A different way of thinking about gender ‘diversity’

Today I spent the day in Leeds with a room full of women, discussing what we can do to encourage more women to work in digital and technology roles. It was a conference hosted by the Department for Work and Pensions, and it was full of energy, ideas and determination.

There were a lot of interesting things said, and one in particular has stuck with me.

Kylie Havelock (@kyliehavelock), Product Manager at the Ministry of Justice, spoke about changes her team have made so they better represent the people they build services for. She quoted American television producer Shonda Rhimes when she described getting more women on the team as “normalising” things.

The dictionary definition of ‘normalise’ is “to make things normal, to conform to a standard.”

We often talk about ‘diversifying’ when we discuss gender balance. Its definition is “to make diverse, vary, modify”.

Without any context, the word ‘diversification’ doesn’t acknowledge that things aren’t right as they are. It refers to changing something that isn’t varied, with no hint of whether this is a good or bad thing.

What I like about the idea of normalising is the suggestion that the way things are now isn’t typical. Under-representation of women doesn’t “conform to (the) standard” we should expect.

Yes, we need to diversify – to change the status quo. But more than that, we need to address the fact that the status quo isn’t good enough. It’s an anomaly. It’s not normal.

As a content designer, if I get involved in a project that’s already up and running, I’ll do a content review. This identifies things that need to be brought up to scratch, to meet the standards we have. We sometimes call this ‘design debt’ – basic things that need addressing before we go any further.

Balancing the number of women and men on a team or in an organisation could be seen in the same way. The imbalance we see in some teams means they simply don’t meet the standards we have. We need to address this ‘gender debt’ to build stronger teams for the future.

Kylie’s slides are here.

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