over the map. 

globe with flags marking locations on it on a sandy surface

I started my product career in telco before the first iPhone had hit the market. And for any of you who know the Australian market, they are extremely early adopters of mobile tech. There was so much frenzy for this device as it was hitting the market. Now, at that point in time, most portable mobile product managers were actually hardware product managers, but when the iPhone came along, it dramatically shifted things

All of a sudden I needed to learn the software world and I was doing that at a hundred miles an hour. That crazy pivot in my career became the trajectory for me to move into roles across e-commerce retail, tech, marketplaces, and SaaS. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to build and lead incredible teams in many different locations. 

Now, as a Hispanic person in tech, a woman, no less, I have found myself doing some introspection on how I got to where I am now and why perhaps the road has been somewhat easier for me than some. I have lots of privileges relative to many, but there was one thought that kind of bounced around in my mind, a little more than others. To what extent did the flexibility I had in geographical location play a role in my success? And then, more importantly, if it did play a role how might that impact the opportunity creation for other women or people in minority groups? 

Why Diversity Matters for Product Design

As a product person, I fundamentally believe that diversity drives better product. There are just so many examples where bad products make it to market because they were designed with a single perspective in mind. 

Embarrassingly, I’m geekishly into my VR headset. It’s how I connect with my brother in Spain, but I’m always getting nauseous 10 minutes in, whereas he can keep going for hours and hours. It turns out, there’s growing evidence that women are much more likely to get VR sickness than men, which is due to a number of product design choices.

woman in VR goggle asleep at table

And then there are the challenges with facial recognition software, which in some cases is falsely identifying black and Asian people up to 100 times more than their Caucasian counterparts. And of course, the huge concerns which are emerging around bias in AI algorithms, which are deeply embedded in products that are there to guide societal aspects like jail sentencing.

No matter which way you look at it, we need more people from more backgrounds building tomorrow’s innovations. 

Read next: What Is Inclusive Digital Product Design?

The State of Diversity in Tech

To work out how far we need to go, we need to stop and look at where we are. And it’s safe to say we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked. It’s actually a little tricky to get industry-wide, standardized data, but in 2014, some of the big tech companies commenced reporting publicly on their diversity statistics. And given they’re big employers in the sector, it’s probably a fairly good proxy for what’s going on more broadly.

This is a big deal because as any PM worth their salt knows, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. The results were disheartening. Blacks, Latinos, and native people were starkly underrepresented. Now, since then, these companies and many others more have spun up diversity divisions, and invested millions in all sorts of programs for their employees, and changed their recruitment programs, et cetera. 

Check out: Black Product Leaders 2021

And they’ve made considerable efforts to try and change the situation. But it’s telling how big the challenge really is, that six years later the results have hardly changed. And when it comes to women, depending on the source you look at, we for about 25% of all jobs in computing, which is a clear shortfall from our representation in the total workforce population.

And what these numbers don’t show is how dire the situation gets the more you move up the management chain. For Latinos and women, and especially women of color, the numbers dwindle dramatically. Now, I’m sure these statistics are not new to you, and neither is the dialogue around why. When we try to understand the reasons why we haven’t seen the shifts in some of these numbers, there are oftentimes three key topics that rear their head. The first and the most obvious is the pipeline. How do we actually fill roles with people from underrepresented groups if they’re just not applying?

torso of white man in suit adjusting tie

The second is what was referred to by Freada Kapor Klein—who is a founding partner of venture capital firm Kapor Capital—as the denominator problem. Now, to explain that a little bit, when you’re a company that is growing and scaling rapidly (and keep in mind that some of these big guys as much as quadrupled their workforce in five years), you would have to hire thousands of people from minority groups just to maintain your historical diversity rates. Now think about what it would take to improve upon that baseline. You would have to hire exponentially more again. And that just seems really difficult given the pipeline conversation that we just had. 

Finally, hiring is really only the first step. At the end of the day, you need to stop the leaking bucket. And sadly, both women and people of color don’t stay in tech roles as much as their colleagues. For instance, one recent study, which was done by Accenture and Girls Who Code show that 50% of women who go into tech jobs end up leaving before they turn 35. 

So that’s the gritty truth of where we are today. But now the question is, well, what about geography? How does location come into play as a factor influencing diversity?

