A local and international sample of the myriad learning to navigate diversity in tech.

The Commoditization of Diversity

A short essay on the social, economic, and racial barriers to accessibility & privilege.

Before we start reading, remember that there are no quick fixes. These posts are not meant to serve as solutions for anyone to take and apply immediately.

That requirement, as a culture, counters the core principle that we argue for: engagement in an extended discussion to understand the underlying causes behind race issues, gender issues, and diversity in our professional world.

This is article is divided into 6 sections:

  1. Seven rules of thumb when addressing diversity 👍🏼
  2. Contextualizing Diversity 👭👫👬
  3. Understanding barriers to privilege 🚫
  4. Recognizing white privilege 👫
  5. Five major 🔑’s in leveraging privilege
  6. The de-commoditization of diversity ✊🏼
The idea of the commoditization of diversity came from this tweet sent into the internet on June 2015
and it it written according to 7 rules of thumb as guiding principles for myself when working through system issues problems in diversity:

7 Rules of thumb 👍

  1. Diversity of speakers and employees is a superficial symptom of deeper rooted problems– because there are deeper rooted problems.
  2. Tokenization of diversity is not good 👎, whether token, or tokenizer– and it is perpetuated by both.
  3. Put in the work yourself– don’t ask or expect people to ‘show up’.
  4. If you can’t, admit why you can’t, and find help in defining solutions. Don’t request help for your perceived solutions.
  5. Become an ally– but don’t co-opt diversity or it’s representation. And if you’re a person of colour (PoC), remember we can be allies to each other.
  6. Empower PoC’s voices with your privilege and access, above your own, when representing diversity issues– without violating rule #5.
  7. Understand the culture of PoC and learn to integrate it into your culture.
Diversity in communication and perception for People of Color
Let’s contextualize our perception of diversity….

What is diversity?

Diversity is contextual to you. Context is powerful, because it will help you look inwardly and analyze your own biases and preconceived notions of diversity.

What makes your society diverse? What makes North America diverse? Is it the multi-cultural resident pools concentrated within cities like Toronto?

Are you using the term to address cultural diversity, gender diversity, or racial diversity? Or all of the above? What is the balance to achieve diversity in an otherwise traditionally homogenous context?

A Misconception of Diversity

A misconception that the term diversity carries, particularly in tech, is it’s referral to a problem as identified from the perspective of a homogenous, privileged, white male culture. And the priority to fixing this ‘diversity issue’ in western white society is to address it within the scope of that WASP society first: to focus on the issue of sex (men and women).

This definition has created a mental-model equating the term ‘diversity’ to the representation of women in work – and in 2016, women are still challenged in even bridging this binary gender gap’s superficial symptoms of visibility: women as makers, leaders, and advocates (speakers, etc).

Even with all of our celebration of success for white women breaking through within the upper and middle class world of white privilege, we still haven’t addressed the cultural root causes of the ‘female’ diversity issue in technology. Nor have we scratched the surface of acknowledging and being proactive in the same way to address the broader definition of diversity.

Symptoms vs. Root Causes of Gender Diversity

An example of a root cause of a lack of diversity is the cultural foundation behind an organizations’ Day 1 approach to the male / female ratio.

An example of a symptom to solve is a focus on to tackling the ratio by integrating more women into the workforce, and elevating women to ‘visible’ positions as workers and advocates.

Fixing symptoms without an equal & vocal focus on addressing root causes does not lead to a change in the culture.

Let’s Lean In…

Examples of root causes to address:

  • cultural and empathy awareness (training?) for organizations and their leaders on women’s perspectives and lives.
  • pay gaps relative to experience, seniority, leadership, and promotions.
  • the pigeonholing of roles (marketing, community management, etc).
  • The lack of leadership of women as decision makers throughout all teams and levels of organizations.
  • The lack of time and opportunity cost investment in broadening our demographics to make these things happen.

There are people fighting this good fight, and prevailing to various degrees (many enabled by their white privilege to do so– ex: Sheryl Sandberg, and locally, Viki Saunders, Heather Payne) …

“Creating new culture is about re-enforcing new behaviour. Eventually, the new behaviour becomes the culture and the norm. Small victories in the right direction will over time bring us to new norms.” – anonymous contributor.

However, this does not equate to a victory for diversity. It’s a white victory.

I applaud women like Emily Mills, for championing ACCESSIBILITY that results in diversity 👏. There’s Vicki, supporting in the back too, putting in work for gender equality, and extending it to race.

“The industry has a tendency to tokenize female success, and often this does more harm than good. If one is the exception, then certainly it diverts people’s attention from addressing the root cause.” – Hanna Wei.

