Direction 16: Scaling Walls – Aubrey Blanche

Aubrey Blanche is the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian, the Australian startup that became a global giant. Her talk at our end-of-one-year, start-of-the-next Direction conference in 2016 turned out to be notable for several reasons.

Firstly, the full title of this presentation, Scaling Walls: The Barriers to Female Representation and How Atlassian is Eliminating Them, tells you that it fits perfectly the discussions prompted by the recent International Women’s Day about women in tech. In fact, much the same discussions happen every year, which makes you wonder if anyone’s making any progress. This talk tells you that Atlassian is, by employing some devilishly ordinary common sense.

Second, this talk would have had the highest rating of Direction attendees being heard to say afterwards, “We can do this. Why aren’t we doing this? Let’s do this”. And thirdly, it’s notable that Aubrey broached this complicated topic without the aid of any slides or other visual aids – yet it was utterly compelling.

Here’s how Wrap summarised her talk.

Scaling Walls: The Barriers to Female Representation and How Atlassian is Eliminating Them

Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Atlassian

Aubrey Blanche

Key points

Aubrey’s job is to help Atlassian more effectively attract, recruit, retain, and develop people from traditionally under-represented groups.

People in the tech industry believe tech is a meritocracy. That is not true. The Paradox of Meritocracy indicates that the more we believe in a meritocracy, the less it actually applies.

A Newsweek cover last year showed the titans of Silicon Valley, and every single one of them was a white man.

The increase in perspective brought about by diversity in hiring brings direct benefits in efficiency, work quality and higher achievements for all involved.

When Aubrey started at Atlassian, there was a supportive attitude to diversity but nothing had been built to support it, which at least meant a clean slate.

The process for recruiting a group of Sydney graduates offered a place to start – except that they had not one single application from women.

One of the reasons was clearly a confidence gap. When women and men are equally qualified, women are less likely to rate themselves highly.

Atlassian went to universities, tech meetups, hosted breakfasts to find out what would make women want to apply to work at Atlassian. Active encouragement to overcome the confidence gap was clearly important.

Atlassian also overhauled their public image as a recruiter, changing their messaging to reflect what would appeal to anyone serious about working in tech: less on perks like beer and pizza, more about being a collaborative and flexible work environment that valued all employees equally.

Positive steps also included emphasising skills over experience, ensuring imagery was diverse, and changing job ads to be more realistic and less about rock stars, gurus and ninjas.

“We don’t want rock stars. Rock stars come in at 11 and suck at building software.”

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche


Why don’t we see women in technology in the same proportions that we see them in the general population?

When PCs started being marketed in the mid 1980s, it was men and boys that were targeted, giving them a decade long head start over women and girls – despite some of the original computer scientists being women. We’re still dealing with this.

We need to change the way we advertise the tech industry and the way that we brand, so that we paint a broad inclusive picture of who tech is, what tech is, and who it can be.

Unconscious bias causes us to evaluate the skills of women in technical roles less, compared to their male counterparts.

10 years into their career in technology, 56% of women opt out. The comparable statistic for men is 17%. When asked, women said they didn’t feel they could thrive in predominant culture.

Atlassian rejected ideas of a culture fit as being wracked with various biases, but structured behavioural interviewing for a values fit identified people who would prosper at the company.

Atlassian’s methods are working. In two years, the proportion of women on staff has left from under 12% to over 45% and is moving toward equal gender parity.

The huge, and often ignored, benefit to building a workforce that is diverse and inclusive is that you start attracting all kinds of employees who want to work with you.

What this comes down to is that a tech company recruiting needs to be aware of, practise and hone organisational design.

“This stuff is really hard to talk about, but the more we talk about it, the more we can make progress.”

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche
Sketchnotes by @the_patima.


The culture in tech is not geared to be female-friendly – but culture is malleable and can be changed.

The idea that addressing issues of diversity and inclusion is expensive is false. It’s about being smart.

Interviewing is hard, and we’re not very good at using interviews to determine whether people are good at something.

If your company remains committed to recruiting according to a culture fit, ask what that really means.

“Men were a third more likely than women to get an interview for a coding position. And we submitted the same code for both.”

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche


The Paradox of Meritocracy (article)
Work Rules! (book, by Laszlo Bock)


Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche

Direction 16: Aubrey Blanche

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