Calling (in) a Few Good Men: The Missing Piece in D&I Strategies Today

Jennifer Brown
Aug 18, 2017 · 11 min read

Co-written by Jennifer Brown and Jillian Powers, PhD

There’s a reason why James Damore’s memo stuck with us like a splinter.

Organizational change is all about challenging norms, and we’re up against some mighty powerful ones when it comes to the journey towards more inclusive cultures.

The viewpoints Damore raised usually sit below what we refer to as the “waterline” of an iceberg but, by making his logic and observations public, he exposed the contradictions he sees from his perspective, which felt invalidating to many. It was a painful but needed reminder of the work still to be done.

After all, those who are leading and participating in inclusion change efforts are themselves navigating their own sense of belonging and grappling with their doubts about the likelihood of change. And those of us who are underrepresented in today’s workforce are trying desperately to fit into a workplace that isn’t built for us, or by us.

Unfortunately, it is the only workplace we have access to. It is the only one that exists. Given this reality, we must figure it out, find ways to survive, make a living, and find professional fulfillment.

The memo was a powerful pull-back, and check, on a sense of forward momentum; it caused a visceral reaction due to the fears we have that things will never change, and that we are up against a resistance much larger than we thought. The events post-memo in Charlottesville have certainly added fuel to that fire, and that sense of hopelessness and divisive polarities has deepened.

When it comes to Google, it’s true that organizations cannot allow the humanity and dignity of employees to be the subject of debate, which is why the company took swift action with the firing of Damore. This was critical, to show unflinching consistency with the company’s stated commitment to valuing diversity — and it was necessary given the company’s current investigation by the Department of Labor regarding extreme gender pay disparities.

Damore’s firing was a positive signal to those who identify as part of under-represented groups (1), and their cisgender male allies, that they are valued and welcomed. These men and allies have responded, writing well-argued and heartfelt responses to the memo. Some have taken issue with the scientific validity the memo claims, but what interests us most is the impact of the piece on others and its leadership implications.

What Damore doesn’t seem to grasp in his relatively short career, or perhaps doesn’t care about, is that impact is often more important than intent.

We’re not going to spend time providing arguments, analysis, and research to counter the claims Damore makes, because using evolutionary psychology to explain gender differences is deeply problematic and extremely reductive (2). If you want to geek out on the science, this piece succinctly lays out four perspectives. The research is clear — diversity is good for business, and women and minorities do experience discrimination. In addition, homogeneity in tech ensures that new platforms, technologies, and products reflect those who design it and maintains existing power structures (3).

We’re also not going to weigh in on Damore’s individual job performance, interoffice interactions, or Google’s decision regarding his swift termination. According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Damore’s memo violated the company’s code of conduct.

The larger point is that Damore’s grievances need to be analyzed, and lessons learned need to be acted upon. How can we use this memo to understand and shape new approaches?

Below we discuss where companies might want to intervene if they wish to systemically transform their organization and engage an entire company in the hard work of allyship. Together, we highlight some points of failure — the crucial junctures for change — that could be places to adjust, and we offer an innovative new approach to build trust and foster communication — calling in employees instead of calling them out.

The hard work of effective diversity strategies is to invite more and new voices into the conversation about why inclusion is a force multiplier, versus something that diminishes opportunity and advantages of those who’ve historically have enjoyed them. If the latter is a prevailing belief amongst a significant portion of any workforce, it is harmful to brush it under the rug. Denial is not a strategy.

Address the cause, not the symptom

Google, like many other companies in tech and Silicon Valley, has a problem with homogeneity. Women make up 25% of Google’s leadership and only 20% of their technical staff (1% of technical staff are African American). In this mostly ‘white and male’ workspace, many minorities and women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. “It’s insidious and it’s all around the culture,” Megan Smith, a former vice president at Google, told Bloomberg. It’s “pervasive,” wrote Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube (which is owned by Google).

But the problem is bigger than just feelings — exclusionary workplaces breed tangible discriminatory outcomes. Witness the current case against Google brought by the Department of Labor for systematically underpaying female employees across its entire workforce. And it’s not just Google; this problem is pervasive. Companies still continue to underpay their female employees, especially in tech. In this context of stalled progress, Damore felt relatively comfortable, or emboldened, to share such a document, allegedly to broaden the discussion and introduce alternative rationales for the current state of affairs.