Lean In closer

Fixing the symptoms (ex: more women speaking at an event) does not equate to a shift in the underlying cultural mindsets of the people that control the power structures in our professional world, which have for decades marginalized women within (any) industry, let alone the technology industry.

ex: putting a women in charge of an organizations’ department does not change the systemic mindsets and cultural biases of women in a company. It also doesn’t change gender pay parity. It can work to create awareness– but does not in itself impact change.

“The only way you can change behaviour is by reinforcing the behaviour you want to become the norm.” ~anon. contributor

These changes have to work part-in-parcel with addressing root cultural causes. They are re-enforcements to cultural education and broader changes.

Elon Musk gives us a great example of putting a women in charge of a company, but not specifically dealing with overall gender pay parity:

Systemic change for gender diversity starts when companies and departments are small, that are able to effect this change from day 1. Companies that require broadening the hiring net to scale out teams in order to to prevent the hiring for cultural (homogenous) fit.

What we’re talking about isn’t providing opportunity, but increasing access to opportunities.

A good read on what it will take to close the gender gap across the professional world

“Managers subconsciously hire people they comfortably relate to. I think your argument here could be made stronger with anecdotal context. i.e. how easy it is for a senior white male manager to hire a junior white male employee: they share a similar background and the manager sees a younger version of themselves in the employee.” – Hannah Wei, SheNomads

Those in a position of hiring also hire for familiarity– re-creating cultural environments re-enforced through economic and social upbringing (the neighbourhoods they were brought up in, schools, and university demographics).

Though it is highly unlikely for for companies that have already reached a peak in size– there is a balance between creating awareness for the necessary changes in diversity, doing the work, and championing diversity There is serious risk of commoditization, and the trap mentioned below.

Here is an interesting look at an example from inside Dropbox that goes into depth and transparency about the importance of the issue, and the reality of the picture inside of Dropbox. The most important part to note is the rhetoric– it’s not celebratory, it’s not commoditized.

THE DIVERSITY TRAP

The process of change walks a fine line between a mission for the cause, and the opportunism it creates to commoditize gender diversity, and ‘diversity’ as a concept.

My perspective throughout this essay approaches diversity as a person of colour (PoC) and champions this caste regardless of gender– be they women, men, or non-binary.

Understanding opportunity

Creating equal opportunity is not a goal. I received a comment saying ‘it’s not about equal representation, it’s about equal opportunity’. One of the main issues with this perspective is that there are barriers to opportunity itself.

It’s not about equal representation. Nor is it about equal opportunity. It’s about *equal accessibility*. And that shifts the onus back to employers, institutions, and organizations– it requires an investment to create accessibility that overcomes barriers to diversity…

Understanding Class, Social, and Racial Barriers to Diversity in Technology

Let’s take an objective approach to understanding diversity

Diversity in our field, amongst others, is impacted by a lack of accessibility, which has 3 scaffolding root causes:

Class & economic barriers, social barriers that stem from (and cause) class barriers, and racial barriers that stem from (and cause) social barriers that stem from (and cause) class barriers.

The various combinations of these three barriers to accessibility create a lack of privilege within our society that results in “issues of diversity”.

Who has class, social, and racial barriers? Your results will vary within the matrix– the higher your racial visibility, the higher your likelihood of less privilege within society, and the increased likelihood of class, social, and racial barriers to your accessibility of that privilege simply based on socio-economic factors of immigration.

Exploring the 3 barriers

1. Economic Barriers: people with existing economic barriers hold lower paying jobs. They may have to work multiple jobs, and their economic standing may in-itself be a barrier to accessing work with higher pay.

2. Social Barriers: those trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, aren’t afforded time, relations, and access. They have to deal with the social barriers that result from their economic situation– and so do their children. Examples of social barriers are time, nutrition, familial responsibilities beyond our years, and social issues within lower class communities.

Another economic impact that manifests as a social barrier is the accessibility to education. It’s harder to access a university or college, or to learn to code in 9 weeks if economic barriers or the accumulation of debt pre-empt access to education.

Social barriers also present themselves through physical and learning accessiblity barriers that deny privilege.

3. Racial Barriers: a lot of these people face these issues as 1st and second generation immigrants– they are people of colour (PoC). They’re black people, brown people, asians, middle-easterners.

Othering: You might call them ‘visible-minorities’ (as non-PoC are visible… majorities?). The term ‘minority’ trains us to other people of colour. Othering someone specifically implies they’re different, and therefore shunned & oppressed from society. People are othered by race, by their social issues, and by economic standing.

Racial barriers are inherited. Immigrant families, even the well educated, struggle with education recognition, jobs, and are concentrated in areas with a low cost of living. The struggles of immigrant and PoC families.

