Stop saying 20%, 30%, 40% is better than…
When it comes to diversity, stop settling for its better than X% unless it is an actual equal representation.
More than a 100 women were elected to the US Congress this past year. Yes, amazing. Not good enough. Talk to me when it’s at least 50% or better yet, 100%. Give us 100% for a couple hundred years. How about 100% Native American women for a couple hundred years.
Look, it’s good to celebrate improvements. That is needed, but we can’t get complacent.
We can’t make it sound like it’s good enough. I hear it all the time, “well at least we are at this point vs. the other group or where we were before”. The sentiment is this is good enough and nothing more can or should be done. When we can’t reach equal representation, there is a reason and that is where we need to dig in. Otherwise these problems only go into the shadows and grow.
If you support diversity, fight for it.
Sure it can be hard enough to get to X% and there are plenty of other priorities to tackle and you’ve done your part and so on and so forth. But do not fool yourself into thinking this is good enough. It’s not. When we write off it’s enough, we are not digging into and solving the real problems that are causing these shortfalls. Percentages are not the problem, the problem is more systemic and the percentages and ease of hitting those numbers can help us see where the real problems are. So stop settling from a numbers standpoint and more importantly stop settling from the effort that is needed to change the numbers. Otherwise lack of representation will only get worse.
Do we need to be this explicit and deliberate? Yes.
Being deliberate and proactive is required until it’s not. When is that? When we stop limiting people’s potential due to bias, when equal representation exists and is inclusive without any additional effort…. So you tell me. When do you think that can happen?
Right, so be deliberate. No that doesn’t mean ONLY hiring someone or choosing them because they check an underrepresented box. That’s the fastest path to making that person feel marginalized, not solving the real problem and degrading that person’s credibility. I’ve had people tell me they were really wanting to hire the first woman data scientist or they want more women at their conference. It’s not acceptable if that is the only reason and if I am the only one representing. Hell, I had someone I worked with once say I was only chosen to speak at a conference because I’m a woman and one of my colleagues shut him down pointing out that I am a talented and proven speaker. What matters is being chosen for expertise or potential in addition to diversity.
Ok, you care and want to do something. What do you do? I do not have all the answers. And this is not easily solved by individuals alone. What I can share is an example from last year of actions I took to have impact. Basically, it boils down to raising awareness and putting in the time and effort to tackle the problems.
In 2018, I took over as a co-host on the GCP Podcast and it hit me, I have an established platform to raise the voices and drive for improved representation and diversity in who are the guests. There are plenty of studies proving what many of us know. As pattern recognition beings, we are highly influenced by the media and it’s crucial to have diversity represented because it can increase acceptance and influence people to take on different roles and challenges. For the podcast, I set a target to get at least 50% female guests as well as increase numbers across many different areas of diversity and identity intersections.
When I reviewed the podcast episodes before I started, I noticed female guests made up 15% of the guests in previous years. That’s what raised my awareness and helped me identify targets to go after. Note, the representation in previous years doesn’t make the people running this podcast bad people. Not by any stretch. Like many, they were busy with other priorities like setting up the podcast and finding guests to begin with while juggling a number of things.
You have to be aware there is a problem which isn’t always something you can see from your viewpoint. Once you’ve raised awareness, you need to get people on board and committed to making a change. Showing my co-host the numbers was all that was needed to get him committed to driving for increased representation in our guests. The work and time was the real hurdle.
Work & Time
I was committed to developing interesting shows with relevant, and quality content while also driving for diversity goals. The first quarter of 2018, I really hustled to find and convince people to be on the podcast. I had some amazing programmers and researchers flat out refuse to do the podcast either afraid, not interested or already carrying too much representation burden.
I attended so many conferences, meet-ups and other group activities to expand my network. Several events I attended (e.g. DL Indaba, Black in AI, QueerCon, WiML, Diana Initiative, etc) were explicitly focused on underrepresented technologists and researchers which played a big role in the guests I found. I explored my network for speaker recommendations on topics we wanted to cover and researched and pretty much cold called experts in certain fields. It was a great reason to connect with different experts.
And when I say I fought to maintain quality and drive diversity, I went after including guests who ranged from leaders to novices, more technical vs. more business, large companies vs. startups, different countries, OSS, different products and services, different areas of the technical stack and well known vs unknown speakers. It took a lot to drive for solid stories while keeping all of this in mind. It did start to get easier and momentum built with time.
We had one month where every episode included women and only 1 man was a guest that whole month, which I didn’t realize until after. Do you know which month? When we recorded 18 podcast interviews at Google NEXT conference last July, it was a significant amount of work already but the upfront efforts made it easier to achieve some of the diversity goals without having to be as deliberate like 8 of the 15 guests were female.
I achieved 52% female and non-binary representation in the guests I brought in, and the podcast on the whole achieved 43% representation out of 87 total guests last year. It is significantly improved from the 15% in previous years and the numbers were up across many areas of diversity and identity intersections. You couldn’t always hear the representation in the sound of the voice, but it was there in the insights that were shared, which is the point.
And I hold to what I stated in the beginning, the podcast can do better and the team is committed to making this a priority. What helps is there is an awareness and effort to make changes and expand the network. It also helps that people are actually knocking down the door to be on the podcast now, and that includes female technologists which hadn’t happened before 2018.
Working to change the percentages and driving for better media representation will have an impact that is valuable. It doesn’t solve the systemic problems. Some key societal changes are we need equal representation in leadership everywhere (all institutions) and we need systems that reward people for fighting for change. The time and work to change representation is usually where people drop off, tune out, have too much else to do, don’t care or whatever the reason. It has to be prioritized and written into the fabric of expectations.
Bottom line, we all own responsibility to fight for equal representation. If you are overrepresented and care, then don’t put all the work on those who are underrepresented. If anything shoulder more of the work and time to fight for the change since the underrepresented usually have to work more to get where they are.
As an individual, you can help in whatever you are working on. Whatever power you currently have. Use your privilege to give access to those who can’t get access. To raise awareness. Be deliberate until you don’t have to. Running a conference? Producing a show? Hiring a leader? Product strategizing? Company strategizing? Building something that impacts a community?… Make time to seek out other voices, help lower barriers, celebrate improvements and keep fighting, and don’t accept at least it’s better than anything less than equal.