Talking Diversity in Silicon Valley? Beware, the Fruit Bowl Analogy is Likely to Fall Flat

Karen Powroznik, PhD., PostDoctoral Fellow at Stanford

Really excited to launch the first in our series of guest blog posts by thought leaders on diversity & inclusion.
Today’s post is by
Karen Powroznik, PhD., PostDoctoral Fellow at Stanford

If you spend any significant time studying inequality, diversity, and human behavior you will, at some point, get the question,“but really, why is diversity important?” The knee-jerk response to this question is often to talk about equality and equal opportunity, but those conversations can very quickly devolve into a debate about affirmative action or quotas. This is especially common when the conversation is about diversity in the workplace.

Why do we care about workplace diversity? What does diversity bring to the overall functioning of an organization? How does it influence the output of a company, its productivity, its bottom line? There is a well established body of research that shows the many ways in which diversity improves decision-making, problem-solving, and positively impacts all sorts of business measures such as innovation, productivity and revenue to name a few.

To communicate these findings, researchers and practitioners in the field of diversity management often rely on simple analogies and one of the most popular comparisons is that of a fruit bowl. According to this example, organizations would want diverse teams for similar reasons that you would want variety in your fruit bowl. A bowl of all apples would not only be boring, but would be missing some important elements. However, after spending the last decade of my life in Silicon Valley I can say that this analogy doesn’t work very well with many people in the tech world. Why would it? Steve Jobs, for example, is said to have lived on just apples for weeks or months at a time and I know several people who would be very happy to eat only soylent for the rest of their lives. In this environment, making the business case for diversity with fruit becomes somewhat of a challenge.

Instead of the fruit bowl, I propose that we talk about the value of diversity using the analogy of a trivia team. I have found that this comparison works particularly well in this area where pub trivia is not only a nightly event, but a highly competitive affair.

To build a winning trivia team (which will substantially increase your enjoyment of trivia) you want to have a diversity of knowledge. Once you cover some of the more common realms of trivia knowledge with your team selections (Baseball stats, musical artists, world capitals) it’s hard to know exactly what type of unique knowledge you will need. This is where diversity becomes so important. Whether this diversity is based on achieved characteristics, such as occupation or college major, or ascribed characteristics, such as age, country of origin, or sex, having people with varied backgrounds can contribute knowledge you didn’t know you didn’t know.

Applying my trivia team building metaphor to workplace diversity means that once you establish and ensure a baseline of core skills and abilities for hiring; recruiting and retaining diverse candidates increases the likelihood of success.

Research on social networks tells us that homophily runs rampant in all groups. Homophily is essentially the idea that “birds of a feather flock together” or “like likes like”. This means that the people who do similar things to you and are in your closest circles often have the most similar interests. As a result, if you build a trivia team of astrophysicists it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if everyone knows what planet Ewoks are from but might be lacking when it comes to Jane Austen.

The most successful trivia team I’ve ever been on included a biologist, art historian, software engineer, and a marketing director. Not only did this team vary by profession, but also by gender, sexuality, age, and nationality. The variety of life, educational, and work experiences meant that teammates were able to handle questions from seemingly obscure and unrelated categories. Similarly, in a world where workplaces need to be increasingly agile and creative, it’s imperative to understand that diversity can translate to competitive advantage and help your team come out on top.


Feeling like joining a trivia team now! Thank you Karen for providing us all with a refreshing take on the value that diversity brings. Often the concern that we hear is related to quality of candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. The trivia team analogy is a great one for demonstrating that quality does not suffer when you widen the pool of individuals who can join your team.

If you have some thoughts on diversity and inclusion that you would like to share with us via a guest blog post get in touch by emailing me at heidi@gapjumpers.me and follow us @GapJumpers.

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