Mathison’s Arthur Woods on the Right Way to Approach DEI
12 minute read
If you’re reading this on a computer, thank Alan Turing.
Turing was a scientist in the first half of the 1900s, and in addition to being a key figure in helping to end WWII, his work led to the development of computer science and artificial intelligence as we know it today. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve definitely used items in your everyday life that were created because of his ideas. If you haven’t heard of him, it may be because much of his life’s work was classified after he was was convicted of the crime of indecency for being gay.
When Ashby sat down with Arthur Woods, he proudly told us that his company, Mathison, was named for Turing.
“It was his middle name. And so that’s really the backstory of what the company is all about. I grew up in a rural town in Northern California,” he told Ashby. “I came out as gay halfway through college and joined the LGBTQ community. I really got into HR technology and entrepreneurship out of this interesting vantage point of feeling like I was breaking the rules in life in general, and wanting my career to reflect the same.”
Mathison is a company that helps companies build their diversity, equity, and inclusion plans, track their success, and train and empower their teams to create the greatest impact. And Arthur’s passion for that mission comes through very clearly when he speaks about it.
“As an entrepreneur, I found myself thinking about new, creative ways to solve problems and also to chart my own path. I became passionate about HR technology, in particular DEI. Realizing that we spend the majority of our waking lives at work, and work for so many people is not working! For so many people work isn’t a place where there's a sense of empowerment or belonging. And I was really inspired to dedicate my life to how we innovate to make work something that works for people.”
Since launching Mathison three years ago, Arthur has watched DEI go from being considered an optional bonus to an essential category for more employers.
“Yet the vast majority of companies are struggling to make progress,” Arthur said. “They’re driving blind right now: they don't know where their gaps are or what to do. There's this huge need to take action. We wanted to start Mathison to turn the lights on in the room and help organizations see where they need to focus their attention, and then give them the tools to take action.”
In the course of that goal, Arthur literally wrote the book on diverse hiring. “Hiring for Diversity was a culmination of years of research, studying the hiring practices of hundreds of employers and uncovering their greatest gaps and their greatest needs. And what we found in our work was that employers, first of all, didn't really have a playbook or a roadmap for their DEI efforts. We had the opportunity to deliver that to them. After working with hundreds of employers we translated all of our insights into the book.”
What research uncovered
There’s material in the book for anyone who cares about DEI hiring, but Arthur had a target in mind when he wrote it. “The leader who is trying to go from this extraordinary intent to impact. And what we're doing with the book is giving folks case studies, resources, and direct things that they can do to put their DEI strategy into action. The whole notion is that we need everyone to be part of this solution. It's not enough for us to simply just put our DEI activity on the shoulders of HR alone. We actually need everyone to play an active role. And the whole book is about democratizing that responsibility.”
To learn that, Arthur didn’t only focus on employers and leaders. He also connected with nonprofits, workforce development agencies, and finally, active job seekers themselves. “We did a study of hundreds of underrepresented job seekers to understand the barriers they’re facing and to ask them what is it that we can do to ensure we're lifting the barriers for you. What are the challenges you are seeing as we walk into the hiring process? How can we make sure that everything that we do addresses those issues?”
“It's much more realistic to tell our organization: we may be early on, we may not have all the answers, but let's do this together.”
In the course of research, Arthur had some incredible conversations and insights. And something that stood out to him was how narrowly many people tried to define “diversity.”
“As employers, many people still have a very narrow definition of what diversity itself is. That largely limits our ability to be inclusive in our efforts, because it hinders our ability to actually support every community.” Arthur told us that they combat this by zooming out for a big-picture approach. “Our model is to embrace a much more holistic definition of diversity.”
Arthur pointed out to us that a wall exists between those within a company focusing on diversity, and those applying to work there. And it isn’t always clear from the outside what those DEI efforts really look like. “Job seekers have little idea about an organization's commitment to diversity, their diversity goals, or the efforts that they have underway. Our ability is to tell that story externally and really give organizations the ability to communicate their commitment to diversity. They need to build transparency to stand out to that job seeker that doesn't truly know right now, how authentically committed the organization is.”
Sometimes the biggest gaps in a DEI strategy are, oddly, the most glaring ones. “It seems like such an obvious thing, right?” Arthur said. “As an employer that actually is taking steps to be more or inclusive, how can we now help you tell that story authentically to job seekers? But most job seekers, the vast majority in fact, had very little idea about an organization's commitment to diversity or diversity efforts when they went to their career page or when they walked into the hiring process. So part of our vision is helping with that.”
DEI and building in public
Clarity and transparency is often the focus of Mathison’s work.
“Organizations basically have the posture that they need to go do this work underground away from everyone and not really share their progress or results until the progress is noticeable,” said Arthur. “And what that does is limit awareness of the work to a select few in your organization. It hinders collective ownership and actually ends up making the work unsustainable. Limited people find themselves trying to drive this work forward and they can't make a ton of progress.”
There’s another approach that works much better, says Arthur. “Instead, say: let's start by building collective transparency across our organization, around our DEI activities. Let's now empower every single person to play a role. Let's equip everyone with the resources to take action. And let's build a continuous conversation with our organization. So everyone feels like they're connected. And that's a very different posture than, let's have one person go underground and figure this out and they'll report back once they make progress.”
“What a cool thing for your organization to say, you're part of the journey with us. We want you to be part of the solution, give us ideas, tell us what we're missing. You're equally part of driving this all forward.”
