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Raising the Bar

CASE STUDY: How technology company Thoughtworks uses outside-the-box recruiting, blind reviews and C-level accountability to meet their ambitious goals for gender and racial diversity.

A woman is doing a high jump on a pole.

Thoughtworks logo 2.jpgThoughtworks has been around for almost 30 years and was founded in Chicago by Roy Singham. His background is important to understand the culture of Thoughtworks. His mother was American and his father was Sri Lankan. He grew up in different countries around the world, and social justice was a big part of his upbringing. So when he created Thoughtworks, his goal was to have an impact not just on the technology industry but also to have an impact on society. This has since evolved into Thought-works Why, our purpose statement that defines who we are, why we exist and what brings us together. It also serves as our lenses and values in an ever-changing world.

Our company started to get serious about DE&I with a focus on gender diversity around 2010. While everyone acknowledged that there weren't a lot of women in tech, we still needed to do something about it.

Rebecca Parsons, our chief technology officer, often tells the story about how our level of commitment shifted. Every leadership team has a monthly business review. There was a slide in the deck that showed gender representation at the company. After seeing the same slide month after month and the numbers not moving, she just got frustrated and said, "Let's either get serious and do something about this or take the slide out of the deck."

That led to a commitment from the top to apply the apprentice model to the challenge. We would bring in people straight out of school with less experience and then train them over time.

We have a flagship program called Thoughtworks University, which is a six-week program for all our entry-level hires. And we set an ambitious goal for ourselves at that time that we would have a 50/50 gender balance of women and men attending Thoughtworks University going forward.

It was a big goal, and it really forced our colleagues in all the countries where we were based—a dozen countries back then and 18 now — to think differently about how we would source and develop talent.

Break All the Rules

When we began an initiative in North America to start a new entry-level grad program with a focus on diversity, we were given the leeway to break all the rules that we had used in the past.

That included relying on applications and recruiting from the computer science departments at the same schools. So we went to different schools and looked in different departments. We were looking for aptitude and people who are passionate about learning and who had some relevant skills, though not to the degree that we had required in the past.

And once we hired them, we changed the way we did their performance reviews. We changed the way that we gave them salary increases. We were given this mandate but also the freedom to do things differently, and our colleagues in other countries used a similar approach.

As an example, one of the very early hires we made was a biology major. At some point, we learned she had built a website and had done some coding. She had worked with teams of scientists, and she had all these qualities that we were looking for. She ended up running one of our most important service lines in the U.S. business.

We also started doing blind code reviews with applicants who did have a technology background. Before that, there was a stage in our hiring process where a candidate was given a problem to work on, and then we gave them a couple of weeks to write some code to solve it. We would then review their code for its quality. For a long time, we were attaching names to those code reviews. But when we shifted to blind code reviews, we did see a difference in the people we were hiring.

We also did unconscious bias training to improve how we interviewed candidates. We established "defining attributes" so that everyone in the hiring process was clear about what we were looking for. That made the process less subjective and more equitable.

Another key decision to help drive change was making our managing directors, who oversee our geographic-based operating units, responsible for achieving this key goal. That was an important step, because a lot of companies say, "This is an HR problem." And that just doesn't work. It's like trying to roll a boulder uphill. Unless you have the commitment and accountability at the top of the organization, it's not a priority.

Measuring Diversity by Country & Task

The murder of George Floyd prompted a lot of reflection for everyone here at Thoughtworks. The leadership team spent a lot of time talking about how we wanted to show up in that moment, because we didn't want to engage in virtue-signaling with statements that weren't backed up by any action.

From those discussions, we committed to doing even more to be inclusive in our hiring and bringing diverse technologists into our company. We created a new internship program and we strengthened employee resource groups, which are an effective way for people to connect and think about strategies to promote more inclusion and belonging.

Our goals for diversity have evolved as well. When you operate in 18 different countries, gender equity is something that is common across the globe and measurable. And we've always had an approach that, in addition to gender, each country should focus on at least one other aspect of diversity.

In the United States, for example, it has been race and ethnicity. In other countries, it might be a focus on LGBTQ or addressing discrimination based on country of origin.

Globally, we set a goal in 2019 that 40 percent of people in technology roles would be women or underrepresented minorities. The reason we decided to focus on technologists was that many companies report their all-company gender metrics. Those are important, but they can sometimes hide the fact that there's a heavy bias toward disciplines that haven't necessarily had a shortage of women. And so when looking closer at the gender mix of coders, the number of women employees is much lower. We wanted to acknowledge that the technology field has a gender diversity problem and to focus our efforts on helping to address that gap.

So we classified every role in the company, working with an external partner, as technologist or non-technologist. When we set the goal in 2019, we were at about 32 percent, and we gave ourselves a couple of years to achieve the 40 percent goal, and we achieved that at the end of last year.

Now that we've achieved this goal, we are turning our focus to career progression and seniority. The two most senior grades in our company are called principal and director. Combined, currently 33 percent of those roles companywide, and 28 percent of technology roles, are held by women and underrepresented minorities. Our new goal is to increase both of these to 40 percent as well.

Lessons Learned: Four Steps to Change

An important part of our efforts to reach our goals globally is that we have a head of DE&I who sits on the leadership team for every country. So they're not embedded inside HR. That sends a powerful message about how much this matters to us.

The key insights for us about driving change are that:

  1. The senior leaders have to be committed and accountable to driving change.
  2. Setting concrete and measurable goals really helps provide focus.
  3. You have to challenge thinking and the perceived constraints about the way that things have always been done.
  4. Progress requires engaging in really uncomfortable conversations.

We recognize that inclusivity is not all sunshine and rainbows. When you talk about intersectionality and people from different backgrounds bringing their full selves to work, there will always be some friction and misunderstanding, because everyone has their biases. So you really have to create an environment where incredibly uncomfortable conversations can take place, including being vulnerable about the fact that we all have our biases, in order to have meaningful discussions and breakthroughs.

When leaders can talk through their own journeys of self-awareness and understanding their biases, that vulnerability sends a very important message about the environment we're trying to create and what we expect of our people. That's how change happens. 

Joanna Parke is the chief talent and operating officer at Thoughtworks, a publicly owned software design and consulting company that has 49 offices in 18 countries. 

Elise Zelechowski is the global head of DE&I, sustainability and social change at Thoughtworks


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