Gift of the Gabberer: Tea Uglow
3 creative leaders from diverse backgrounds share their views. Tea Uglow is ‘Experimental Person In Charge’ at Google Lab APAC. She has worked with artists, writers, and performers on seven books, 17 websites, six apps, a feature film, three plays, two concerts, four museum exhibits, and a teddy bear that talks. Here she shares some views on diversity and inclusivity..
Interview by Siobhan Fitzgerald.
SF: When and where did you get your start in creative industries?
TU: I’m an outsider I’m afraid. It sort of depends on your definition, I studied fine arts. Then I worked in bars and shops. Then I accidentally became a web designer (in 1999 that was fairly easy). Then I gave that up. I worked at the Royal Academy of Arts (wrong kind of creative industry). I did an MBA in Design Management. I freelanced at charities. I never worked for an agency (shh!). I didn’t get a break at Google, I went in to work for the sales team in London part-time, making powerpoint slides on an hourly rate.
Everything after that happened because no one realised I was making it up as I went along, and because I have done lots and lots of different creative jobs badly enough to know when to employ talented people.
SF: What was the culture like then?
Internet culture in the late 90’s was anarchic and inclusive and not bro’y. It felt genuinely open-minded, experimental, optimistic and slightly dazzled and confused by the hype. Then again, I was a guy at the time.
I don’t think we were surprised by the crash, at least not in the UK. The culture at Google when I joined in 2006 was equally chaotic, fun, but already feeling the pressure of business models. I mainly stayed because the people I met were quick-witted, and thoughtful, caring, and so smart - all over europe I met folk who genuinely felt like we could help make the world better for all. That has never changed really. It’s just now there is a lot more process.
SF: Where there many non-white/non-gender binary/non-male people in the Creative Department?
TU: At Google in 2006 I was hired by Lina, a woman who only recently left Google. The Marketing and Comms team that I sat with was majority female. And we had all sorts of nationalities, amazing women all over Europe who just blew me away. People like Obi, Yonca, Lorraine, Anna, Rachel, Jess, Maxine, Paola, Amy. Oh my, SO many. There wasn’t a creative department as such. The “creative” team in the US before Andy arrived was 90% guys. I remember thinking that was strange. And we have had no female creative directors until very recently. So that traditional schism was present. (I was on the wrong side of that ratio as well.)
With regard to gender I’m not sure many of us would have given a non-cringeworthy answer had we been asked what gender non-conforming meant—including myself.
I knew no trans or GNC people who were public until I came out. I didn’t tell anyone in the world, anyone. So, no, there weren’t many trans folk who weren’t non-stealth. This seems strange but I actually can’t remember if we had non-white creatives—I’m not going to say none, because I once said that about my childhood and a few friends got in touch to ask if I’d forgotten about them. Which I hadn’t, I just didn’t recall. I grew up in a place where that wasn’t a salient characteristic and have never been very good at remembering. I also don’t recall faces. I generally go with what’s in front of me on the day. It works ok.
SF: What about leadership?
TU: Well exactly. Google has actually always had an incredible cadre of women leaders–and in that regard we can feel proud. When I started the head of Comms for EMEA, the head of Marketing, and the head of HR were all inspirational women. But we also built our teams from the usual resources and I watched my own teams (developers, designers, film-makers, producers) sort of auto-segregate by discipline. It wasn’t conscious but I definitely watched it happen. I was just as complicit in not preventing that, in not taking affirmative action.
In the last decade I have been more mindfully focused on trying to bring different cultures, talents, attitudes, ages, backgrounds into the spaces that I control. I wouldn’t say that I have been successful.
It is an aspect of leadership that I find spectacularly complex and hard to unpick.
SF: In previous talks you have made a distinction between diversity and inclusion. Can you talk to us about that?
Diversity is metric, inclusion is experienced. You can’t measure a sensation of being included.
But we can use labels to create intersections of ‘diversity’ that can be used to qualify a goal or target. So it ends up being measured wrong, and so it is incentivised wrongly, and can be achieved without any system to support the ‘diversity’ that you have acquired. Diversity is a lovely idea but if there isn’t a powerful cultural imperative to make sure everyone feels included then it’s just like an extremely uncomfortable dinner party and no one should be surprised that folk want to leave early.
SF: There’s that old chestnut: “I want to hire inclusively but the talent just isn’t there”. What do you say to that?
TU: Oh. Well, that’s just bullshit. If you create safe spaces you’ll find there is tonnes of ‘diverse’ talent. But also yes—they’re right—it’s just really hard to lure smart people into dangerous situations.
