Get Over It — Time to Move Past Tokenism

We’re there. We’ve competed step one. We’ve gotten past the point where gender and racial diversity are considered for the makeup of advisory committees, boards and speaker rosters. This is a big deal. Attention has been given. All of that pushback about all male panels and white male boards is starting to make a dent. It may not be liked and we still see a lot of misunderstandings on the topic, but by and large, most people now know it’s bad business not to be inclusive. Unfortunately we’re not even remotely there when it comes to truly diverse representation. And frankly the byproduct of tokenism is becoming embarrassing to watch.

This week I saw strong juxtaposition on this topic as I observed from afar two very different events. One focused on diversity and inclusion in tech had a wide range of speakers and dove straight into the issues. Another was a tech business and policy related event. The first, as would be expected, earned an A+ for inclusion. It’s their brand so they’d better walk their talk. The second looked good at first glance, but as the session I saw got underway, of six panelists (5 men, 1 woman), the men did almost all of the talking. The woman spoke twice, briefly. With the camera zooming in just on the speakers, it was as if she wasn’t really there. And I started to wonder — did the organizers invite her to “balance out” the panel and check off a box, or did they really want her as a part of the discussion? And if it was the latter, why didn’t the moderator work harder to make that happen?

Here’s the thing — if you’re in the audience at one of these events, you see more women in the room, more people of color, you see wheelchairs and sign language interpreters. You feel the range of cultural backgrounds in the room. When you watch via livestream, you see only what the camera sees and hear only what it hears. You get only the direct content meant from the event, filtering out all other observations you might gain from the room. This has other negatives, but the one thing that stands out is how much time each participant really has in the discussion. Most people have seen or heard by now that the data shows the more diverse a group is, the better results it has. (Take this aside from the glaring fact that inclusion is ethically and morally the right thing to do.) So fine, we have diversity on the committee or on the panel. But is everyone being heard? And is one person enough?

The problem can come from any level. Even if there’s a commitment at the top to be inclusive and a directive to bring in people of color, women, LGBTQ and varying gender identities, and individuals with a wide range of abilities / disabilities, that commitment can be waver at any point along the chain. Missing context and actual education on why this is important, often what happens is we get to the point of checking off a box. “Oh I know this guy… let’s see if he’s available” and once he says yes, move on to the next slot.

Choosing longer term commitments like boards requires a lot deeper vetting than for a panel, for example, but we know from the research that putting one woman on a board doesn’t necessarily make that board diverse. Whether she feels comfortable speaking up remains to be seen. Whether her views are considered when making major decisions is unclear. Get to two women, now we might be in a position to see some actual change occur in the organization.

I’ve participated in enough conference planning committees and been on enough advisory boards that I know how difficult it is to get a good makeup of voices based solely on expertise alone. But I have also learned that a true commitment to diversity requires a shift in perspective. I now think of diversity as a major asset. It’s brilliant when you find the right mix of people who come from different parts of the world, have different educational backgrounds, come from different industries and those varying experiences show on their faces. That’s when the best discussions happen. That’s when the people in the room are brought into the experience and everyone’s voice is elevated, including the audience, if that’s relevant. The results are well worth the effort.

It doesn’t matter what the field is — we know diversity is a problem in most fields. I’ve been a woman in tech long enough to recall multiple headaches from rolling my eyes at the many lists of all men on a company executive rosters. I still gasp at conference announcements showing all white men. I’m not pretending everyone is ready to graduate even to the introductory level of tokenism, but the majority have, and that deserves notice. The problem is when we stop here and say “okay, we have 1 woman — check, 1 person of color — check. So we’re good.” No, we’re not good yet. We’re just getting started.