By Alisa Lehman and Shirley Wu*
As 23andMe Product Scientists, our work focuses on making genetics and science valuable, understandable, and relatable to our customers. Learning about your DNA is incredibly personal, and we know that people have different experiences with our product.
This goes beyond the fun fact that everyone’s DNA is unique. Unfortunately, it’s also because our product doesn’t serve everyone equally.
Creating inclusive products that serve and engage as many people as possible is both good for business and the right thing to do.
But even for a company like 23andMe, which was founded on the idea that everyone should be able to understand and benefit from the information in their DNA, tackling diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our product hasn’t been that simple.
23andMe has all the DEI considerations of any consumer-facing software product, but also has challenges related to how DEI intersects with biology, genetics, medicine, scientific research, data, identity, culture and geopolitics. Historical bias in research has led to disparities in the discoveries — and therefore products — that apply to people of non-European descent. Connecting genetics to identity can be controversial. The way that health information and disease risk are typically communicated does not reflect the experiences of those who are transgender and/or nonbinary.
For a long time, we relied on individual employees to identify and advocate for DEI. And things did happen — there were several projects that improved diversity within our database and we added new genetic reports that could broaden the value of our product to underserved groups. The problem was that these were isolated projects, and championing them required extra effort to gain organizational support and resourcing. Some issues, like gender inclusivity, were simply never prioritized despite repeated attempts.
That changed in 2020.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, our CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki publicly acknowledged our shortcomings and our need to do more. Anne had also been listening to employees who’d long advocated for more inclusivity in our product and our company. She decided to make DEI a company priority.
Words matter, particularly public commitments from leadership. These statements empowered employees to drive change across the company, shifting the organizational mindset and starting what has become the most systematic revisioning that 23andMe has ever done of our approach to DEI. It triggered a broad reexamination not only of our workplace and hiring practices but also of the research we do and the products we create.
With that new focus and organizational support, we’ve made a number of improvements in the last two years. We created more options around birth sex and gender identity, improved our accessibility features and software development process, and added health updates that increase the value of the product for customers of East Asian descent. We launched new regions in our flagship Ancestry Composition feature, including Indigenous American ancestry, ethnolinguistic groups in Africa and greater detail in China, incorporating input from customers and/or experts with these ancestries. We’ve used more inclusive illustrations and language to reflect the diverse experiences of our customers.
Just as importantly, we’ve established metrics and processes that help us understand where we are and bring concepts of inclusivity and equity into our day to day work.
Elements of change
We’ll admit: addressing the very real, complex DEI issues with our product can be incredibly daunting. There is often no blueprint, and it requires real mental and physical effort.
Four important elements have helped us get to where we are: action, persistence, intentionality, and grace.
- Action: You may not have all the resources you want or a playbook for what to do, but you can always do something. Tackle some low-hanging fruit and build momentum through those successes. You will learn as you go.
- Persistence: Making your product more equitable and inclusive isn’t going to be a one-time fix, but an ongoing journey, so commit to the long haul. Enthusiasm and support, especially from the top, will be difficult to sustain, so create infrastructure for measuring progress, and embed DEI into existing processes and tools to reduce burden. Sustaining the work efficiently — and independently of individuals — is the goal.
- Intentionality: 23andMe is a business juggling multiple priorities, and we’ve made product decisions that don’t always align perfectly with DEI goals. There can be mixed feelings about this, but we are increasingly making those decisions with intentionality and awareness of the DEI impact. There is greater accountability, and we can be more thoughtful about how we follow through.
- Grace: There is often a fear of getting things wrong. And the truth is that there is often no right answer. 23andMe tackles uncomfortable subjects head-on, often venturing into new territory. We do the best we can with the information we have, and we extend ourselves a fair amount of grace — permission to try, to mess up sometimes, to learn, and keep going.
We still have so much we need to do at 23andMe, but we’ve been heartened to see the growing number of companies making the same kind of commitment to making equitable and inclusive products. For us, DEI means we have the potential to connect with and help even more people access, understand, and benefit from the human genome.
*Alisa is a senior manager on 23andMe’s product science team. She holds a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford. Shirley is the director of 23andMe’s Product Science and Genetics Platform Analytics teams and holds a Ph.D. in biomedical informatics from Stanford.