Visionary Woman Leader: Workday’s Carin Taylor believes in the power of difference

Carin Taylor, Workday’s chief diversity officer, talks about visibility, open dialogue, and looking at the individual.

Growing up in California, Carin Taylor thought she was the darkest person in the world. She always knew she was different: in her immediate family, she had the darkest skin and she was the only girl. Her family called her “chocolate” and “beautiful”, which reinforced her sense of difference.

“I didn’t see myself as beautiful, but these names positively acknowledged my difference; ‘chocolate’ and ‘beautiful’ taught me to appreciate and understand the power of difference. These childhood nicknames taught me that beauty could be seen in any shade during a time in which the word ‘beautiful’ was only associated with white or lighter skin.”

Carin’s difference was reinforced when she travelled through Asia. In China, people stared; in Korea, someone gasped; in Japan, she was treated with respect, but she could tell people were really curious about the way she looked.

“The staring and gasping were more about curiosity and shock,” adds Carin. “Travel taught me to look at people beyond the surface; along with my childhood, it sparked my curiosity about diversity and inclusion.”

The diversity and inclusion role
As chief diversity officer, Carin is responsible for Workday’s global diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategy. It is an even more critical role in 2021, as gender equality progress has been set back due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with women being disproportionately affected by the fallout.

According to PwC, Covid-19 has reversed gains made over the last 10 years for women in the workforce, causing what the global business advisory firm dubs a ‘shecession’. Even by 2030, gender equality efforts need to now be at double the historical rate. That’s an exceedingly tough task, but one that Carin is all too familiar with.

Before joining Workday, Carin spent just over two decades at a number of other major US technology companies, where she held various roles in DE&I, HR, finance, and customer service. The technology space has long had a boys’ club problem, and, as a black, gay woman, Carin was acutely aware of the challenges – simply because she was different.

“Historically, tech has not embraced people who look like me: black people, women, LGBTQ people. When I think about the challenges as well as the successes I've had, the challenges stem from being in a corporate environment that was designed decades ago for people who don't look like me.”

As she is a senior leader, visibility is particularly important for Carin because it gives other people – people who are not straight, white men – a chance to see someone who looks like them in a leadership position. For Carin, it's important to be seen at a senior level because she brings a different perspective from anyone else sitting in the room, especially when she is the only black woman at the table. And she believes that visibility doesn’t only apply to black, gay women like her, either; it applies to anyone who is not part of the ‘norm’.

“It's our differences that enable us to grow,” she says. “But an organisation needs to make sure that different types of talent, at all levels, are visible. I want to be seen, but I also want to help others understand that they can achieve whatever they want to.”

The ongoing work against bias
An eye-opening experience at a sales conference led Carin to realise that, along with being different, she has unconscious biases.

“Out of about 200 people, I was the only black woman in the room. The topic of conversation that day was about diversity, and a white man was the speaker. I sat with steam coming out of my ears; I thought to myself, ‘How can he be talking to me about diversity?’ I went up to him during a break and I said that I couldn’t receive his message because of what he looked like – and he responded by telling me that he’s gay. It was the first time that unconscious bias hit me upside the head.”

Over the years, Carin has been involved with organisations that focus on gender equality and diversity. Lesbians Who Tech, an organisation for LGBTQ women in the workplace, is particularly close to her heart. The organisation holds a yearly, five-day summit attended by tens of thousands of women in the tech space, and past speakers include US professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe and US vice president Kamala Harris. According to Carin, Lesbians Who Tech put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of what they do; they ensure that a significant percentage of speakers are women of colour and from the transgender community.

“They are bold about what they stand for, and I haven’t seen an organisation that has embraced diversity the way that they have,” adds Carin.

Open conversations
Ticking the boxes is often a problem when it comes to representation, and some companies end up being performative to reach diversity targets. Carin believes that only when inclusion, belonging and equity become part of the conversation can meaningful change happen. A culture that welcomes difference – of thought, opinion, and perspective – is also critical. And as an organisation, Workday strongly believes in an open culture.

“A colleague told me that he didn't believe in equal pay for women,” says Carin. “I asked him to tell me why he felt this way, and we were able to unpack what pay equity meant. Turns out he thought it was something completely different. But it just shows that Workday’s culture is open to dialogue. If I had shut down the conversation we would never have reached a place of understanding.”

Covid-19 has undoubtedly set back gender equality progress in the workplace, but Carin stresses that not everyone has experienced the pandemic in the same way, and organisations must look at the individual, not just the demographic, in the return-to-work process.

“If we assume that all women are experiencing things in the same way we're going to approach this in the wrong way,” she explains. “We need to also understand that the space that we're in is temporary – but we’ll need to be agile in responding to, and addressing, the issues.

“If you look at how long we've focused on diversity, we have not made the progress that we should have,” she continues. “But what’s different now is the attention that this issue is getting, and it’s widening who this work actually impacts.”