The NCWIT Approach to Inclusive Culture Construction

The past few decades have sparked increasing concern and activity over the underrepresentation of women and girls in technology and computing. Today, women occupy only 26% of jobs in computing, and this number drops to only 5% when considering Black women and Latinas who hold only 5% of computing jobs (U.S. Department of Labor 2019). Such trends result in at least two costly consequences. First, this lack of diversity inhibits innovation by ignoring the perspectives and life experiences women diverse in race, class, sexual orientation, and ability can bring to the development of new technologies and future worlds. Second, lack of access to these lucrative and increasingly influential fields threatens to exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities for women, particularly women of color. 

For more than 30 years, workplace diversity and inclusion efforts have failed to move the needle across a wide swath of industry sectors. Recent research identifies some of the key problems with these past efforts: an overreliance on “diversity training,” negative messaging, the mandatory or “compliance” nature of these trainings, and other “control tactics” that attempt to legislate manager behavior (Dobbin & Kalev, 2018; Kalev, Dobbin & Kelly, 2006; Kaiser et al., 2013). In addition, organizations typically implement diversity and inclusion initiatives in isolation, relying on approaches that primarily focus on raising personal awareness or “fixing people” (e.g., women’s leadership programs, “executive presence” or assertiveness training), despite research showing the ineffectiveness of these programs for changing the status quo (Ashcraft, 2013; Dobbin & Kalev, 2011). As workplace engagement researcher Paul Marciano notes, “[employee] programs fail because they are programs.” Any benefits are short-term and disappear when the program does (Marciano, 2010).

To rectify this situation, a number of researchers stress the need for implementing holistic, strategic approaches that move beyond programs that raise personal awareness and focus instead on systemic culture change (Block & Noumair, 2017; Donavan & Kaplan, 2013; Nishi, 2017). This is important because subtle barriers and implicit biases are often “encoded” in a variety of business processes, polices and structures. Addressing how these factors play out in the entire ecosystem is necessary for developing and sustaining more inclusive cultures (Ashcraft, McLain & Eger, 2016; Block & Noumair, 2017). To date, however, organizations have done very little to heed this advice, if they are aware of it at all. 

Our decade-plus experience working with technology companies echoes these patterns and has illuminated how these typical pitfalls specifically play out in technology work cultures. Building on this work, we have developed an Inclusive Culture Construction framework to help technical organizations implement a more effective systemic and sustainable approach to creating inclusive cultures. The framework is the first of its kind to incorporate several innovative elements that address the aforementioned shortcomings of historical approaches to diversity and inclusion. Below we elaborate on the research basis for the framework and detail its key components.

Inclusive Culture Construction (ICC) Definitions and Framework

Informed by research in organizational theory, communities of practice, and sociocultural research on the key biases and barriers to diversifying the workplace, the Inclusive Culture Construction Framework presents a cultural perspective on the challenges of diversity, inclusion, and innovation in technical workforce environments. We define culture as a shared set of norms, values, processes, and practices through which employees engage in the context of their work. Further, we subscribe to a view that conceptualizes culture as created and maintained in everyday interactions and practices — that is, culture determines what kinds of individual behavior are acceptable or desirable, and collectively, individual behaviors and interactions create and recreate the culture. This mutually-defining cycle of culture construction suggests a systemic view with powerful potential for both cultural and individual change — that is, to the extent that these systems and norms are constructed and maintained in everyday practice, they also have the potential to be reconstructed in more equitable and inclusive ways. 

We consider inclusive cultures to be social environments where all members can thrive, feel a sense of belonging, contribute their abilities and perspectives to the work at hand, and receive credit and recognition for these contributions. We use the terms “inclusive” and “inclusion” with caution, recognizing that this language can sometimes be used in ways that gloss power dynamics and social inequities, dissolving into a watered down, feel-good type of approach to diversity and inclusion efforts. Instead, we employ a conception of inclusion that requires paying close attention to the experiences of historically marginalized populations (especially in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, dis/ability, and intersections of each) and to the systems of power, privilege, and bias that so often get in the way of creating work environments that are welcoming, equitable, productive, and innovative. 

We also recognize that culture/s are not monolithic or neatly bounded. Indeed, organizations typically consist of many subcultures that converge and diverge in unique, complex, and continually evolving ways. Given this, it makes more sense to talk about localized subcultures within an organization rather than treat the larger organization as a unified whole. To do so, the Inclusive Culture Construction approach specifically focuses on smaller work team cultures within an organization, specifically technical teams, which are where much of our country’s innovation initiatives take place.

