Why using data to drive tech inclusion makes sense

Commentary: For diversity and inclusion efforts to succeed, tech companies should look beyond demographics and use data to uncover what creates an inclusive culture.

Priyanka Carr VP, Strategy and Operations, and Co-Executive Sponsor of Diversity and Inclusion, SurveyMonkey
5 min read

There's a numbers race for statistical parity when it comes to diversity. This is progress, yes, but it's only half the story. 

Equally important is creating an environment of inclusiveness in the workplace so all employees can thrive: Do your employees have a sense of belonging? Do they see a path to grow? While many measure their demographics, we believe it is just as important to measure inclusion over time so you know what moves the needle.

At SurveyMonkey, we strive to help companies unlock the "why" behind their data by capturing the voices and opinions of those who matter most: employees, customers and the market. Naturally, when we asked ourselves how we could understand what makes employees thrive and have a sense of belonging, we looked to answer it in a data-driven way.

We embarked on a journey to uncover how data could help us improve a sense of inclusion across gender, race and ethnicity for our employees. It started with a survey, as many things do here, as we explored which questions matter most in telling the story of how employees can thrive in the workplace.

There are many theories on what enables underrepresented groups to feel included in the workplace. We leveraged rich research on the topic and consulted with the pioneers of that research at Stanford to narrow down to a set of measures that can predict a sense of inclusion. Much of this research has roots in education, so we modified and further narrowed to make them relevant to the work context. The final questions span four dimensions that can predict inclusion.

Belonging Uncertainty. We zeroed in on belonging uncertainty, an area pioneered by professors Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen. Belonging uncertainty refers to the stress created and energy sapped by wondering if you belong. It doesn't usually surface if all is going well for you. But if you're an underrepresented minority and things are stressful or difficult (e.g., a new job, a high-stakes projects), you often wonder "Do I really belong? Do women or people of my race really belong here?"


"Creating workplaces that emphasize growth and learning can unlock everyone's potential."


When people in the majority fail or struggle, they tend not to link their doubts with their social identity. But when there are few people like you at work, you naturally can feel insecure that your challenges and feelings are due to your social identity. Changing those concerns can be powerful: Research in colleges show alleviating concerns about belonging among underrepresented groups raises their GPA. We believe having people feel secure about their belonging at work could similarly allow everyone to thrive.

Growth Mindset. I had the privilege of researching growth mindset and culture of genius with Professor Carol Dweck during my time at Stanford. A fixed mindset leads you to believe individuals and their capabilities are largely unchangeable; either you have it or you don't, as they say. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that you can evolve and learn. Environments that affirm a fixed mindset or a culture of genius (i.e. there are special skills that can't be learned that are needed to succeed) hamper a sense of belonging and success, especially for underrepresented groups.

For example, if you are a woman in tech, and your environment keeps emphasizing a culture of genius, you may look around at the 10 percent of female workers and begin to think, "women just don't have it." We believe creating workplaces that emphasize growth and learning can unlock everyone's potential.

Meritocracy. We also looked at whether or not  people perceive work as a fair meritocracy. We all have wondered at some point: "Did the promotion go to the person who most deserved it? Or was it given because of the person's social connections?" If you believe that advancement isn't based on fair and open criteria but on membership in a social club, you will be disheartened. If you are in the minority and don't have easy access to the social club of decision-makers, you may be particularly brought down. So, we are trying to understand if employees feel like rewards are given based on fair, objective criteria and taking steps to make explicit the criteria for success.

Stereotype Threat. Finally, we looked at what's called stereotype threat. This refers to the fear of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about your group. This fear consumes your mental energy and impedes your ability to invest effort. For example, in a study of standardized math tests, it was found women did worse when asked their gender at the start of the test (because of the fear of confirming the stereotype that they aren't good at math). Their performance didn't suffer when not asked their gender or reminded of the stereotype. We look to understand stereotype threat in the workplace so we can take actions to remove cues that instill the fear of being judged on the basis of a stereotype.

We refined the questions to key ones we believe will capture each of these dimension and are currently running this survey with our employees to understand what drives a true sense of inclusion at work. Once we have the results, our goal is to develop policies and programs to improve areas of weakness or concern, and to further refine our measures so we can continually track progress and share the template with other companies.

This is incredibly important for us as a company, and it's equally important for us to pay it forward to other companies. We have the scale to build this learning into our products and we're working with HR professionals every day. So why not create data-driven ways to create a sense of belonging?

Priyanka Carr is vice president for strategy and operations at SurveyMonkey, where she is also an executive sponsor of the company's Diversity and Inclusion efforts. She earned her PhD in psychological science at Stanford University with a focus on motivation, social connection and intergroup interactions/bias. She brings a global perspective to her work, having lived in India, the UK, Massachusetts and California.

What do you think? CNET has partnered with SurveyMonkey to ask you, our readers, what you think about diversity and inclusion issues. We welcome your honest feedback about your experiences. All your answers are completely confidential and will only be analyzed and reported on in the aggregate. If you'd like to take the survey, go here.

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