Should Women and Minorities shut up about diversity?

We’re constantly dreaming a world better than the one we’re dealt, imagination can be a luxury where reality is thrifty. I suppose it still helps to dream that a Woman or a Minority can enjoy the same privileges as others, or at least not be penalized for their difference. Glassdoor’s recent study Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap, suggests that we’re closer than ever. Women are paid 75 cents per dollar men ear, or 95 cents when adjusted with statistical controls. Interestingly, a “majority don’t even believe a gender pay gap exists at their company.” Note that the study does not deal with gender representation, which we know to still be abysmally low in leadership positions.

How do we tackle the “unexplained” differences—the biases and preferences—that keep women and minorities undervalued or underrepresented? One immediate solution would be to publicize the biases and gaps in workplaces. It seems at least a concrete and visible action against to speak up, especially given the visibility and technology available today. It was what motivated me to start a publication about unheard narratives called Absurdist, the idea that at some point in the near future it might not be absurd that women and minorities might hold sway and not be discounted simply by virtue of “unexplained” differences. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously said;

“Because it’s 2015.”

But it’s 2016 and Harvard Business Review suggests that “Women and Minorities Are Penalized for Promoting Diversity” and their findings run counter to the movements that have garnered so much visibility for diversity.

“Much to our surprise, we found that engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors did not benefit any of the executives in terms of how their bosses rated their competence or performance. Even more striking, we found that women and nonwhite executives who were reported as frequently engaging in these behaviors were rated much worse by their bosses, in terms of competence and performance ratings, than their female and nonwhite counterparts who did not actively promote balance. For all the talk about how important diversity is within organizations, white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it.

Women and minorities can now collectively breathe a sigh of relief. You are not paranoid for feeling that expressing imbalances in your organization will get your penalized. I saw both my parents lose their professional jobs just shy of retirement for speaking out against immigrant racism. Interestingly, it also suggests that even being associated with ethnic experiences has negative outcomes. Things do not look good for advocating for diversity.

“…When women and nonwhite leaders advocate for other women and nonwhites, it highlights their low-status demographics, activating the stereotype of incompetence, and leads to worse performance ratings.”

It was this reality that partly informed my decision to shutter the publication Absurdist. Writing to diversity seemed an increasing liability in Silicon Valley and the reason why you won’t find any mention of it on my resume. We celebrate new ideas but crucify the messengers. This realization began to dawn on me when interviewing at several large tech companies, that interviews would go along well enough and I would be perceived as a competent product designer up until they realized who I was or what I said. I’d then quickly get the short shrift. It was not surprising either that out of the 8 or so technology companies I had multiple round interviews with, not a single one had a Woman or Minority in a decision-making capacity. Every single one had a White man in the deciding chair, and statistically, we can infer where his favor goes. For some months now I’ve carried the vague sense that “you’re good but not good (read White) enough.”

I don’t doubt that the valuation of my competence is directly related to the views I espouse online, the reality being that for Women and Minorities, they are asked to choose voice or vocation—rarely and. This is not to say that you should or should not speak your mind but that you should understand the risks of challenging the status quo despite whatever diversity discourse exist in your organization.


I’ve been sitting with this sense that existing strategies are ill-equipped to deal with diversity challenges. As HBR says, the “number hasn’t budged for decades” that talking and trainings about diversity has actually done little to change the patterns people form about Women and Minorities. I believe that for those interested in forwarding Women and Minorities in the workplace it is better done in small supportive communities, by building safe spaces within organizations or highlight accomplishments. Though things are not where they should be, I also don’t see existing structures as future proof that it might just be better to plant a new polycrop garden and tend to that.

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