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What We Learned from Improving Diversity Rates at Pinterest

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Jun 18, 2021


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What We Learned from Improving Diversity Rates at Pinterest
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Juan Díaz-Faes for HBR

In today’s workplace, diversity is more than just a buzzword; it’s a way to build a stronger business. At Pinterest, we understand that diverse teams yield smarter, more innovative results, which are essential in the competitive, dynamic tech industry. With over 175 million active users worldwide, Pinterest thrives on providing users with relevant ideas: what to wear, what to cook, how to furnish your home, and where to travel. Pinterest’s fastest growing users are outside of the United States, and for current and future users, it’s important that the people building our product make it relevant to people of different ethnic, social, physical, and geographic backgrounds.

But businesses have long struggled to increase diversity across all levels. For nearly a decade, I worked at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on helping women advance in the workplace, consulting with progressive companies who began investing in diversity initiatives in the ‘90s. The tech industry joined the diversity movement to diversify their workforces far later, after being scrutinized for its stark lack of gender and ethnic diversity. What brought me to Pinterest was a bold move I hadn’t seen previously: in 2015, the company decided to set public, challenging goals to increase hiring rates of women and employees from underrepresented ethnic groups.

For example, while women typically make up roughly 16% of software engineers in the U.S. (and almost no companies report engineering data specifically), Pinterest’s goal in 2016 was to hire women engineers at nearly twice this rate. The goal was based on a legal analysis of the current workforce, industry graduate rates, and co-founders Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp’s desire to push far beyond the status quo after two years of flat data.

The next step was to figure out a strategy to reach these goals, and, more broadly, to ensure a culture of belonging and managerial competence in inclusion. I joined Pinterest as the company’s first Head of Diversity in January of 2016. By the end of that year, we had hit or exceeded most of our goals, improving hiring rates of underrepresented engineers from 1 to 9% and increasing underrepresented talent from 7% to 12% in other roles. But we saw limited movement for women engineers, only increasing our hiring rate from 21% to 22%, which fell short of our goal. While higher than industry norms, this flatness was in large part due to our focus on putting more women in senior roles versus in entry-level roles (more on that later). Over the course of my first year at Pinterest, I’ve learned four key lessons about how to improve diversity from within a company:

1. Setting diversity goals isn’t enough. You need (repeated) explanations of why they matter.

Rolling out public diversity targets is an important step, but achieving these goals requires intense and regular follow-up throughout the organization. It can’t just be left up to HR, either.

We learned we can make faster progress if hiring managers understand how diversity advances our goal of building a global, world class product. While I worked with the leadership team to digest and communicate research and stories on this, my team doubled down on efforts to engage hiring managers in inclusive decision-making. First, we instituted an unconscious bias training program for every new employee within their first two weeks, delivered by trained employees across all functions. The sessions give practical advice on how to disrupt bias in decision-making. We created a playbook and training for managers focused on inclusive leadership. These provide strategies on how managers can design more inclusive meetings, team experiences, and give consistent feedback — based on research that employees receive different types of feedback depending on their gender or cultural background. We also conducted an in-house study identifying the best practices of our most inclusive leaders, identified through team feedback. Our study found that these managers tended to empower their employees with ownership of their roles while also encouraging risk-taking; we’ve made the results available to the rest of our industry.

2. Embracing diversity means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

When I walked into Pinterest, one of my biggest concerns was gauging and navigating the adversity of those threatened by or dismissive of inclusion and diversity. In every company, there are skeptics — both silent and outspoken — who question whether diversity has merit. Others wonder if underrepresented groups can truly meet a high hiring bar. And because we put a stake in the ground regarding our goals, some have succumbed to zero-sum thinking, assuming that, despite our company growth, diversity programs in tech companies favor some groups at the expense of others.

Being clear about our goals and experimenting with new methods upfront helped break through some of the status quo. We found that people tend to refer job candidates who look like themselves, so we decided to ask people for loose connections and leads instead of referrals. This landed well only when we made it optional rather than required, and when we reminded people that these candidates would receive the same scrutiny as any other hiring candidates. (Although it should be assumed that no candidates will get special treatment, that needs to be restated frequently.)

Furthermore, different groups have unique concerns that need to be addressed separately. Senior women wonder if the company will truly put women in leadership positions — a valid concern — thus, we discussed embedding leadership targets within our hiring goals while relaunching our female empowerment employee resource group with strong executive sponsorship. Perhaps the most immediate impact was on our recruiters, who faced new sourcing and relationship challenges. My team and I worked alongside recruiters to ensure we would help them test new strategies for hiring. One example is our new apprenticeship program, which brings in new software engineers from non-traditional computer science backgrounds who are strong performers.

While I continue to manage different perceptions about these changes, I’ve found that being explicit about diversity makes employees keenly aware of underrepresented talent we haven’t taken the opportunity to connect with.

3. Diversity doesn’t slow down hiring — it makes it more efficient.

Last year, Pinterest grew from 700 to more than 1,100 people. In a young, hyper-growth tech environment, many managers are new and trying to pursue results quickly, without spending too much time on team building. This can lead some to make hiring decisions without considering a broader slate of candidates.

There’s a blanket misconception that factoring diversity into hiring automatically slows the process down, or in some way lowers the bar for new hires. In the long run, adding a lens of diversity to recruiting actually makes the process more efficient. Hiring from a diverse candidate pool has made us more thoughtful and deliberate about where we look for candidates, allowing us to look beyond the people that come to us via networks (e.g. referrals).

For example, when trying to hire senior roles, we began ensuring that we had at least one woman and one underrepresented candidate in the final candidate pool. This resulted in our highest diversity in executive roles to date — and our first ever executives from underrepresented groups in their fields, including our first woman as Head of Engineering. And instead of interviews assessing vague notions of “cultural fit” that we know can activate inherent biases, we trained employees on consistent interviews that focused more on qualities we value in Pinterest employees, like problem solving skills and curiosity.

4. Pursuing diversity requires plenty of course correction.

Like any new effort, many well-intentioned ideas can end up with unintended consequences. For example, studies have shown that removing names from resumes to prevent discrimination can actually have the unintended effect of evaluators making biased decisions based on other cues.

For us, we missed our aggressive 2016 goal of 30% of newly hired engineers being women. While this was a setback, we learned something invaluable halfway through our efforts: our original goal was too broad. Although the pool of entry-level talent is more diverse than that of tenured engineers, we realized that we couldn’t just increase the number of junior women engineers — we also wanted to make sure that women engineers were well represented at every level of the company. When speaking with our current female engineers, we learned that having more women at the top would lessen stigmas linking women to junior positions. That’s why we decided to focus specifically on hiring senior women later in the year, a much smaller but vital talent pool. After revising our internal goal to capture more senior women, we were able to focus the remainder of 2016 on bringing in experienced senior women engineers, including our Head of Engineering.

There is no playbook for making every employee feel included. In a sense, we’re all writing it together right now. We continue to work on creating a sense of belonging for every employee at Pinterest through events, discussions, and employee groups that build community and involve our executives. We’re still working to upskill our managers on inclusion, with trainings and team-specific discussions, and to determine real incentives for being an inclusive ally. With the above lessons in mind, our company is attracting people who know where we stand on diversity and the value it brings to our product. They are coming because they believe in it, too.