Culture Eats Diversity For Breakfast

Why diversity’s role in company culture needs to start early

At a group job interview for a San Francisco startup, a woman hiring manager shot a Nerf arrow at my head to demonstrate the cliché “play hard” mentality in an interview setting. At first, I was embarrassed to be singled out in this way. Then, I was appalled. I wondered why any professional would do this, let alone a woman to another woman. The answer: company culture.

From inception to implementation, company culture plays a large part in attracting talent, how employees do their job and if they will stick around. And, the topic of diversity in the workplace is as wide as it is deep, with its foundation being culture. However, considering the ongoing discussions about diversity at tech companies, many companies stress the importance of diversity in their company culture but the true significance of diversity’s role has been limited.

First, many address that there is a shortage of women in STEM fields, with women today occupying around 30% of jobs at technology companies. But very few address the fact that women hold 73% of positions in human resources across all industries. Since traditionally the human resources department is responsible for establishing policies, conducting interviews, and imparting the values of a company, among other duties, this lack of diversity in human resources is often overlooked. To compensate, diversity teams are now in place at some companies, if only for appearances, since there have been studies citing that diversity training is not even effective.

Second, even if companies are successful in achieving a diverse company culture, the inherent risk of the cultural melting pot is very real, as evidenced by the example above. I doubt that this adult woman would shoot a Nerf gun at a stranger in the mall, for example, but somehow at the office it was an OK thing for her to do to fit in and show how she was embodying the values of the startup. Employees hired will tend to conform (“drink the Kool-Aid”) or face the associated risks, including termination. And, hiring mistakes are corrected through firing decisions. In the same way theories of multiculturalism have developed for nations, including the melting pot theory among others, and have addressed diversity, companies must recognize their employees will many times assimilate to what the actual company culture is, not what it is “supposed to be.” How and why employees no matter their age, race, gender or other variable behave greatly impacts the work environment and their co-workers.

Third, a recent study showed that a main reason why women leave technology is because of the work environment. This supports the notion that again company culture has overlooked how to foster an inclusive work place and value diversity’s role in a meaningful way. In addition, with a lack of women role models at one end and sorority-like women’s organizations on the other, some women could feel disenfranchised.

And, this feeling of disenfranchisement was exactly what I felt during the job interview. It was no surprise to me that I was not selected for the job but I had already made up my mind I did not want to work in an environment that encouraged that type of behavior. In my opinion, even if companies release their diversity numbers and roll out plans to and eventually hire more diverse workers, assimilation like attrition needs to be examined. Where the female dominated profession of human resources could add substantial value is to establish and encourage a truly diverse culture so that employee retention is a priority, not the reason any person is leaving an organization.