Racial barriers both cause and inherit the social and economic issues described above– and struggle to create opportunities for the 2nd generation in the families.


These three economic, social, and racial barriers to the accessibility of privilege impacts diversity.

The Elephant in the room:

White Privilege & Power Structures

The people that face these barriers in a systemic way are People of Colour. They’re not white people. White people have privilege, and recognizing your privilege, or lack of it, within socio-economic circles, is okay to do.

You can do it too. Recognize it and take control of it. Say it with me:

“I have white privilege”.

The privilege that white people have is called “White privilege”. Read here on Wikipedia, or watch a CBC video here as non-exhaustive examples.

White privilege starts with white male privilege. The type of privilege concentrated at Regional Innovation Centres like MaRS in Toronto 👋, or within our government bodies 🇨🇦.

It also extends to white female privilege, like Sandbergs’, SheEO, and LLC.

People with white privilege do not face the same degrees and combinations of class, social, and racial challenges that PoC face day to day.

People with white privilege have had time and opportunity to cope with class, social, and racial issues for decades, and have placed themselves and their families into positions of privilege– economically and socially. They are also building on the privilege their society created for them over decades and generations as a leg up.

People with privilege can then wield that privilege (read: power) in different ways. For those of you reading from Canada, an example is Harper versus Trudeau. For my American friends: I’m just sorry.

Where does this leave People of Colour in technology?

We have to operate within a political correctness. We can access podiums to speak about the issues once a year (maybe in early March? During IWD?), where we’re given the time and a stage for a moment, and highlighted… while these issues systemically continue year round.

May the bridges I burn light the way…
We have to operate in a world that’s been created by and for white privilege… & we look nothing like this.
A sample of leadership and organization teams from Toronto and the U.S., Teehan-Lax, MaRS, ThoughtBot, Bruce Mau Design, RGD, MetaLab, Format, and Shopify, Uberflip, Ladies Learning Code, Demac Media, Wealthsimple.
And we seemingly look nothing like the ‘New Generation of Entrepreneurs’ :
There’s a lot of fear and risk in discussing these things openly. I’m sure we lost OCE funding because of this.

We can speak of the issues, but refrain from the details, and the tangibles present in the communities around us. But there is only so much we can push in from the outside, or push for from within– and it involves a lot of risk (this article as a point of reference).

We cannot ‘all’ break into the system as a standard to change it– or to survive and thrive within it– it’s tiring, it’s exhausting, it’s unsustainable.

What can you do with your privilege?

Also applies if you are a PoC that finds yourself in a position of privilege as well because you’ve been able to overcome socio-economic barriers?

Diversity in communication and perception for People of Colour
“Whose world is this? The world is yours. The world is yours”.

5 major 🔑 ’s in leveraging your privilege

  1. Don’t tokenize diversity
  2. Don’t commoditize diversity or the work
  3. Don’t co-opt diversity, become an Ally
  4. Put in the work
  5. Learn how to deal with the feedback
We need to talk about specifics now. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about what you’re doing, and how it’s perceived.

1. Don’t tokenize diversity 🔑

What does this look like? FSTO provides diversity bonus for speakers, and NSNorth provides a diversity lottery for under-represented groups to apply for.

Diversity is not charity, and charitable appeals to empathy do not address systemic racial, social, and economic barriers to privilege.

A question came up after I published this:

Question: “In the context of an event, most barriers people will face are the cost of attending. So how is this different from a discounted student ticket? Or a university offering a scholarship? or the government providing housing subsidies?” – anon. contributor

Answer: Student tickets are not discounted for just the brown, black, and transgender students. Housing subsidies are not targeted at a specific race, or gender.

Here’s a great example from Hannah Wei:

For my last conference, we made a decision to subsidize as many tickets as we can by working with schools and organizations who support accessibility / diversity. Everybody had to complete an application to the conference — separating fit from PoC identity. We gave out subsidies as needed. A lot of work but it worked. No need to dangle free tickets in front of women and PoC like carrot, it sends the wrong message.”

Remember rule #4? Don’t ask people to ‘show up’, or.. ‘apply’.

The concept of having diversity tickets available for 50+ diverse, talented, financially struggling people to fight for sends a really hostile message. “you could belong here only if you prove yourself.”

The charity for ‘underrepresented groups’ is damning– as is an application process– let alone diversity workshops, which have aptly been renamed a ‘community kickoff’, full of diverse speakers, advocating issues of diversity to the rest of the community.

It’s not the job of organizers to make the conferences about diversity, but if you do want to use the conference as a platform for impact, at the very least, remember Rule #4, and take the above example into consideration.

