Why doesn’t my company get credit for tackling gender diversity?

Good intentions don’t always get you where you need to go. Here’s why.

Ellen K. Pao
Mar 12, 2018 · 5 min read

While I love seeing the attention and celebration of women on International Women’s Day every March, and I’m an advocate for this year’s #MeToo movement for change, let’s make sure we use this momentum to create real and lasting change for all underrepresented groups. The forces that keep women down also keep all underrepresented groups down.

One tech CEO — who happens to be a person of color — recently asked me why I was so disappointed when startups highlighted how many women were present in their otherwise homogenous photos of employees.

The retweet that sparked the conversation

Why wasn’t I impressed that at least some diversity progress was being made? He was confused by my retweeting a thread by Eve L. Ewing.

It’s a question I’ve heard before… a lot. And they were right: I’m not impressed.

I’m not impressed because companies that pride themselves on gender progress often achieve it by adding small number of people to their “insider” group. Those people are usually white, cisgender women. That isn’t enough.

I’m not impressed because a photo doesn’t mean they’ve done the hard work of changing their processes. In fact, it often means they still have a system of exclusion that still keeps people on the outside — even if there are some underrepresented folks sitting near or even at the top table. Often, I’ve found, it doesn’t even mean they fundamentally believe that everyone should be treated equally much less equitably. And, if you really want to lasting change, that’s the principle that you must embrace first.

I’m not impressed because this “progress,” the kind focused on one underrepresented group, tends to keep the supposed beneficiaries away from senior roles, with fewer opportunities, and less power.

Intersectionality by the numbers

I’m not impressed because it doesn’t address the problems of intersectionality — it doesn’t address the reality that people belonging to more than one underrepresented group suffer more because biases are additive.

I’m not impressed because the message we’re sending to everyone — to the company, to the public, to the media — is that while we try and right the wrongs against women, others being discriminated against should wait in line for their turn. Yet data shows that this turn never actually comes… in fact, it’s the opposite. With our focus on gender equality, racial diversity is actually falling in Silicon Valley. And the gender gap is actually widening.

Focusing progress on one has meant progress for .

I’m not impressed because research shows that even as industry continues to focus on the gender gap, it will take 217 years to eliminate it in the workplace. Is that when we start to focus on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, immigration, age, nonbinary gender? We’re essentially asking generations upon generations of workers to wait their turn.

Photo: Creative Commons

Now look, I understand why all this is a complicated issue. I even empathize with it. Plenty of people want to try and improve the situation, but as soon as they try tackling diversity and inclusion it can feel like walking through a minefield. The best case scenario is that it’s never enough, and the worst case scenario is that you sound racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, ageist, ableist, and more. And for women, there may be a feeling of, I’ve waited my turn long enough and now I don’t want to have to share.

Why can’t we be positive about any progress, rather than negative on how slow or limited that progress is? Shouldn’t we applaud those who are at least trying? Won’t it encourage them to keep improving?

My experience, and all the others I’ve seen, says rewarding people for small amounts of diversity progress doesn’t actually work. I’ve tried to give out ally cookies as positive reinforcement — and then seen folks gobble up the kudos and call it a day.

So often CEOs tackle diversity for PR reasons — posting photos, putting out press releases about wage adjustments, looking for all that positive reinforcement. If they get that attention, the leaders are happy… but many women are still unhappy and the women of color are usually miserable.

None of this means progress isn’t being made, or that it’s impossible. Some CEOs do deserve our attention and appreciation for their efforts. And other leaders may have made decisions that I wouldn’t have, but still deserve accolades because they wholeheartedly embrace the challenges of diversity and inclusion.

They are the ones who prefer not to publicize it in fear that they might be getting it wrong, but still want to push forward to experiment and see what they can achieve. They’re the ones who should get credit for addressing the whole problem and pushing for lasting change, not the ones focused on a photo opportunity.

As we celebrate women, let’s remember that true diversity is intersectional and make sure our solutions are lasting and meaningful.

Resources: Many women of color have shared their experiences in their own words. Please read and learn from this sampling and feel free to include others in the comments since this list is not complete:

Project Include

Give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech.

Ellen K. Pao

Written by

Co-Founder and CEO of Project Include. Author of Reset. Angel investor.

Project Include

Give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech.

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