What to talk about when we talk about diversity

It’s early-evening Thursday. I sit down at the bar counter to the left of my pal. We’re both done with work for the day and meet for a beer. I order an IPA. We share a side of grilled brussels sprouts.

Our conversation weaves through software engineering, his upcoming travel plans, the iPhone app I’m working on, and the number of Pokémon Go players we’ve seen around the city. We talk about the tech industry and our careers. My pal then shares a perspective:

“If we’re all equal, why are we going out of our way to hire a specific gender/race/etc? That’s not being equal, that’s favoritism.

This perspective, or a form of it, has been brought up in multiple conversations in my life. In my experience, it’s always from straight white men. Friends who are good people and have good intentions. The perspective however, is based on false assumptions. Assumptions that candidates are evaluated by skill, merit, and hard work, and that gender/race/etc do not affect the hiring process.

White male friend: “I got here because I worked hard.”

White male friend: “No one gave this to me. I earned it.”

White male friend: “If [gender/race/etc] worked as hard, they’d be here too.”

These statements are lacking truth because they’re blind to the biases which are in the person’s favor. I’ll explain through a simile:

Life is like a running race. It’s not a sprint, but a long multi-year marathon. The goal is to finish the race, ideally in first place, and if you can, while enjoying the scenery.

Our upbringing, experiences, and education prepares us for this race. What isn’t obvious to some white men, is that they may have been given the opportunity to enter the race, train with great coaches, and to practice with other fast runners based on their gender, sexual orientation, and skin color. Because they train with the best, they’re set up to succeed, and they do. Thus coaches, employers, universities and anyone else who bets on people’s ability to perform, offer opportunities to white men. Why wouldn’t they? White men are winning most races, they’re the safe choice.

Now white men, like everyone else, are a competitive group. Some white men believe if everyone ran as fast, and trained as hard as them, that they too would have an equal chance to win. What they fail to see is not everyone begins from the same place. From the start, not everyone has the same advantage. Because of this, they believe they win due to hard work, skill and merit. Not because their gender, sexual orientation, or the color of their skin.

But life isn’t as simple as running a race. The problems of our world aren’t as black and white as a checkered finish line. There are important problems which white men will never face. There are problems which affect millions of people who aren’t given the opportunity to enter the race.

As most people solve problems which affect them personally, some white men build products and companies that help other white men. When these men are in a place to hire, they hire white men because white men are setup to win. When they run ads, the ads feature white men. Ads which makes others feel like they don’t belong. This cycle repeats. At work. At universities. In society.


Next time you hear a person with a perspective similar to “If we are all equal, why are we going out of our way to hire a specific gender/race/etc? That’s not being equal, that’s favoritism,” I urge you to help them understand and manage their unconscious biases. If you’re in a place to hire, understand and help avoid the many biases which may prevent qualified, or higher qualified, people from applying to a job or being hired. Realize that a bar doesn’t need to be lowered in order to build diverse companies. As an example, to combat biases, many orchestras have held blind auditions since the 1970s.

Together we can work to unpack and redistribute unjust and existing privilege. A lot of people aren’t in the same race or have to start 10 miles behind. It’s time to change that.

(Thanks to everyone who provided feedback and perspective on this post, and to Raymond Carver for inspiring the title.)