That desire to bury the work, to do it quietly, Arthur says, may come from a place of fear. “I think it's a fear of admitting to not being far enough along, or admitting to not being perfect. And honestly, that's just an area where we have to shift our mindset to thinking that every single step along the way is progress.” It isn't a bad thing to be working imperfectly. “No one has really figured this work out end to end. No one has the full playbook and no one has all of the answers, right? Our ability to make true progress, and our ability to bring everyone along, and be transparent, and be somewhat vulnerable is a whole different way that we can do this work.”
Working this way moves the bar to an achievable height. “It's much more realistic to tell our organization: we may be early on, we may not have all the answers, but let's do this together,” Arthur advised. “That's a very different posture. And it's one that, by the way, I think is much more exciting for the team of people who come into an organization and care about DEI. What a cool thing for your organization to say, you're part of the journey with us. We want you to be part of the solution, give us ideas, tell us what we're missing. You're equally part of driving this all forward.”
Building in DEI as a team mission
If you’re starting a new business, prioritizing DEI from day one is key. “The very first thing that we recommend organizations do is to have a conversation with leadership. Ask: why does diversity matter to us? What does it uniquely mean for us, and what is going to be necessary for us to bring this plan to life? What role will we all play? What activities will we need to engage in?” Starting with leadership is especially important, Arthur says. “If leaders at the top can have that conversation, it articulates the vision, the pillars, and how they're going to measure success.”
“In a lot of organizations,” he went on, “What happens is their leaders say they have a diversity challenge. So they go to the head of diversity or to their head of HR and they say, you need to go figure this out, solve this for us. And so there's a collective need at the top, but there isn't a collective responsibility. And it makes everything else much harder. The whole notion of this is that we must go beyond. Leadership is just where the conversation has to start.”
The idea of collective ownership of DEI is so vital, Arthur says, that it’s how he closed his book. “The last chapter in our book was How to Mobilize Your Entire Team in DEI. And the reason that it was at the very end, was that it’s mostly foundational. We need everyone. And that's a philosophical shift for a lot of organizations to shift the responsibility from that head of DEI to the rest of the organization.”
Arthur suggests that the leaders in these conversations find ways to become more comfortable with the concept of diversity as a collective project. “It's going to be out of the comfort zone for a lot of leaders that have been taught for years and years: you need to have all the answers, you cannot admit to not knowing, and you need to lead from a position of strength. It's actually a much greater position of strength these days to lead from a position of authenticity, to admit to not knowing and to be willing to listen.”
Adapting to a shifting space
Excitingly, much of DEI is moving in that direction. Arthur predicted greater transparency and accountability at all levels will soon become the norm in the diversity space. He also predicted that that idea of diversity as a monolith is finally cracking.
“Diversity is very holistic,” he said. “There are many different dimensions we can see and not see. It's intersectional — the complexity of diversity exists in ways that we haven't acknowledged before. I think we're going to see a lot of communities that weren't typically on the radar previously, now in the forefront. And a great example of that is the neurodiverse community, which in the last year has become a much more prominent part of the conversation. A lot of folks have very proudly identified themselves in the community in ways that they never previously did. There are employee resource groups dedicated to the neurodiverse community. And I suspect we're going to see more and more communities emerge that others weren't quite aware of as the taxonomy of diversity continues to expand.”
Unafraid of keeping up with these changes, Mathison is continuing to grow, and they’re looking forward to a big year ahead. “We're continuing to expand our technology, extend our team, extend what we're measuring, and really be a resource for growing organizations that want to meaningfully take action in this work.”
We also asked Arthur what his own goals looked like. “For me personally, I consider myself a permanent student of the work. I don't really believe there are experts in the DEI, because the work is continuing to evolve every day. Instead, there are permanent students who subscribe to the work itself and continue to immerse themselves in it. That's the great thing about this work. There's always a new barrier to learn about. There's always a new viewpoint to understand. There's always a new community to better build awareness of. And we just have to continue to expand our horizons in the work if we want to continue to be equitable.”
“Diversity is very holistic. There are many different dimensions we can see and not see. It's intersectional — the complexity of diversity exists in ways that we haven't acknowledged before.”
One way Arthur is helping to do that is with Mathison’s Equal Pay Summit on April 12th, 2022.
The summit, Arthur said, is all about, “Uncovering the latest trends in pay equity and pay transparency. There's been a lot of new legislation in states like Colorado and in cities like New York where we're seeing new requirements for pay transparency and job descriptions. As this is becoming a requirement, a lot of organizations are internally wondering, what have we been doing for pay equity and transparency? Have we assessed how equitable our pay is, are we defining everything very intentionally for job seekers who might be severely underpaid in their previous jobs? And we might be perpetuating that pay equity gap when we give them an offer that matches what they're being paid today, right? So there's a huge systemic issue with pay inequity.”
He described the depth of the problem. “If you think about the trickle down impact of when someone is inequitably paid, what it means in terms of the house they can buy, the school they can send their kids to, the lifestyle they have, and how they actually become future leaders and organizations, pay alone actually has an enormous impact. And so us being able to be part of this conversation with the community on the latest trends and pay equity, transparency, what they mean for leaders and organizations right now, and how we can take action. It's going to be a very cool conversation!”
Attending (or watching a recording) is a great way to be a permanent student of the work yourself. As Arthur told us, “Our whole philosophy is that you should not have to wait in order to make meaningful progress. You should be able to have progress in action, at any part of the journey that you're on. I'm very excited about all the work ahead. It's only the beginning in so many ways.”