Shut up about diversity

A critical guide to weighing up your contribution to the diversity issue in technology and beyond

© Denyse Mitterhofer on GIPHY

Every year, my local web performance community hosts a special Christmas meet-up. In 2017, I offered the following lightning talk:

Where are the women?

(because nothing brings the festive cheer like a talk about diversity)


I can remember three times I felt particularly wimpy in 2017. Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration coincided roughly with my birthday. Then, the United Kingdom served divorce papers on the European Union, forcing foreigners like me to reappraise life in our adopted home.

Later, weeks into an exciting new job, a leaked memo criticising Google’s diversity policies sent the technology industry into polemic tailspin. Its author, James Damore, was fired after arguing that men are more psychologically suited to working in technology than women. A well-meaning friend sent me a video about a women’s sawing competition, which didn’t help with the impostor syndrome.

If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a moral compass in your hair

The silver lining is that, within and beyond the technology sector, more people than ever are talking openly about diversity. This means diversity matters to us as a society.

It’s time for a closer look at our dialectic.


Sticking points

On doing diversity by the numbers

I write code for a living — at the Financial Times. I get to work with brilliant, kind folk, whom I respect sincerely. My employer is putting in the work to facilitate a culture that works for everyone, the statistics are heartening, and:

The FT are committed to reaching gender parity in the senior leadership team by 2022.

There it is. The starter whipping boy for all anti-diversity rhetoric — a diversity quota.

If you chant the mantra of meritocracy, it seems contradictory to implement numerical requirements for hiring and promoting people based on attributes like race or gender.

As a minority group member, I am wary of diversity targets. I’ve read and heard many variants of “I was hired because I am a [token person]”, and a few—exponentially harmful––insinuations to the same tune. I don’t want anyone to feel like that about the FT, just like I never want to be part of someone’s box-ticking exercise.

It’s important to recognise that quotas are flawed. While they are useful for circumscribing the representation of gender and racial minorities, they leave out less visible diversity traits like socio-economic status, education, or life experiences. They are limited in their effectiveness, because fixing unfairness and inequality is not as simple as hitting a number.

In the TV series Mad Men, set in an ad agency in the late 1950s, Sterling Cooper’s staff fulfil the gender parity quota. Every man has a secretary. © AMC / Carin Baer

But before you borrow a facile line of argument against diversity quotas, I urge you to read Laurie Penny’s excellent article in their favour:

Quotas may be the only way of achieving, eventually, a world where quotas are obsolete.

Then, consider that our meritocracy culture is short-sighted. The insidious workings of privilege mean that we do not yet live in a society where merit truly equals ability + effort.

On talking about men and women

Diversity is intersectional — having representation gives more people from different races, cultures, and walks of life the opportunity to rub shoulders in management meetings. It gives me the joy of hearing more than two accents around the office. Eventually, it may mean that working-class kids don’t have to get working-class jobs and that more of us are able to lead lives free of discrimination and stigma.

The gender debate is so pervasive because we have spent thousands of years shaping and rationalising gender roles. Men and women are indeed biologically and psychologically different — although I should point out that the UK’s Royal Air Force allows both to serve in close combat frontline roles. While acknowledging gender differences is useful — for example, in the regulation of athletic competitions, or in addressing gender pay gaps and sexual harassment— for industries like tech it’s more helpful to understand the extent to which gender differences in interests are caused by socialisation factors.

Arguing for diversity

The business case

Diversity is good for business. Research proves there is a strong positive correlation between racial, ethnic and gender diversity and a company’s financial performance. Diverse companies are also more innovative.

The reverse is also true — a lack of diversity is bad for business. In a survey by McKinsey, companies in the bottom quartile for racial and ethnic diversity at leadership level were 25% more likely to have financial returns below their national industry medians.

While statistics like these are great for getting executive buy-in, they hold no sway over public opinion, nor do they help with fixing inequality and building a diverse workplace from the ground up. To quote my colleague, Alice Bartlett:

As someone outside of your company I don’t give a flying fuck if it needs me or people like me to be better itself.

This argument can bore off.

The moral case*

There is systemic inequality in access to education and access to employment. Stereotypes persist around race, gender, wealth and social class. Unequal outcomes are built into our institutions, which benefit some people more than others. Diversity statistics are a fitting barometer for our rigged ecosystem.

Therefore, because diversity is fundamentally an issue of social justice, caring about diversity means caring about it from a moral perspective. In Drew Hoover’s words:

When I say that I value diversity, what I really mean is that I value social equity and equal access, of which diversity is a key indicator.

This is hard to argue with. Because doing so is tantamount to an admission of immorality, only bad or ignorant people actually will.

Good people will acknowledge that the diversity problem is perpetuated by and perpetuates injustice, and educate themselves about ways they can do something about it.

