Wattpad has released the results of its 2019 Diversity and Inclusion survey, which tracks the identities of the company’s employee base.
“The lack of diversity in tech, painfully clear to marginalized groups, is now acknowledged as fact.”
“In 2019, the industry is paying more attention than ever to how and who builds products,” wrote Wattpad’s chief product officer Seema Lakhani in a blog post. “The lack of diversity in tech – painfully clear to marginalized groups – is now acknowledged as fact. Diversity, inclusion, and representation are finally mainstream issues thanks to the voices, efforts, and sacrifices of marginalized groups and their allies all over the world.”
The survey is part of a growing trend speaking to challenges of diversity and inclusion within Canada’s tech ecosystem. MaRS’s 2018 Tech For All report, that surveyed members of Toronto’s tech community, for example, found that while employers generally understood the importance of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, they struggled to actually implement initiatives. As a result, those surveyed highlighted experiences of bias, racism, or sexism. Subsequent reports have shown that women, People of Colour, and other marginalized individuals and communities continue to face barriers within the tech ecosystem.
Wattpad’s 2019 survey is the company’s third Diversity and Inclusion survey. The results of the survey are based on participation from 81 percent of Wattpad employees, which grew from 140 in 2018 to 163 in 2019.
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This year, while the Toronto-based company saw a dip in the percentage of women on its team, it remained at gender parity, with women making up 50 percent of employees compared to 56 percent in 2018. The number of women in leadership positions saw a small decrease as well, from 50 percent to 48 percent.
While last year Wattpad’s product team comprised of all women, this year 83 percent of the product team identified as women. The number of women on Wattpad’s design team increased from 50 percent to 60 percent. With 70 percent of its Wattpad Studios employees identifying as women.
Lakhani explained the change in the number of women was part of the natural flow of hiring and that Wattpad tracks these year-to-year shifts, keeping an eye out for any major changes. She also noted that Wattpad’s target is to have 50 percent gender parity, and overall Wattpad sees the results of the survey as positive signals of its demographics.
This year also marked the second year that Wattpad tracked intersecting identities in its survey, and while numbers of women dipped, those identifying as LGBTQ+ and transgender grew over the past year.
“Tracking these things on an annual basis … enables us to actually hold ourselves accountable.”
The number of LGBTQ+ employees grew from 13 percent to 17 percent, with transgender staff increasing from three to six percent. The number of non-native English speakers within Wattpad also grew from 15 percent to 21 percent. Those identifying as having a disability fell from eight percent to three percent.
Also seeing a slight dip from 2018 to 2019 were employees identifying as People of Colour, which saw a decrease from 45 percent in 2018 to 40 percent of Wattpad’s entire staff, in 2019. However, the number of People of Colour in leadership roles grew from 41 percent to 48 percent. The breakdown of women of colour to men of colour across Wattpad’s staff was 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Lakhani, who is also the general manager of Wattpad Labs, noted that diversity and inclusion are foundational parts of Wattpad, from being founded by two immigrants to building itself as a safe space online for marginalized communities around the world. This year has seen Wattpad ink deals with partners in a number of different countries, and reach 80 million monthly users.
“Tracking these things on an annual basis is super important to us because it enables us to actually hold ourselves accountable to the diverse company we want to be and the goals we have around that,” Lakhani told BetaKit. She also noted that with products that touch millions of people around the world, having a diverse team around the table allows Wattpad to work and build differently.
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“From a product perspective, that means making sure that people are going to think about the things that might get overlooked,” she added. “People that carry a lot of privilege may not be aware of the fact that harassment is a massive issue online, and that people need to build that into the nature of how these products are going to work – how people are going to be able to stay safe and protected in an online environment.”
Outside of tracking the identities of its employees, Wattpad says it has also taken steps to build a culture of diversity and inclusion within its workforce. In 2019, Lakhani noted that Wattpad began a company-wide diversity and inclusion training program, in order to help all its staff understand the challenges and oppression faced by marginalized communities within and outside of the tech ecosystem. Wattpad noted that 90 percent of its staff have participated in the sessions with plans to run more for those that have yet to receive the training.
This year, Wattpad reviewed various policies from compensation to leave, releasing salary bands offering a more transparent view of compensation ranges for each level at the company. It also reviewed and updated leave policies with an eye for improving processes for those that need time away from work, whether that be for caregiving or mental health reasons. Wattpad also instituted gender-neutral bathrooms at its headquarters in Toronto in 2019.
“The best thing a CEO can do to support women and marginalized people is step back and create space for other people’s voices.
Following learnings from its 2018 survey, Wattpad also launched “affinity groups” in January through its Diversity & Inclusion Committee. The affinity groups, currently spanning LGBTQ+, Women of Colour, Neurodiversity and Mental Health, and Caregivers, are meant to offer a safe space for staff to share their experiences.
Lakhani pointed to some of these steps as ways other companies can begin to put more focus on diversity and inclusion. “The challenge is getting started sometimes, so I’d advise to just take small steps,” she said. “I think one thing [is] it can feel like a mountain, and so it’s continually working away, putting the dollars, the resources, the investment … setting goals, and then tracking yourself against a goal and continuing to make those investments.”
“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the best thing a CEO can do to support women and marginalized people is step back and create space for other people’s voices, expertise, and experiences,” Allen Lau, Wattpad CEO and co-founder, told BetaKit. “I’ve said many times that CEOs need to look to other people’s expertise when running a company, and this applies to diversity and inclusion just like any other area of our business.”
“These initiatives aren’t about me. They are about understanding everyone at Wattpad and in our community to create a stronger culture for everyone,” he added. “I’m not the expert, so I empower our diversity and inclusion team with the resources and people they need to make meaningful change at Wattpad. I hope other CEOs and founders can do the same.”
Though it did not point to any specific targets for next year, Wattpad noted that it will be reviewing the results of this year’s survey in the coming weeks and months to find new ways to address issues of diversity and inclusion within the company.