2. Don’t commoditize diversity or the work 🔑

It’s also not a tool to push your company or career forward. Pushing for diversity with your best of intentions is a privilege you hold as a non-PoC.

Do empower focus on radical change and speak the truth how the picture looks for an organization that’s already at 50+ people to create a gender or PoC diversity balance.

The irony of a case-study photo of mansplaining is lost.
“TWG will implement the TGC recommendations, using agile methodologies to optimize on the fly.”

I don’t even… What can you do instead? Go the distance, like Dropbox’s example below, and paint the picture of what this means. It’s not something to celebrate. It’s not an awareness campaign. It’s a real somber wake up story.

Even with these examples what’s danced around is that they have “some distance to go”, which is code for “this isn’t going to happen in 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years”. This isn’t a problem that will be ‘fixed’ within these organizations.

The numbers make it impossible. The underlying culture, values, and principles behind this awareness is not engrained in these companies from day 1, all the way to year 5 – and from the many examples of new companies in our industry, the issues still aren’t at the centre of what it should mean to build a company in 2016.

3. Don’t co-opt diversity, become an Ally 🔑

White people are not the saviours for PoC, just as men aren’t the saviours of Women in tech. PoC don’t hold the same privilege as you do.

Do: learn how to become an ally and empower the voices of others. Feel good about doing the work, and putting them at the forefront.

PoC often don’t speak out about diversity issues because it hurts us. Professionally. Socially. And economically. It’s the role of non-PoC to stand up for and ensure that their environments [read, all environments] are safe environments for PoC to speak about these issues– not to relegate them to safe zones, and not having to pave the way.

  • Become an Ally and provide public support.
  • Don’t DM them, don’t have the side conversations when you see them in person and say ‘that was really brave!’. Or ‘I respect you so much, but you know, I don’t want to speak up because I don’t want to stick my neck out’. Be public.
  • share their writing
  • don’t other them
  • don’t actively or passively silence their voice

4. if you’re putting in the work then put in the work 🔑

Go out there, and find people. They’re not going to show up. We’re not going to spread the word to our secret club and all of our ‘peoples’ for them to show up and diversify your events and companies.

We’re not just going to ‘show up’, and submit for a talk at ‘your thing’. We don’t want to show up to your show, in your world.

A last straw that triggered this article

5. Deal with feedback in a way that recognizes these issues 🔑

Don’t do it like this, as FSTO organizer did when a stat on diversity of FSTO events was shared by @WomenandColor

There’s zero excuse for this. Feedback is an opportunity to address your values, and to become more inclusive by working together with PoC voices in the community instead of making it about you and your brand.

One of the biggest problems of lack of diversity is not listening, and centring the feelings of non-PoC above the fray in discussing diversity issues. This is a very hurtful aspect of silent racism.

Conferences are NEVER about the organizers, they are about the speakers and attendees and what THEY stand for.

This fear behind this statement is the wrong attitude: “It’s just ruining the brand and potentially a great event for no reason”.

This kind of comment, and medium of communication (private DM support versus public support and empowerment) puts commodity before diversity.

The amount of DMs I’ve had.


De-Commoditizing Diversity

Diversity is an investment. Your companies are great. Your events are great. I love white people. The problem isn’t with the %’s or ratios. The problem is the culture. The problem is that for the majority of us, we’re not a statistic, a number, or part of your system. You can’t count us. It’s culture. To cliche:

“Culture is what you’re doing when nobody is looking”.

I’d like to see it start with understanding the root causes to our current culture, with commitments to address accessibility barriers to privilege. This flips the narrative from barriers of accessibility to creating opportunities of accessiblity to the three tenets discussed:

  1. Create accessibility for those that have economic barriers
  2. Create new realities of accessibility for those facing social barriers
  3. Address the issue of accessibility for racial diverse people.

Understand that it costs time, money, and opportunity cost to integrate diversity into your organization– the time investment in making sure you provide the accessibilities might slow down your company. These issues, and the specifics of them will make people uncomfortable.

If building great products for a diverse crowd is the ultimate goal of a company, then there’s no better way than to do it with a diverse team that enriches and empathizes with each other.

Many organizations have been doing this, under the radar, before this was ‘cool to talk about’. A lot of them didn’t put the same focus on gender diversity as PoC diversity, and vice-versa, and it’s likely too late to make 50% of their engineer staff diverse in gender. Or their design / product / leadership teams diverse in PoC.

Doing some of these things well is amazing, but there’s more work to do. Amplify voices. Further dialogue. Make change.
Diversity in communication and perception for People of Colour
Yours truly,
مصطفى جوشن

If you’d like to talk about any of this, shoot me a note on Twitter, or email:

mustefa@cfndrs.com