A Team-Based, Community of Practice Approach

Focusing change efforts at the team level is important for at least three reasons. First, because subcultures vary within organizations, a team-based approach helps team members examine and identify norms, values, and practices specific to that team that may be impeding the creation and maintenance of an inclusive team culture. Doing so also helps the team develop a targeted, strategic approach that will be most effective in the team’s context. Notably, scaling this approach requires doing so at the team level, where teams all utilize the ICC framework as a guide to developing strategic change efforts suited to their specific cultures. 

Second, a team-based approach lends itself to the implementation of a community of practice model that increases the capacity for, and durability of, effective change efforts. Communities of practice are “groups of people who share a common concern or passion for something they do” — in this case, the creation of inclusive tech cultures — and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Wenger, 2006). Key to this model is the ongoing development of a shared language among members as they articulate and customize the three basic components of the model: The Domain of field of expertise they share and co-develop; The Practice of conducting collaborative work together, and; The Community and culture they forge as a result (Eckert, 2006; Lafasto & Larson, 2001; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 2011). Community practice research would suggest that technology professionals (in addition to HR or D&I professionals) need to develop a common understanding and language — in this case around the social science of diversity and inclusion — as an integrated part of their managerial and leadership professional development if cultural efforts to broaden participation of underrepresented groups are to have sustained impact. 

Importantly, research also indicates that for sustainable change to happen, technology professionals (in both majority and minority groups) need to cultivate their identities and abilities as change agents (Ashcraft, Eger & Scott, 2017) who are able to draw upon integrated social science knowledge and skills to alter the cultural norms and values of the tech industry. This role of change agents distributed throughout teams within a culture is also informed by the Team Leadership Theory (TLT) basis for the ICC Framework. In articulating Team Leadership Theory, LaFasto and Larson (2001) studied 6,000 teams in organizations worldwide. Their research indicated that distributed or shared leadership (as opposed to top-down hierarchical leadership) across small teams lends itself to greater productivity, more effective resource use, better decisions and problem solving, higher quality products and services, and increased innovation and creativity. They further articulated eight characteristics for excellence within TLT: A clear and elevating goal; Results-driven structure; Competent team members; Unified commitment; Collaborative environment; Standards of excellence; Principled leadership; External support. By focusing the ICC Framework on cultural change at the team level, change agents for diversity and inclusion, equipped with practical knowledge of the relevant social science, are better positioned to make and sustain progress toward greater inclusion. 

Finally, a team-based approach is perhaps particularly relevant and important for technical contexts (Hackman & Walton, 1986; Larson & Lafasto, 2001, 1989; Northhouse, 2004). A common misapprehension in the tech industry is that innovation is largely guided by singular and visionary (usually male) leaders and so-called “top-talent” that embody the best-and-the-brightest. This myth of the young rockstar” is so pervasive that it continues to shape ideas about what top talent looks like and how the formal and informal processes of recruiting, hiring, and developing employees are conducted. Research, however, has shown that identifying “top talent” is not a simple matter and many highly capable people are often overlooked, especially when they don’t fit the stereotype in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, or age. 

Completely contrary to the lone technical rockstar narrative, recent research shows that teams are in fact the focal point for technical innovation. Patent studies spanning the last several decades show an increasing trend toward group collaboration in tech innovation. Other research has documented the need for the distributed expertise that teams afford – the idea that no one person can adequately understand the widely disparate and cross-disciplinary features embedded in today’s technical challenges. Rather, it takes a pluri-potent team working fluently together to manage the complexities of technical knowledge and the process of technical innovation. The psychology of team cognition and attention to group decision-making as seen in approaches informed by team leadership theory, agile, scrum, and others are becoming recognized as not only effective structures for team-based innovation, but essential structures. Furthermore, additional research shows that the collective intelligence of teams appears to depend more on group process and communication practices (such as turn-taking) than on the IQs or singular performance of individual team members. In these studies, an increase in numbers of women around the table (up to a point), correlated with increased turn-taking and fewer interruptions in team talk which resulted in more innovative solutions and team decisions. While most tech professionals understand the overall importance of teams in their work, the extent to which innovation itself depends on such elements as team composition, group dynamics and team culture is less understood or appreciated. As a result, technical teams serve as the scale unit at which cultural change is focused for the Inclusive Culture Construction framework. 

In focusing on technical work teams, the ICC framework also moves away from traditional corporate diversity efforts where technical leaders and teams typically abdicate responsibility for these efforts to HR or Diversity & Inclusion divisions. Instead, the ICC framework targets senior technical leaders and their teams directly, positioning them take personal ownership and accountability for creating a strategic ecosystem approach that operationalizes diversity and inclusion practices in both business processes and in everyday personal interactions. 