How Location Hurts

I work in enterprise tech. And one thing I can tell you from our customers is that pretty much every business is a digital business these days. And COVID has made it absolutely clear how we define tech is no longer concentrated in tech companies, engineers, designers, product managers. Normal tech functions can be found across all industries and across all countries. 

What’s mind-blowing to me, however, is that in the US alone, virtually all growth in tech employment can be traced back to just five cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Boston, and San Diego. It turns out that opportunity isn’t geographically spread. In fact, it’s hyper-concentrated. 

Golden Gate Bridge

And that’s just one dimension. Consider that today only 10% of Americans will relocate for a job. That number used to be around 40% back in 1980. And when you probe for insights as to why there’s so much reluctance to relocate, one factor stands out above all others: it’s really, really expensive to pick up and move home and leave your social network and support networks behind. It not only takes big guts, it also takes big bucks. And unfortunately, that is something that is out of reach of many, especially for people of color. 

According to the census bureau, black households have a median household income of about 45,500, and Latino households about 56,000. And compare that with white households who are sitting at above 72,000. Now, when we overlay those cities before, remember the ones who had the highest growth in tech sector employment against the US cities who have the highest cost of living well, the picture is pretty stark. They’re the same ones.

It is unsurprising, then, that sourcing diverse talent from beyond the confines of the office commute boundary is just difficult. The very location of these jobs has an inbuilt barrier to diversity before you’ve even started to recruit. And that’s at the macro level.

But location also matters at the micro-scale. So even if you get to these cities, there are still hard choices to make. Most people when choosing where to live will need to evaluate factors such as price, space, and convenience. Now, tech culture is known for being fast-paced and fairly demanding, and as a result many people choose to live close to work for convenience.

Now, if it’s too expensive to do on your own, many opt to room share with others. Too many a Silicon valley tech sitcom. Now, for those who have families, or are considering them, the need for space and the sky-high prices of downtown housing will often result in a trade-off in convenience. Commute times become really long and add to an already long working day, which means there’s a high personal cost taking time away from family, friends, and building a life outside of work. 

Now think back to when we talked about those barriers that have been holding back our shifts in diversity numbers. We saw pipeline, the denominator problem, and attrition. Well, now we know, thanks to the geographical location of a job, we’re inherently going to come up against challenges in changing the profile of our pipeline.

And the other problem with pipelines is that in tech, nearly 40% of jobs end up coming through referrals. We usually refer people from our friends and family network, which means we’re pulling oftentimes from the same demographics, the same experiences, and oftentimes the same geographical pool, so we ended up hiring and referring people who look a lot like us. 

metal pipes

The second factor was about overcoming the notion of the denominator problem, right? Well, we need to find a way to exponentially scale our diversity hires, relying on the diverse talent pool in the local market or pulling from local feeder universities. It’s just not going to be enough to change the index. To make a significant impact, we’ll need so many diverse hires that we’ll have to broaden the search well beyond the population available in commute zones. 

Now on attrition. This is a complex theme with many facets to explore, and we’re not going to do justice to them all here. But there is a location factor that I want us to consider. The demands of high-tech working culture and the realities of long days, long commute times, and inflexibility in our work schedule put an extra toll on women. Now, clearly not every household is the same, but in general, statistics show that women bear the heaviest share of household responsibilities. And so the lack of work-life balance is actually one of the biggest culprits behind the high attrition rate amongst women in tech.

Read next: Women Product Leaders 2021

How Remote Can Help

Our tech industry is a tightly bound bubble. We want to be more diverse, but we hire only from certain geographical pools and there’s just not enough diverse talent within those locations to change the status quo. What we really need is something to come along that forces some structural change.

And maybe this is the silver lining of the disaster that was 2020, 2021. Every once in a while, the world is rocked by events that change its orbit just slightly. The Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression of the twenties, the invention of the internet, the global financial crisis. And enter COVID-19. 

In early 2020, pretty much all tech workers were abruptly told to go home and work from there. Clearly, we were not prepared, neither employers nor employees. Somehow we had to make it work. First, it looked like it would be for a few days, then a few weeks. We are closing in on nearly a year and a half later.

woman working from home with notebook and laptop. there is a cat next to her

Now for many people, this overnight shift was not easy. Their homes were not set up to be offices and people got extremely creative just to make do. And of course, this doesn’t even cover the breadth of other issues people had to deal with like juggling homeschooling or childcare or not having adequate space for more than one person in the household to work from home. 

