Data didn’t change tech’s frat-boy culture. Will storytelling?

Some high-tech firms are finding that storytelling and empathy create far more buy-in for diversity than reams of data about its boost to innovation and profits.

Published March 22, 2017

Rachael Stedman doesn’t just design and build product features for a living. She also collects stories.

An engineer at Lever – a recruitment software startup in San Francisco – her role includes reaching out to co-workers about life in the tech industry. She gathers hiring stories, memories from other companies, and tales about experiences at Lever. Her thesis: Every story can lead to a better, diverse workplace.

“You listen to the story and you say, ‘OK, how can we make sure that this doesn’t happen for anybody else?’ And you take action on that one story,” says Ms. Stedman, who has seen storytelling transform her own company.

It’s a high-touch, counterintuitive approach to diversity for a data-driven industry like tech. For years, proponents of inclusive workplaces have tried to sell tech firms on the idea with data about how it boosts innovation and profits. Yet Silicon Valley remains a bastion of white males. Now, firms like Lever are turning to anecdotes and personal exchanges as bases for developing empathy – and building inclusive cultures from the ground up.

The goal is to get buy-in for diversity from workers up and down the ladder by allowing an inclusive environment to evolve organically, experts say. Giving employees the chance to share their stories and be part of the process of creating a workplace they believe in goes much further than simply laying out the case for diversity, showing workers the policies, and expecting them to obey, the theory goes.

“It closes the disconnect between people,” says Caroline Simard, senior director of research at the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership at Stanford University in California. “Stories create more empathy. People remember stories more than they remember statistics. That combination really is a very important part of moving people to do better.”

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