A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

How to build a workplace that works for everyone

An illustration of a diverse group of people in business attire standing next to each other.
There’s no shortage of conversation about the future of work these days. But if you ask me, there’s one idea that doesn’t get the airtime it deserves. Right now, new technologies, new business models, and new social movements are completely redefining what it means to go to work. So why don’t we take this opportunity—this moment of radical redesign—to advance equality and inclusion, and build the first workplace in history that actually works for everyone?

This weekend, I hosted a panel at SXSW to explore what that workplace could look like. Joining me were Joanna Coles, the Chief Content Officer for Hearst Magazines; Stacy Brown-Philpot, the CEO of TaskRabbit; and Nina Shaw, one of the founding members of Time’s Up.
Melinda Gates delivers an interactive keynote speech at SXSW 2018
Melinda Gates | Interactive Keynote | SXSW 2018
I kicked things off by sharing some of the barriers I hit along my own career path. Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of women who worked outside the home, so most of my ideas about the kind of career I wanted came from my dad. He was an engineer at an aerospace company that contracted with NASA. I still remember how it felt to see a rocket shoot into the sky, knowing that he helped make it happen—and hoping I would get a chance to make my own contributions to the world, too.

A few years, a computer science degree, and an MBA later, I landed a job at Microsoft. It was everything I’d been working for, and everything I’d been dreaming of since I was a kid. But it was just a few months before I started thinking about quitting.

I was the only woman in my hiring class of MBAs—10 of us total. But that’s not exactly what bothered me. It started during orientation, when one of my fellow hires immediately picked a fight with a VP. I thought it was a bizarre way to behave at a new job—but he’d been advised that he needed to be more assertive, and he decided he was going to start right then

It wasn’t just him. Several of my colleagues were aggressive, sometimes even combative. I worried about fitting in.

Use your power to dismantle barriers for those who follow.
I wish I could say that I drew on a reserve of inner confidence and stayed true to myself. But I didn’t—at least not at first. Instead, I tried to emulate what I saw around me and force myself to fit the mold. And it was a long time before it occurred to me that maybe it was the mold—not me—that needed adjusting.

This is a story that repeats itself again and again, across every industry and every generation. Young people, especially women and people of color, enter the workforce eager to share their talents and ideas—only to bump up against barriers that make them question whether they belong.

Why? Because even though the American workforce has evolved dramatically over the course of my lifetime, the American workplace has barely changed at all. It’s still designed largely by—and largely for—people who look like my dad.

It’s true that the system works pretty well if you happen to fit his profile: a white guy with a Stanford degree and a stay-at-home-partner. But the true measure of success should be whether it works for a man or woman with none of those characteristics. And that’s exactly where we’re falling short.

Women and minorities in the workforce aren’t staying as long or rising as high. In part, that’s because our modern workplace still assumes that talent looks like one thing and comes from one place. It doesn’t challenge biases that keep people out of certain fields, and it doesn’t invest in the mentorship and support that would welcome them in. At the same time, today’s workplace is forcing parents and caregivers to make impossible choices between work and family. Only about 15 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. 15 percent—that’s all.

It’s increasingly clear that this status quo is unsustainable. It’s slowing the pace of growth and innovation, it’s squandering talent and wasting opportunity, and it’s holding all of us back. And it’s about time we started talking seriously about solutions.

Joanna, Stacy, and Nina share my conviction—and as people who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, they had powerful insights into how we can build a workplace that works better for everyone. Here are five that are going to stick with me long after SXSW.
Only 15% of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.
When it comes to recruiting, “take the extra hour.”

That what Stacy Brown-Philpot says—noting that if we want to reject the idea that talent looks like one thing and comes from one place, we have to start making a conscious, deliberate effort to do so in our hiring practices. If you’re looking to fill a position at your organization, set clear expectations about what an applicant pool should look like. If you’re on a hiring committee, find ways to take bias out of your decisions. (One approach we’ve started testing at the foundation: removing names and schools from employee applications.) And no matter who you are, diversify your network, so you can connect more kinds of people to more kinds of jobs.
“Ask for the data.”

It’s no secret that starting a conversation about diversity in your organization can be uncomfortable. But as Joanna Coles reminded us, it gets a lot easier when you remember that data is your ally. So ask for the numbers and let them make the case for you. And once your organization’s diversity data is out in the open, start using it to set goals and benchmark progress. As Stacy said, improving equity is like everything else in business: “you accomplish what you measure.”
Make sure you pay it forward.

Chances are, if you’re in a position of leadership, someone helped you get there. Now it’s your turn to be that person for someone else. Be a mentor. Lift as you rise. Use your power to dismantle barriers for those who follow.

Reflecting on the incredible things that Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, and people from younger generations are accomplishing so early in their careers, Nina Shaw called them “fearless.” But if we want rising leaders to achieve their full potential—to, as Nina put it, “bust those doors open” to the highest levels of leadership—then first, we’ve got to grease the hinges.
Men, “this is your invitation to be an ally.”

After she extended the invitation, Stacy added that it’s OK if it’s a little bit uncomfortable to ask the question “how do I help?” but urged men not to shy away. Because if we want more diversity at the executive level, then we need senior leaders—male and female—to mentor talented young women, and include them in the conversations, meetings, and projects that will help them rise to the top. (By the way, guys, if you’re worried that inviting a woman you manage to drinks will send the wrong message, Stacy has a suggestion: try inviting everyone on your team—men and women—to lunch instead.)
This isn’t a moment—it’s a movement.

A reckoning. An inflection point. A call to action. Each of the four of us had our own words to describe the #metoo and Time’s Up movements. But we all agreed that the fight for equality is here to stay. Nina said it for all of us: “I think there’s a bunch of guys waiting for this to be over. It’s never going to be over.”

For that reason and so many others, I’ve never been more confident that tomorrow’s workplace will look nothing like what came before. And neither will the people who lead it.