I’ve heard stories of people who were making phone calls for meetings from the bathroom because it was the only quiet place in the house. Several months in and employees started to ask themselves: why staying in a high-price city when I can’t even take advantage of any of its benefits? The allure of more space, lower rents, and the ability to be out of the urban and closer to nature became too enticing.

There’s always been a talk of San Francisco having an exodus, but this time it might just be real. Rents are down 27% year on year, and many buildings have less than 40% occupancy. You absolutely could argue that this is just temporary and that these workers will be back once the pandemic is done, except that companies themselves are also shifting the operating models. COVID has become an overnight experiment on how distributed work can operate at scale and to everyone’s surprise, generally speaking, productivity and results haven’t been adversely impacted.

Read next: What Is The Spotify Model?

It seems like every other week we are now hearing another big-name tech company announcing their future plans for a distributed workforce, or moving their HQ from one of the big tech center centers to other less-obvious locations. And this is where the opportunity presents itself for companies preparing for a distributed first work culture. 

This means that future job openings no longer need to be geographically bound. And this is great news on the diversity front, both on the pipeline perspective and on attrition. By broadening the geographical search parameters, we can exponentially grow our talent pools. We can also establish relationships with other new feeder universities that we perhaps don’t have relationships with today. And the one I’m possibly most excited about is that we might be able to change up the profiles of our referral networks.

leaves of different colors and sizes

Why? Well, because the more diverse talent we start to recruit, especially from other geographies, there’s a better chance that they themselves will start to refer others that look more like them and less than our status quo. It’s a little hard to predict exactly what employees are going to do post-COVID when given the choice of working from home, even part of the time. And those numbers are a little bit of a state of flux. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, many people said that they wanted to work from home permanently or could see themselves doing that at least, you know, semi-permanently when they returned to “normal.” However, as time has gone on, and patience has run short. The proportion of people who say they want to get back to the office has steadily gone up. 

But I think it’s important to remember that working from home or working from a coworking space in your favorite coastal town is not to be confused with working from home in the middle of a raging pandemic. These are not normal times. Most experts agree, regardless of the exact figure, the percentage of workers who are not in the office on a full-time basis will significantly shift in a post-COVID world. And really that means it’s going to be more about giving employees options rather than mandates, which inherently is all about flexibility and choice. And I think that is good news for all of us.

Sounds like a nirvana, doesn’t it? But not so fast. Even if the environment is ripe for these kinds of changes, it does not mean we are automatically or magically going to unlock them. Leaders in tech are going to play a critical role. 

And in particular, we need to seize the opportunity with diversity in mind. We need to proactively be open to hiring from other geographies. We should seek out other feeder universities, and we should encourage referrals from our diverse hires. And these are just to name a few of the things that we need to do to improve our hiring practices for diversity.

And remember, it’s not all about the pipeline, right? The key to employee retention, and therefore preventing attrition, is employee satisfaction. And that means changing our workplace culture to be more inclusive of remote workers. Practices like asynchronous communications where possible instead of a meeting-heavy culture can really help. 

Read next: Streamlining Your Remote Team’s Workflow In 2021

silhouettes of people riding bikes and holding hands

One of the big challenges for career progression with remote workers is getting exposure or visibility. If you’re a product leader and you oversee distributed teams, make sure you create space for your remote team members so that they can be seen and heard by you. Other leaders and their peers, give them a platform to build their own personal brand and to get acknowledgment for their achievements.

We also need to make sure that employees are set up for success. How will we do things like offsetting the informal interactions at the water cooler? How will we create space for human connection, relationship building, and brainstorming? And critically, how will we make sure employees have the infrastructure they need to work comfortably from outside of the office environment? 

And yes, that means we can’t take for granted that everybody has good high-speed internet at home. There isn’t a great playbook for what we’re about to encounter. It’s a new world and there are many things ahead of us to learn. However, there are already some great examples out there. Companies that are trying great things and have had some good success. And from what I’m seeing so far, I’m really encouraged about what’s to come. 

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