Unpacking the ICC Framework

To help develop this shared understanding and common language, the ICC framework employs a journey metaphor dubbed the “Tech Inclusion Journey” for its online presence. It includes three components: (1) A research-based Industry Systemic Change Model (dubbed the “Map”); (2) A self-diagnostic assessment tool (dubbed the “GPS”) that helps organizations locate themselves within the change model, identifying key strengths and weaknesses, and; (3) A suite of resources (dubbed the “Route”) to facilitate generation of a strategic plan that identifies actionable next steps and evaluates progress. Below we delineate these different components of the framework and their research basis.

Component 1: The Industry Systemic Change Model (the Map)

The first component in the framework, the Industry Systemic Change Model (see Figure 1), includes three “foundational areas” (top leadership support, manager relationships, and ongoing evaluation and data transparency) and five “focus areas” (interrupting everyday bias, employee development, performance evaluation, competing responsibilities, and recruitment/selection). Together, these foundational and focus areas identify the key factors identified by prior research that organizations need to attend to in order to increase diverse participation and create inclusive cultures, as detailed below. 

Industry Change Model
Figure1 (Click to enlarge)

Foundational Areas

The two foundational elements at the center of the model, top leadership support and manager relationships are vital for the sustained success of change efforts in the other areas of the model (Dobbin, Kalev, 2017; Gonzales, 2010; Johnson, 2017; Kalev, Dobbin & Kelly, 2006). For example, when it comes to top leadership support, one study of more than 700 private sector companies, found that the most effective strategy for increasing and advancing diversity was establishing diversity committees with senior leadership and holding them accountable for reaching clearly articulated diversity goals (Kalev, Dobbin, & Kelly, 2006). This strategy increased the odds of holding management positions by 19 percent for white women, 27 percent for black women, and 12percent for black men. The effectiveness of other efforts such as diversity training and mentoring also improved when used in conjunction with top leadership support and institutional accountability. As such, the ICC framework targets senior technical leaders, helping them develop and own a strategic, multipronged, systemic approach that operationalizes and normalizes diversity and inclusion practices in both organizational processes and in everyday personal interactions. Likewise, in the case of the second foundational area, manager relationships, initiatives that position managers as agents of change and engage them in solving the problem tend to be more effective than approaches that are compliance-based or seek to constrain or control managers (Dobbin & Kalev, 2017; Gonzales, 2010). Doing so is particularly crucial since the managerial relationship overlaps with and exerts significant influence on all of the other focus areas in the model. Even if an organization has excellent policies and programs in place, these will be of little good for employees whose managers do not allow them access to these policies or programs. For example, even when flexible work policies exist, they are sometimes difficult for some employees to deploy if their managers resist or informally penalize those who do use them. The third foundational area, ongoing evaluation and data transparency, transcends all areas of the model and is vital for measuring and describing progress throughout the change process. In the ICC framework, this involves the following “best practices”:
  • Collecting implementation data, tracking interventions and changes that are made (e.g., documenting changes to address biases in job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria, leadership development criteria)
  • Collecting intersectional demographic data on relevant metrics (e.g., disaggregating technical from non-technical roles; more granular data on what kinds of technical roles (e.g., creative vs. support) women and other underrepresented employees hold; and disaggregating this data by gender and race)
  • Collecting experiential data (quantitative and qualitative) about employee perceptions and experiences of the current environment

The other key component of this foundational area is transparency — whether it be internal transparency or external transparency with the public. It is increasingly considered industry standard for technical companies to publicly release their diversity data. These trends are an important break with historical patterns that discourage the release of such data. As the adage goes, ‘what gets measured is what gets done.’ With this in mind, external data transparency can be an important step in building trust, adding to the knowledge base of what works, and in measuring progress going forward. Internally, organizations should identify the key stakeholders and what data they need access to in order to measure progress and implement effective change.

Change Model Focus Areas

The change model also includes 5 focus areas: interrupting everyday bias, employee development and sponsorship, performance and evaluation, competing responsibilities, and recruitment and selection. These are aligned with research identifying the key biases and barriers that women and other underrepresented groups face in technology organizations.

Interrupting everyday bias involves attending to the subtle, interpersonal interactions – micro-aggressions, personality, likeability, and “prove-it-again” penalties, stereotype threat — that impact the experience and performance of employees at work (e.g., Aronson, 1999; Ashcraft, McLain & Eger, 2016; Williams, 2014). This includes developing skills to recognize and effectively intervene in these everyday interactions.

Employee development and sponsorship involves attending to how people learn and grow within the workplace culture and the hidden barriers underrepresented employees face in this arena (Hewlett et al., 2014) This requires looking at biases in task assignment, lack of access to mentors and sponsors, biases in leadership development criteria and selection).

