The hard slog of diversity

I just read Hello, Quotas!, an opinion post on how quotas could help improve diversity. I don’t want to talk about whether or not that’s a good idea. Let’s pretend, though, that you think quotas are a good idea, and that you work at TechCorp, and you want to improve diversity at TechCorp.

This really isn’t about quotas — this could also be through scholarships, or by sending a recruiting team to historically black universities, or by doing blind resume screens, or one of a thousand other ideas that seem like a reasonable thing to try.

And further, let’s assume that your colleagues are largely caring people who genuinely want to make things better. You’ve talked about how you’d like to see more gender diversity, and racial diversity, and class diversity, and overall everyone was on board. Everyone wants to see change.

So you send an email to somelist-internal@techcorp.com, or you have a meeting with the head of recruiting, or you have lunch with the CEO, and you bring it up. And they think it seems reasonable, but they have concerns. The questions start coming:

  • Where exactly will you put a quota system? On dev teams? The whole company?
  • If a group has 2 people on it, does there need to be a woman? 3? 10? How do we even pick a limit?
  • Should we also start a quota system for people of colour?
  • Someone chimes in: can we even ask that? is it legal?
  • The legal team has concerns.
  • How do we explain this publicly? Do we expect to get backlash for this?
  • Women internally are afraid of stereotype threat, that people will think they’re only on a committee because they’re a woman, not because they’re talented.
  • We actually only have 8 developers who are women and they’re worried about being pushed into attending all the committees.
  • If we do this, how will we know if it worked?

These are all legitimate concerns, and if we’d picked another tactic (like sending a recruiting team to historically black universities), the set of concerns might be smaller, but it would still be there.

At bigger companies there’s generally more process. Maybe 12 people have to sign off on it and when you start the process you don’t even know who those people are or who you can ask to find out.

Even if you work in an organization that’s supportive, and which would love to make changes and celebrate them, dealing with these concerns is SO MUCH WORK. You can spend weeks trying to get a small measure in place. And if it didn’t work, did you waste your time? If your job at the company is not to fix this problem, do you get tired after your first idea? your third idea? How do you decide if an idea is even worth tackling, especially if it’s controversial?

Who’s going to take on this hard slog? Who’s going to schedule meetings, gather facts, talk to the legal team about if it’s okay to write that in a job posting, get a no, find out what you could write instead, listen to the women who are concerned about the quota idea, and try to figure out if there’s a way to make it okay?

If you’re thinking “wow, yeah, I’d love to make change, but I don’t know how to build an organization with good structures for doing this”, my understanding is that you should proceed to Ashe Dryden’s consulting page immediately, or get a recommendation for someone who does similar work.