*Apply this argument liberally, with the following caveat: Sometimes we say and we do things not for their intrinsic value, but for what they say about us. This is called virtue signalling; people do it all over social media.

Those people can bore off.

Arguing for inclusion†

What really matters

Diversity of thought and experience — this is something most of us strive for, as individuals, through our quest for knowledge, our life pursuits and the connections we make. This, I think, is the biggest benefit we can reap from cultivating diversity.

The special sauce that makes it attainable is called inclusion.

It’s an action — English Oxford Living Dictionaries

Diversity is foundational, inclusion is fundamental

Carnegie Mellon University scientist David Krackhardt pioneered a technique for assessing an organisation’s ability to confront strategic issues based on the informal social structures within it.

Drawing from his methods, recent research from Heidrick & Struggles examines how diversity plays out in the context of decision-making, idea sharing, trust and emotional support networks in the workplace.

In this type of research, called organisational network analysis, employees are asked a set of questions designed to collect network data:

Who do you believe has your back when things are tough?
Who do you go to most frequently to get help making an important decision?

The resulting information is modelled over a directed graph. Researchers use these visualisations to gain insight about how communications and decisions flow through an organisation, by studying the number of connections in social networks, their clustering, the information flow, main influencers (people with the most incoming connections) and any visibility problems.

Consider this map of a decision-making network, generated randomly using the FT’s senior leadership diversity statistic of 36% female representation. Can you spot any problems?

The Heidrick & Struggles research reveals that women are less likely to be involved in idea sharing and decision making than men — in these networks, they tend to be less dispersed and more peripheral than men and have fewer incoming connections. Women are also up to 22% more likely to establish same-gender ties, which contributes to their lack of integration. Organisations that do not move to address this lack of integration are benefitting little from their efforts to support diversity.

Holy Eureka, Batman! You can hire for all the diversity quotas you want, but it won’t amount to doing good unless you realise that:

Diversity is as much about composition as it is about interaction.

Creating an inclusive environment is the hard part

This is our fault, too — yours and mine. To understand why, we should educate ourselves about individual psychology, in-group and inter-group dynamics:

  1. We have subtle biases, and gravitate toward people like us, subconsciously. This creates echo chambers and can lead to exclusion, and sometimes self-exclusion. If you’re a woman, consider this next time you are asked to mentor another woman.
  2. Minority groups try to conform, often as a coping strategy, by de-emphasising their other-ness or by adopting the traits and behaviours of the majority. Our society is partly at blame for this, because we — sometimes unwittingly — portray the majority as a prototype for success, fostering homogeneity and denying others the right to belong. Which reminds me of an old advertising campaign from O2, the UK telecoms provider — “be more dog”
  3. …except, the pack — the majority group — often puts up resistance, due to perceptions of reverse favouritism and feeling excluded from diversity initiatives. Don’t be more dog.
Pantone 448C has been voted the ugliest colour in the world. In the UK, it’s ubiquitous on cigarette packaging and supposed to act as a deterrent to smokers. The subconscious mind is very powerful.

So where does this leave you?

Hopefully you have an understanding of the main arguments and sticking points in the diversity debate, and a sense of the weight of the issues that surround it. Maybe you have gleaned a way to bridge the dialectic. You want to help, and it’s important that you do.

“What should I do?”

I’m glad you asked. Here is a neat checklist:

  1. Check your biases. We’re all biased.
  2. Hire “people” people. People who care about people and diversity. Help put together a good crew you can trust.
  3. Reach out to underrepresented groups. If you don’t know where to start with women in tech, try Twitter — it’s full of us.
  4. Support and nurture people.
  5. Recognise them. Recognise their differences.
  6. Be a feminist. We need you.
  7. Make sure you leave no one behind — no matter their gender, ability, race, or class.
  8. Speak up. Your silence serves no one. I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable — it’s ok to be awkward. I am awkward — no one minds. Being your true self is just as important as affording others the freedom and safety to do so.
  9. Please don’t say things like “I fit all your quotas”.
  10. Take responsibility for your words, especially as you get further in your career and garner more influence — because people will listen.
  11. Listen to people. Pay close attention to marginalised voices.
  12. Get out of your comfort zone and make new connections.
  13. Celebrate diversity. Because tolerating difference is not the same as embracing it.

TL;DR

We spend a lot of time arguing about diversity. A lot of the dialectic ranges from the sincerely ignorant, to the naïve, to the relevant but not-terribly-helpful. Diversity is both a process and a goal. But diversity is moot without inclusion, which is both a state and the action of including people. You can and should do something about inclusion. Don’t know where to start? Use the checklist above this TL;DR.


♥ With thanks to Alice Bartlett, Laura Carvajal and Keith Rogers for their thoughtful feedback, and to Arjun Gadhia for his wit and patience.

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