The company’s reaction has divided even those who work in the diversity and inclusion field. Many of us felt strongly that it’s much easier to fire one mid-level engineer than change an entire company culture. The instinct is to react as Google did; to protect their employees and their brand. In the process, unfortunately, Damore becomes the story; he becomes the martyr. But he is just an outcome of a larger systemic internal problem, one that affects this and many other industries.

Damore is not a lone wolf, an extreme outlier, or one bad apple, but potentially the tip of an iceberg, the lower part of which has not been sufficiently explored or invested in.

What we do know about the company’s strategy is that they have mandated Unconscious Bias training. We also know that, while a good start, training is only one part of a comprehensive strategic approach.

What programs and practices need to change or be developed to explore and activate the disengaged segments of our workforces? Buy-in is critical to any change effort, and make no mistake, shifting corporate values to include, and truly embrace and value difference of all kinds, is one of the toughest change management challenges out there.

As practitioners, are we examining points of failure that motivated and emboldened Damore to share his perspective — the hiring process, the onboarding, training programs, internal communication channels, and the handling of grievances? There was a progression here that we, on the outside, aren’t privy to, but our guess is that this was one point, perhaps a culmination, in a string of events and conversations.

Damore likely moved through each of the organizational process points we detail above — he worked for Google for nearly four years. We do know that he participated in at least one of Google’s training programs. Clearly, the content wasn’t sufficiently persuasive for him; there could be many reasons for this, from content, to design, to facilitation. A fair number may share his response; as this internal employee survey and this anonymous Google employee’s comment demonstrates, “The fella who posted that is extremely brave. We need more people standing up against the insanity. Otherwise ‘Diversity and Inclusion,’ which is essentially a pipeline from Women’s and African Studies into Google, will ruin the company.”

This comment and Damore’s belief that he is personally victimized by the existence of diversity efforts provide insight regarding how change efforts are received. One Chief Diversity Officer in our network shared, “Equating efforts to diversify the workforce and create inclusive environments that benefit “all” employees as discrimination is a signal to Google’s leadership that their message and commitment to diversity and inclusion is not being heard or embraced by some percentage of its workforce.”

Having been in the field for a decade, we can share that historically, training content hasn’t emphasized the positive benefits of inclusive work environments with more diverse representation, but rather has tended towards an extended exposition on the science of unconscious bias, “shame and blame”, or an over-reliance on communicating compliance and HR policies. In addition, mandating this kind of training has had the unintended consequence of sending a message that it’s something to be tolerated, versus a key enabler of better leadership skills.

But there are good reasons why diversity efforts have focused where they do, and this focus needs to continue because the work isn’t done yet. For example, we’ve needed to create strategies around gathering affinity groups in order to enable under-represented talent to find their community, strengthen their sense of belonging and connection, and give them a sense of hope. By working collectively, with the support of their employer, under-represented talent can find strength through their shared experience and work towards addressing the challenges in their paths. Over time, they can feel like they belong and thus participate and engage fully in their workplaces. And ideally, the higher-level systems work is occurring concurrently to shift the culture from the top in order to meet them halfway.

However we do it, building empathy amongst those in the workforce majority will be critical moving forward. Consider the basic physical and emotional safety issues faced by those of us who have been targeted or ignored in the workplace for our difference, intentionally or not. We have had to adapt, and deny or modify ourselves, to survive.

In the LGBTQ community, living in the closet at work is something that over 40% of us still do (4). This is real for many of us, and well-documented. Our experiences of exclusion, marginalization, and isolation are data, as well. Effective influencing requires putting ourselves in the shoes of others, stepping outside of our experience, and our privilege or other unearned advantages, to consider how we bring groups of diverse individuals along as we all work together to reach common goals. Although he won’t have the chance now to travel this journey at Google, many others will.

Everyone Knows Something about Diversity

Building better organizational cultures requires constant intervention and regular assessment of current practices and current platforms. If tech companies are genuinely interested in hiring a diverse technical workforce they need to implement new strategies, redesign internal platforms and processes, and regularly assess performance using collectively agreed-upon metrics for success.

But we will never progress unless we engage those who haven’t seen themselves, their stories, or their experiences reflected in the conversation. Our focus on building community and opportunity amongst the under-represented has had some unintended consequences. There are legions of employees who believe that they know nothing about diversity, and feel like they are wronged by the very existence of this focus.

We’ve had a giant hole in our strategies, but we’ve marched ahead anyway. It’s now time to go do that hard work, rather than move forward with a leaky boat.

