How can I get a job in D&I(Part 1)?
This is perhaps the second most common question I get when people reach out to me for advice. You’ll find that mine is pretty unorthodox, and that I veer towards the practical (rather than philosophically perfect). This post is the second in my series seeking to balance helping more people with protecting my personal and professional time.
You’d basically be hiding under a rock if you weren’t aware of the growth in Diversity & Inclusion functions and roles across almost every industry. Businesses are (far too slowly) recognizing the value of building a properly supported function, and that it’s not just an ethical question, but a financial viability one.
On a personal note, I have been getting more requests than ever to share how I got into the D&I field, and what advice I could offer to other job seekers. I’ll be honest that I don’t know that most of my experience is replicable, and also strongly believe that most of the folks who are asking shouldn’t be going into D&I as a job or career. So here, you’re going to get my frankest advice on pursuing a D&I career in tech, and I’ll caveat that here I’m focused on practical, usable advice based on what happens in the world.
While I very much dislike the terms “diversity & inclusion”, and prefer balance & belonging, I’ll be using D&I here for legibility for folks newer to the space. Read my rant on “diversity” here.
Please don’t get a job in D&I
My first piece of advice is if you care about diversity & inclusion, please do not go have a career in it. Below are my strongly considered reasons why. This is going to sound really negative, and I want to emphasize that I absolutely love my job and career. But just like a romantic partner, you need to opt into the downsides with eyes wide open if you’re going to be successful, and the job probably isn’t what you think it is.
D&I gives up almost all formal authority.
The fact is, even in a highly supportive organization, the D&I has very little formal power over the processes and systems that they are charged with modifying. You usually have basically no sticks, and a couple of small carrots. While you’ll be responsible for changing hiring, development, retention, engagement, etc. you likely won’t have formal authority over the programs and processes that directly drive those numbers. You’re also a cost center, since you’re not directly driving revenue for the business in most cases, and quantifying the impact of your work is much more complicated than if you were responsible for an operational function like recruiting.
Working on a cause you care about isn’t necessarily fulfilling.
Many people who are unfulfilled in their current roles and passionate about positive culture and equity (or maybe they’re a marginalized or underrepresented person) think they should move into D&I and they’ll feel more fulfilled. Mostly, they’re wrong. Research from Imperative and the Taproot Foundation show that fulfillment and meaning are driven less by focusing on a cause (no matter how meaningful) than how we do our work.
If you’re emotionally burned out from being an underrepresented person in tech and think that the shift will solve that, it won’t. It will probably make it worse, because you won’t have the content of your job to distract you from the kyriarchy.
It’s more org strategy and process design than activism, most days.
There are days when I have huge activism wins, and really move the needle for making an organizational process or program more equitable (or equity creating). But most of the time, my work is about People strategy, process design, program management, acting as a therapist and corporate conscience, etc. If you’re not excited about doing the nitty gritty there, you might be happier in a different role.
It’s a *lot* of answering very basic questions with a smile. In my personal time, I don’t have to answer basic questions about meritocracy. In my job, I have opted in to answering these questions. Repeatedly. With compassion. 4000 times. I’m definitely OK with that, but you should know you need to be to be effective in this job. There are a lot of people at the beginning of their journey and you’re their teacher.
Most companies want to shine a turd, not create structural change.
Most companies are willing to commit to some things, like updating their careers page with more Black people and maybe conducting pay equity audits. Think of a major tech company that touts their yearly pay equity corrections and hired the majority of the D&I team from Marketing (there are plenty). There’s a reason: most leadership teams aren’t ready to cosign things like major changes to how employees are incentivized or assessed, or even terminate folks who are abusive. Make sure you’re OK with that reality, and can live with yourself working in that system.
Every job is a D&I job. Every. Job.
Say it with me: every job is a D&I job. To build an equitable, inclusive company, every single person needs to do their part. If you stay exactly where you are, and turn your job into a D&I job, you can often create more organizational change.
Let’s say that you’re a Director of Marketing. How might that show up:
- Hiring: Tell your recruiting counterparts that you require a balanced slate of candidates before you make offers.
- Pay, Promotion: Audit your rates to ensure fairness in your org.
- Culture: Have a zero-tolerance policy for exclusive behavior, model that for your org, and be willing to immediately remove team members who aren’t aligned.
- Job content: Drive inclusion and representation in your company’s brand and customer segmentation.
- Influence: Openly talk about building equity with your peers. Be part of the social pressure to invest in these topics across the organization.
- Budget: Fund D&I initiatives for under-resourced D&I teams.
Employees in the business are who make me look successful and actually create organizational change. Unless you can’t live without a 100% D&I job, please go be that employee: you will be doing D&I work.
If you must have a job in D&I
Alright, you’ve read my thoughts on why you shouldn’t take after me, and still are undeterred. Here’s my best advice on how to get a job in D&I.
What expertise you need
Most folks think about the subject matter expertise required to be a successful D&I practitioner (e.g., gender and race theory, queer studies, disability and universal access theory, etc.), but I believe that that’s only about 20% of the job, if you want to be effective. Here’s the rest of what I think you’ll need to understand:
- Influence & persuasion: This career is all about soft power. You’ll need to be able to speak to a variety of stakeholders with a dizzying array of priorities, motivations, and levels of giving a shit about D&I.
- Research design & methods: As the field becomes more data-informed, having an understanding of how to identify the most important problems to solve and how to measure impact separate passionate advocates from effective professionals.
- Strategic planning: The work is by definition cross-functional, and the more effective you are at sequencing work and managing dependencies, the less hair you’ll want to rip out and the more effective you’ll be at landing change.
- Social organizing and change management: Despite a lot of branding, no company (at least at scale) has nailed this yet. That means there is a lot of change you’re going to need to drive or support, and you’re going to need to herd a lot of cats to get there.
- Personal insight and a hardcore self care routine: I don’t know any serious practitioner in the field that hasn’t re-oriented a lot of their life to support the emotional challenge of this work. Compassion fatigue is real, pervasive, and debilitating. Building a routine and regular practice around caring for yourself first is the only way you’ll healthfully have this career. I personally have a therapist; coach; food, exercise, and sleep routine; gravity blanket; emotional support animal; and deep community of friend and family support.
In Part 2, I’ll detail the most common paths to get a job in the D&I field (just in case you’re really, really serious). Stay tuned!