Performance evaluation and promotion involves examining the criteria, policies, procedures, and short-term and long-term outcomes of performance reviews and promotion practices (e.g., Hewlett et al., 2014; Simard, et. Al., 2008; Snyder, 2014). It includes how to detect bias and other barriers in these institutional practices as well as how to mitigate the ways personal unconscious biases influences these processes.

Support for Competing Responsibilities refers to ways a workplace culture supports (or doesn’t) the many aspects of employees’ lives that are beyond work but are critical to fostering a sense of belonging and enhancing performance. It includes flextime, work-life balance, parental leave, remote work, and addressing the informal stigmas sometimes incur when employees use such policies (Ashcraft & DuBow, 2013). Extensive research shows that these concerns significantly hinder the advancement of women and other underrepresented groups. While these policies often are referred to as ‘work-life balance,’ the ICC framework employs the term ‘completing responsibilities’ to counter some of the problematic connotations research has identified as associated with work-life terminology (Ashcraft & DuBow, 2013) (e.g., framing these concerns as “women’s issues,” when they are in fact human issues; an exclusive association with childcare or family responsibilities while ignoring other kinds of competing responsibilities).

Recruitment and Selection involves addressing beliefs and processes for identifying, recruiting and hiring talent. It includes how to detect and mitigate biases in job descriptions, sourcing, screening, interviewing, and selection, as well as on-ramping and early retention (Gaucher, Friesen & Kay, 2011).

Taken together, these foundational and focus areas are intended to help change leaders develop a comprehensive, multi-pronged, strategic approach to creating inclusive cultures. This model has been in place for a number of years but in our practical work with technical organizations we have found that while change leaders find the model useful, they also find it difficult to locate their own organizations in terms of the model (e.g., identify in which areas they are stronger or weaker, which interventions to prioritize). Toward that end, we have rounded out the ICC approach with the development of a self-diagnostic assessment tool to help companies locate themselves in terms of the model and included an action planning tool to help them develop a strategic plan for moving forward, as discussed next.

Component 2: The ICC Assessment Tool (the GPS)

The ICC framework’s self-diagnostic assessment tool consists of a short questionnaire associated with each area of the change model. The questions are rooted in the same literature cited above that identifies common pitfalls and the needed interventions in each area of the change model. It is designed for a team of change leaders to first take individually. Based on their individual responses, the tool locates the organization within one of five “zones” for inclusive culture development: preparing, emerging, grounding, operationalizing, or normalizing/sustaining. The development of these zones was informed by Transtheoretical Model of organizational change (Prochaska, Redding, Evers, 2015), Team Leadership Theory (Lafasto & Larson, 2001), and the Experiential Learning Variables and Indicators Scale, (ELVIS) (McLain, 2018). Once individuals have completed the questionnaire, the change leader team comes together for a “consensus conversation” where they compare their results and attempt to come to agreement on their answers. This step is part of the team-based, community of practice approach mentioned earlier and typically results in a rich conversation about strengths, weaknesses, and norms of the organization that help inform the next stage of the framework, developing a strategic action plan.

Component 3: The ICC Action Planning Tool (the Route)

The ICC framework’s action planning tool helps change leaders translate the results of the above assessment into a multi-pronged, systemic action plan to develop a more inclusive organizational culture. This includes guiding them through the process of prioritizing focus areas from their assessment results and developing aligned objectives and practical actions to progress through the identified zones, with the end goal of sustainability – or building inclusion into the DNA of the organization. To do so, the tool functions as an innovative information infrastructure for corporate culture change leadership, organizing NCWIT’s extensive research-based resource archive (which includes more than 100 practical resources for change leaders) around the ICC framework’s strategic change model. The intended result is a highly accessible, actionable, and targeted suite of tools for customized systemic change efforts. Each foundational and focus area includes a menu of recommended practices aligned with the above research on addressing biases and barriers to increasing diverse participation. The tool also helps identify appropriate metrics that include but move beyond mere headcounts to describe and measure progress.

Importantly, the ICC framework is not a one-size-fits-all formula, but rather it intends to embed flexibility to meet companies where they are on the inclusive culture landscape and then equip internal change leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to customize solutions for their own cultures.

Start Your Journey Today

  • Companies, academic institutions, and start-ups can turn these research insights into tangible outcomes through the Tech Inclusion Journey— unique, scalable software platform that guides teams through each step of the ICC framework. Already a member? Request access via email: it-support@ncwit.org. Not a member? Find out how to join the Workforce Alliance (ncwit.org/WAmemberform) or the Academic Alliance (ncwit.org/aamembershipform).
  • Learn how to implement the “The Action to Catalyze Tech (ACT) Report” recommendations: https://ncwit.org/CatalyzeTech.

Catherine Ashcraft, Director of Research & Senior Research Scientist
Brad McLain, Director of Corporate Research & Senior Research Scientist

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