The Teachable Moment

As we’ve shared our reactions to this story with our audiences, we’ve heard many comments that echo this sentiment: “What if the people that made those mistakes could admit to their biases, were held accountable, and were now in a position to make adjustments? What if the manifesto writer used those writing skills to stand up as an ally and showed the rest of us to do the same?” That would be powerful, indeed.

What if those we don’t expect — white, male, cisgender, and able-bodied, for example — routinely shared their experiences of exclusion and adversity instead of concealing or downplaying their own struggles and challenges?

The goal should not, and cannot, be perfection. Not everyone in an organization will be on the same page, nor will they respond to the same approaches or grow at the same rate. “I think my position on this has evolved” is the most powerful statement a person can make. If the ultimate goal is behavioral change, we all need to be intentional and strategic about how we encourage people to do that.

We also need to see leaders, whom we assume aren’t “diverse,” to stand up and share more of themselves. They need to take risks, be authentic, and learn to tell their less-than perfect stories in order to set a different tone because hyper-masculine styles of leadership which reveal very few personal details are alienating to so many, not sufficiently reflective of the world around us, and even unhealthy.

The strategies that activists and organizers use can give some insight on how to address problematic behavior or speech and welcome allies or soon-to-be allies into the fold. You can call someone out, or call them in. Calling in involves speaking privately with the individual to address problematic behavior without making a spectacle. Calling out involves publicly pointing out the unwanted behavior. If you’re calling someone out, the person being called out is shown the door; they are now an outsider to your movement or organization.

“In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing,” stated activist and author Asam Ahmad. Calling out has its time and place — but, if you are working to build a culture and a community, this is a tactic of last resort.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” stated Adam Quinton, CEO at Lucas Point Ventures. Calling in is a compassionate response that acknowledges that we are all working with each other for a shared outcome.

Damore was called out. Many other leaders, from CEOs to board members, have faced similar consequences, resigning under pressure or being fired outright for comments made. While this zero tolerance approach sends a positive message to many, the flip side is that it shuts down a teachable moment. Some of the strongest champions for diversity in the workplace have had these “uh-oh” moments, but risen out of them. When treated with dignity and with the long view in mind, we’ve seen individuals translate teachable moments into a will to change.

There are many potential allies in all of our workforces, at various stages of their own learning curve. Even a slight shift amongst those who have seen themselves as “outside” the conversation about diversity and inclusion would create a sizable tailwind for any organizational change efforts. Unfortunately, many strategies do not account for this population, other than to say to them “get in line,” or else.

Some of us can relate. We have both been “called out” as white woman for some of our actions, words, and engagements at diversity conferences, community spaces, or college classrooms dominated by audiences of color. Our reaction has never been to lash back — it has been to listen, reflect, and incorporate the continual learning that arises when differences are highlighted. This doesn’t deplete us; we do not lose face. In the uncomfortable moments, we are invited to level up our emotional intelligence.

Developing more leaders who are mindful of their reactions to perceived threat, and who have the ability to honor the many at once, should be a central goal of any company’s strategy. Calling in different viewpoints is the only way to ensure that progress is made — and sustainable — for all of us.

Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker and diversity and inclusion expert. She is the founder, president and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, LLC (JBC), and a passionate social equality advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplace cultures in which every employee is welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.

Jillian Powers, PhD is an applied sociologist and passionate educator with over ten years of experience interpreting trends/insights and designing truly human-centered experiences and research practices.

Endnotes:

1. Jennifer Brown, “Feeling Our Impact: Getting Honest About White Privilege, The Workplace, and Life” Jennifer Brown. Jennifer Brown Consulting, Blog.

2. Hillary Rose and Steven Rose. 2010. “Darwin and After.” New Left Review 63, May-June

3. Alistair Barr, “Google Mistakenly Tags Black People as Gorillas Showing Limits of Algorithms,” The Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2015.

Ben Guarino, “Google faulted for racial bias in image search results for black teenagers,” The Washington Post/ June 10, 2016.

danah boyd, “Toward Accountability: Data, Fairness, Algorithms, Consequences” Data and Society: Points. Blog.

Ian Bogost, “A Googler’s Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core,” the Atlantic. August 6, 2017.

4. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, “For Many LGBTs, the Workplace is Still a Closet,” the Huffington Post Blog. June 30, 2016.

LGBT Inclusive Policies in The Workplace: The Hidden Cost of The Glass Closet,” Ogilvy Public Relations, February 14, 2017.

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