Signals and Loss

Two separate but connected events this week have been rolling around in my head:

  1. Michael Moritz’ comments in an interview about maintaining Sequoia Capital’s hiring standards as an impediment for hiring more women and underrepresented VC investors that have generated quite a bit of controversy and debate.
  2. One of my colleagues commented in a company planning session about next year’s goals for improving top-of-hiring-funnel diversity, “diversity is great and all, but don’t we just want to hire the best person for the job?” and spawned a vigorous discussion amongst my coworkers.

These two events are related, because of the signals they are giving as feedback to the whole social system of contribution and merit and valuation that is the Tech Industry. Complex systems generally have opposing forces that help them maintain stability, and while the forces and voices pushing for more equal representation are increasing in volume and urgency, the opposing forces for maintaining the status quo need to be addressed before change — and a move to a new status quo — becomes possible. Consider this situation visually:

Note the color distribution and sign of the feedback

This is how the Tech Industry has operated for decades. What are some of these feedback signals that increase the valuation of blue and decrease the valuation of red?

  • VCs fund people who “look like Mark Zuckerberg” at significantly higher rates than for founders who are female, non-white, or over the age of 32.
  • Companies signal to applicants that certain kinds of people are more desirable than others through the language they use in job descriptions, corporate policies (maternity and paternity leave for example), and other PR and marketing documents like equal opportunity language.
  • Companies signal to employees that contributions by certain kinds of people are more valued through promotion and tenure and project assignment decisions.
  • Individual people impact the cultures of their own teams and companies through the small, everyday actions they take and things they say that are signals about who is a “culture fit” and who isn’t.

Those are only a few of the millions of small signals that contribute to the stability of “status quo” in the Tech Industry system. It’s no wonder that the system has grown to look like this now:

Note the color distribution and sign of the feedback

This maligned state of the system is causing a lot of companies to evaluate what signals they are propagating and make changes, including:

  • publishing employee diversity numbers
  • offering training on unconscious bias
  • building new tools and practices around writing job descriptions
  • re-evaluating promotion and hiring processes
  • developing new education and training pathways for people joining the industry.

So many disenfranchised and underrepresented people and their allies are now working to make the system look like this:

Note the color distribution and sign of the feedback

However, there’s a critical system force that all of the recent discussion on diversity and inclusiveness hasn’t addressed yet, and that shows up in the comments of Michael Moritz and my colleague this week: loss. The members of the blue population who have benefited from the opportunities of the system look at the system in the last diagram and intrinsically understand that they and possibly a lot of people they know would be impacted if the system looked that way. In a zero-sum world of competition, someone eating more pie means that someone else gets to eat less pie. Jobs might be harder to get because of more competition. Team and company cultures might feel less familiar because more people who are different would be contributing to shape them. Individuals might need to dig into themselves and uncover and develop their capacity for empathy, curiosity, and perspective-taking to be successful in teams where differences are celebrated. And for some in the blue population, this is hard work, and feels like a loss to be grieved.

This sense of loss creates cognitive dissonance and looking at it straight in the eye makes us uncomfortable because it calls out clearly the difference between how we see ourselves and what the mirror really shows. We in tech culture want to believe that we promote the best, the worthiest among ideas and people, and yet the numbers say otherwise, and that’s really hard for us as individuals and teams to own about ourselves. Tech society won’t become the egalitarian and truly meritocratic place that we dream we are until we grapple and come to terms with this sense of loss and begin to envision and talk about ways that this change isn’t a zero-sum game, and that the landscape on the other side might actually be better for everyone. We all need to find ways to imagine and talk about what a truly egalitarian and meritocratic Tech society might look like that isn’t just talking about the business case for it (profit and corporate benefit) but that also talks about individual and team benefit in concrete terms.

In pondering on this topic, I think this is the toughest aspect of making change in tech culture and is hardly discussed. We are all the system that is the tech industry — every CEO quoted in media, every manager making hiring and promotion decisions, every teammate who amplifies or squashes some behavior. We each need to give careful consideration to these questions: What values do we want to live by? What system do we want to perpetuate? Am I comfortable with my contribution to this system? And if the answer to the last question doesn’t align with how we see ourselves and our values, step into that cognitive dissonance instead of around it and change our contribution. It’s hard work, and it’s also worthwhile.