In the often male-dominated tech industry, it’s rare to find a company with a good representation of women. At Wattpad, women are the majority, visible and in positions of power at every level. Allen Lau, co-founder and CEO, looks to his employees for guidance and diverse perspectives on what’s needed for an inclusive environment, and wholly commits the company to achieving that goal.
By Hailey Eisen
“I am not a woman,” says Allen Lau, co-founder and CEO of Wattpad. “That means, no matter how hard I try to be 100 per cent understanding of the female experience, the only way to really do so is to step back, listen, and learn.”
He has no shortage of women to turn to. Allen is at the helm of a tech company — a global, multi-platform entertainment company for stories, to be specific — where women make up the majority of employees.
Launching as a mobile reading app in 2006 (before there were smartphones), Wattpad has grown to become the world’s largest community of readers and writers. “With 70 million monthly users, and 4 million content creators — many of whom are female, and come from every single country in the world — it’s essential that our team reflects our user population,” Allen says.
But there’s more than a business case driving Allen. “I would say I’m a feminist because I truly believe that I don’t see any difference between men and women in terms of capability and performance,” Allen says. “I’m committed to ensuring every woman on our team is empowered to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”
“D&I is not a project. A project implies a start and an end, but D&I is ongoing and never ending — it changes as society changes and as the needs of our employees change.”
That doesn’t happen without effort. Allen and the Wattpad leadership team — 50 per cent of which are women — are committed to fostering diversity and inclusion, not only as something that’s talked about company-wide, but more importantly, as something that’s acted upon in very real ways.
The stats from Wattpad’s 2018 Diversity and Inclusion survey speak volumes. The company has made sure to not just focus on empowering women, but also taking an intersectional approach to diversity. The report shows that people of colour make up close to half (45%) of all Wattpad employees and 41% of the leadership team. Company-wide, 21% of Wattpad employees are women of colour, 15% are non-native English speakers, 8% identify as having a disability, 13% identify as LGBTQ+, and 3% are transgender.
The numbers are impressive, but the company is not resting on its laurels. According to Allen, Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) surveys are conducted annually to help draw attention to the needs of various parties within the organization, zoom in on those most pressing issues, and address them. “D&I is not a project,” Allen says. “A project implies a start and an end, but D&I is ongoing and never ending — it changes as society changes and as the needs of our employees change.”
And it starts with recruiting talent. As Allen explains, the Wattpad hiring process has been developed to eliminate unconscious bias and support the company’s commitment to diversity. “For starters, we hide the name on every resume we receive so we’re just looking at the qualifications,” he says.
Allen goes on to meet with every potential hire, getting a sense of who they are as people and ensuring they share Wattpad’s inclusive values. “If you think about it, a new employee is about to commit tens of thousands of hours to our company, so it benefits me to spend 35 to 40 minutes with them, to ensure that they share our inclusive values.”
“When something’s not working I can rely on my team to tell me about it, because they know I’ll listen to them — and learn.”
In terms of promotion and advancement, Allen strives to have a transparent process, that offers equal opportunity for growth.
As a member of the 30% Club Canada, Allen says he’s happy to step forward and showcase his company when it comes to achieving gender parity. “We’re the exception, not the norm, and sharing our experiences to help others is very important to me.”
Not only does Wattpad support larger corporate initiatives like the 30% Club Canada, but they also support smaller, grassroots organizations. The company has worked with a variety of intersectional groups, including Women and Colour, Women in Product, and Hexagon US.
His advice to organizations that are aiming for the same diverse and inclusive culture? Invest in diversity. It costs money, time, and people resources to make a difference. And remember to stay the course, because it will get easier.
“When we started Wattpad, we really had to make a conscious decision to put more focus on gender inclusion and diversity, but now that the ball is rolling, it’s getting easier, it’s already baked into the culture,” Allen says. “Still, when something’s not working I can rely on my team to tell me about it, because they know I’ll listen to them — and learn.”
What is the role of men in gender equality? Over the next year, the 30% Club Canada and Women of Influence are partnering to explore this question. We’ll be sharing the stories of allies — men who are pushing for gender equality in the workplace, or making it happen in their own business. These Champions of Change can act as visible role models, inspiring and guiding other men to follow in their footsteps. If we’re going to level the playing field, we need men to be engaged.