Facebook Global Head of Diversity Maxine Williams Reflects on Her First Year

Facebook global head of diversity Maxine Williams spoke with Jeff Bercovici of Forbes about the challenged she has faced in almost one year on the job at the social network, and the progress she and the rest of Facebook Diversity have made.

MaxineWilliams650Facebook global head of diversity Maxine Williams spoke with Jeff Bercovici of Forbes about the challenged she has faced in almost one year on the job at the social network, and the progress she and the rest of Facebook Diversity have made.

Highlights of Williams’ chat with Bercovici follow:

From what I can tell, before I came, there was an interest in diversity. People were absolutely willing for it to happen. But there was no intentionality around it. All they had was goodwill.

Now, we’re in a moment of bounty. I feel I’m living in a moment where I can get whatever I need to accomplish the goals that I set, and I’ve lived long enough to know those moments don’t last forever and they don’t come around all the time, so I have to take advantage of it and keep that momentum going. Although I haven’t been at Facebook before — maybe Facebook is just a place of Eden.

People have to believe in what you’re saying, and that requires that you speak in a language they understand, that you appeal to something they think is a target. There are so many demands on people’s time, on everything, on all their resources. I think the biggest constraint is: Does this make sense? What do I need to do about it? Can I see a clear end? It’s this whole thing about, “What are your metrics?”

So now I give a speech at new hire orientation every Monday morning. The first day they arrive, they see me before they go to lunch. I talk about balance between inquisitiveness and forgiveness. I say: This needs to be a space where people can ask stupid questions and then be forgiven. In the typical workplace that has employment lawyers, nobody wants you asking stupid questions because they could be offensive. You don’t want to ask that black person, “Do you wash your hair?” You just don’t. It raises risk. You don’t want to ask that woman about her pregnancy. All of these are protected characteristics. So we become hesitant to engage.

We’ve flipped that around. I’ve said to people: It’s OK to ask those things, but then I want you to forgive people when they ask stupid questions. What I came to see is the hesitation came because I’m operating in a country that has a heightened sensitivity around race, where quite frankly, white people are afraid to engage. They’re afraid of stepping in the wrong place. When you have that fear, when you have people who are afraid of stepping in the wrong place, you just avoid. You don’t do anything.

My job here is confronting these things, giving people permission to ask questions. I would literally have conversations with people where they would say to me, [in a whisper] “Can I say the word black?” And I was like, “Wow, these were the conversations we’re having?” But they didn’t have another person they felt they could ask.

I think sensitivity was holding us back from being bold on diversity. We were bold on products, right? We would achieve things that you never thought were achievable. But on these issues of identity, there was hesitation and sensitivity. They were well intentioned because they didn’t want to offend, but in not offending, we’re not doing what we say we do, which is moving fast, breaking things, failing harder, done is better than perfect — all of this. Just do it, engage it. But to do that, you have to be at the same time creating an atmosphere where people are willing to forgive.

I have these three pillars: Be bold on diversity, be intentional about it and recognize that it’s everyone’s challenge. The “everyone’s challenge” part is where I feel we can take it further than any other company. If it’s a white or Asian man, which is our majority population, who comes up to me after one of my talks and says, “How can I help more?” one of the first questions I ask is, “Why did you raise your hand?” Because I want to understand what’s motivating them, because I will not rest until I get every majority man engaged in this, because that’s what’s going to make a difference.

Much more of the conversation between Williams and Bercovici is available in the Forbes post.

Readers: What did you think of Williams’ comments?