We’re not fucking stupid. We’re not there because we don’t trust you. Not because we’re not here.
And you know what—every time they fuck that up for someone in our community—we all get a little less willing to be their next inclusive hire.
SF: You have written about intersectionality: all the things that go into making us who we are. It seems obvious that employing people from a range of backgrounds with a range of interests will lead to a better creative output. But as humans we gravitate towards others with whom we have things in common. How do we shake up the hiring process to help creative leaders see beyond their own predilections?
TU: I’d love to say this is easy but it isn’t. We gravitate towards similar types or ‘kin’ for a range of complex behavioural reasons. There is nothing to shake.
I think at a systemic level any company should be talking to the folk who are experts in this field.
If they’re not already consulting, if it’s not already at the board level, if it’s not as important as the IT infrastructure, or the finance team then they are behind the curve. I don’t know the answers personally. But then you don’t want me fixing your IT or making suggestions regarding tax structure. Find the right people, this is not an easy fix and it needs to be taken more seriously.
SF: What hiring practices do you employ to ensure your workforce is inclusive?
TU: I don’t hire. Although I have spent plenty of time trying to change the language in the recruitment that we do so that it speaks to introverts, age- and neuro-diverse, gender non-conforming and, unfortunately, women.
I try to avoid the hot shot, new blood, young guns take no prisoners language that generally sits in creative job listings.
We use the word ‘nurturing’ a lot—that’s my favourite flag word. It doesn’t stop guys, but it does shout out to the others.
SF: I’m quoting you when I say that you’ve been able to enjoy the advantages of being a white male. Did you feel aware of these at the time, or are you able to see them more clearly from a female perspective?
TU: I used to fall back on male privilege to avoid getting embroiled in social or personal situations.
I probably intentionally overlooked dissenting voices or brushed past nuance, ‘cut to the chase’ or ‘put my foot down’ and then normally apologised because I was ‘being a jerk’ when I was fully aware that I was ‘playing the boy card’.
That I could do [x] and that would be that. Not ‘bad’ things, but I got my way. I think I did a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been allowed to do, or even thought about doing as a woman. And of course that does work both ways too . In heterospect it is even clearer—the complexity of pressures, expectations and situations that you experience is fascinating. It just isn’t something I think one can really appreciate unless you’ve experienced them from both sides. ‘Advantage’ is also hard to define in a day to day way that can be corrected or dismantled. It’s not clumsy or obvious. Apparently I was a nice ‘guy’, people liked me as a guy.
SF: Since transitioning you have been thrust into the limelight as a champion of diversity. Is this role tiring, or exciting, or another adjective?
TU: It’s fine as long as it’s necessary. And it’s really necessary. But I wish it wasn’t.
So the role is necessary. As with all my roles I find the best way to get out is to make yourself successfully redundant. So I’m in a familiar groove and working towards that.
SF: Cultural sexism is still entrenched, but in the UK Creative Equals has created a Standard that is now a measurable standard on Campaign’s School Report. Do you think a similar standard would be welcome in Australia, or do you have any other ideas?
TU: I don’t really know enough about it. My perspective is that humans tend to see standards much like any other rules, our inclination is to optimise for our own personal advantage. We like to game systems. Metrics often create environmental change that is artificial, and often there are unexpected secondary consequence. But if that environment creates long-lasting structural change then, yay.
SF: You’ve had an international career spanning Europe and Australia. Do you think Australia is behind much of the world when it comes to hiring (and representing) a broad spectrum of humanity?
TU: Do I think Australia has issues? Yes. But I also love Australia.
I do find the casual racism and sexism sort of stunningly archaic. At least I’m white and Anglo. Every country in the world can do better, every country could strive to be the best at creating opportunity for all.
I don’t think we can pretend that Australia does that particularly well, but I’m not aware of a global benchmarking system either.
SF: In a commitment to increasing diversity Google makes its diversity report public, but it shows that as in most other tech companies—and most other industries—there is much progress still to be made. Are you feeling positive about change?
TU: Every step forward is a step forward. No one asked me these questions a decade ago. I didn’t know what intersex was. Accessibility was a curiosity and a nuisance. Neurodiversity was closeted. Diversity reports were solely about race and binary gender. There is not ‘much’ progress, but there is progress, and there is only ever progress. I guess long journeys pass faster if you focus on each step you are taking, not the obstacles in the future. So we work on the step, trying to take the right step, not the whole journey.