The Linkedin #techtalksdiversity conversation has thrown up many great perspectives and solutions. There are three topics that I keep coming back to personally as I think about diversity in tech:
1.Tech’s bigger issues are society’s issues: tech is important, but possibly too self important. It’s core challenges are societal and human commonplaces. It needs to look more broadly for answers.
2.Tech does have three specific fault lines: these are around Computer Science (CS) education, the extreme homogenity of Venture Capital (VC) and, to the self important point, the belief of many that tech is a meritocracy. (Spoiler alert, it isn’t.)
3.Tech’s biggest problem is not diversity, but inclusion: lack of diversity is the symptom of a illness. Tackling diversity alone, so demographics, is not the path to a sustainable solution. The underlying illness is the lack of an inclusive culture … and that is where the solution to building diversity truly lies.
In this post I expand on each of these three points and offer some suggestions for the way forwards.
1.Tech’s bigger issues are society’s issues: It is always tempting, especially if you are in a field that seems somehow special, unique even, to believe your challenges and opportunities are themselves unique. Yes the data suggests the tech industry has many diversity challenges. But, with three important exceptions I will come to shortly, tech needs to realize that its issues are just part of a common human condition: the impact of unconscious bias on the way we interact with others, the influence of pervasive stereotypes born of our observations of the world and (influenced by the media etc) since birth and the consequences of myriad systemic biases built into human capital management processes like hiring, promotion and assignment decisions usually stemming from pre-existing “default” ways of doing things.
I politely that suggest the tech industry sometimes needs to get off its own high horse and look at solutions that other companies and other industries are pursuing. One specific example of another resource – I am honored to be a Board Member and also now Executive in Residence at the Center for Talent Innovation. While we have many leading tech companies as supporters we have many more that are not so from pharma to finance, from telecom to advertising and on and on. Founder and CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her team have conducted extensive research and identified best practices across differences of race, gender, generation, geography, culture and more. Take a look.
2.Tech does have three specific fault lines: While the high level challenges are shared ones, I do think that progress in tech is being differentially held back by three fault lines as follows:
a) The collapse in women’s participation in university CS courses since the early 1980s: What is often identified as a STEM gender education problem is actually very specifically a CS problem … women’s participation in areas like Physics, Maths and Statistics has risen over the same period to around 40% of all undergraduate degrees granted in the US. Engineering has rised too but from a low base. Uniquely CS has seen women’s participation rate collapse by 50% over the same time frame. The causes are complex: tougher entry level classes, the genderization of gaming, the tech bro culture – Tracy Chou (then of Pinterest) gave an excellent analysis of these three factors at SXSW this March. But on the bright side schools like Harvey Mudd and Stanford are showing that women’s participation in undergrad CS courses can be increased dramatically (and quickly) with some thoughtful changes to course content and even naming.
b) VC must surely be THE most homogeneous part of the financial services industry: Many others have written about the lack of diversity of VC investment professionals in general and partners in particular especially by gender and with respect to Latino and Black professionals. But it has got to the point where the benefits of diverse teams are so well documented and the availability of talent so obvious, if you are prepared to pay any attention, that really the only thing holding VCs back is themselves, and their willingness (or lack of) to change. And for anyone in VC still looking for why and how to advice … check out the Project Include materials and sign up to be part of their initiative. Then #JFDI.
c) Too much of tech thinks it is a meritocracy, but it isn’t: Much of tech, maybe VC in particular, suffers from “The Paradox of Meritocracy”. This is the ironic finding that people and organizations that assert they are meritocracies are typically less meritocratic in practice than their peers. (Check out the Castilla/Bernard research on this.)
If you believe you are the best of the best, select the best of the best and are changing the world in dramatic ways (and frankly with some good reason in the case of Silicon Valley) then why think too hard about the way you do things. Heck you are GREAT!
Sadly that mindset leads to “like likes like” hiring and advancement (and also investment) plus militates against bringing people “not like us” into the industry. The only way to break out of this mindset is to be always questioning what you do and why, and using data (which tech is great at) to investigate hypotheses and measure outcomes.
3.Tech’s biggest problem is not diversity, but inclusion: The diversity of the tech workforce is a point in time measure of demographics. Many look at the stats for the industry, segments of it or just specific companies and compare against broader averages. That, for many if not most, expresses the “problem.”
Obviously remedies for addressing this version of the problem immediately come to mind and indeed many are good ideas. Often one piece of the equation is an effort to “build the pipeline” of diverse talent via less biased hiring. And it is awesome to see tech solutions being brought to bear in that context: Textio to make job posting more broadly appealing or the Unitive platform to allow interview processes to be run in a truly more objective manner come to mind. (Of course for large companies wanting to make progress higher up the employee stack laterally hiring can have an effect, but with small pools of folks in key categories all that does is move the problem around!) But, sorry to report this folks, but pipeline efforts typically don’t work. Why? Because they can too often be based on “canary in the coal mine” thinking.
Experience in other industries (yes tech, other industries have been working on this for a LONG time) suggests that diversity metrics can be managed in a desired direction in the short run. But they are hard to sustain in the long run unless a key ingredient is present, namely an inclusive culture. Responsibility for that starts and ends at the top of a company, it can not be delegated to HR or even dedicated diversity professionals in my viedw. This is the thinking behind a a 2017 SXSW session I am presenting with Shari Slate, VP and Chief Inclusion and Collaboration Officer from CISCO entitled: “The CEO as CDO“. Our basic point being that the CEO of a company has to have a “CDO mindset” themselves. That means living and breathing the mantra CEOs so often utter: “human capital is our most important asset.”
How do we address the inclusion illness?
I came across a great quote recently that summarises the problem and the solution so simply and elegantly:
“If you are not consciously including, you are likely unconsciously excluding”
This is something we can ALL think about whether we are CEOs, VCs, senior leaders or junior employees. We need to be more conscious about where we source new hires (not just referrals that, guess what, look like us), the questions we ask (so interview based on skills and experience not whether we went to the same school), how we interact with colleagues on a day to day basis (did I talk over her or give her credit for that idea in the meeting?). Yes, all that is hard and takes “attention, intention and time”.
But if we can follow the mantra of being “consciously inclusive” and hence make ourselves and our own organizations progressively more inclusive (knowing that we/they can never be perfect, never perfectly meritocratic) then we will benefit from and celebrate difference, we will actively seek out the the best talent across all dimensions of difference, and will do a much better job of retaining and developing allof our people. (See HERE for some specific recommendations for individuals around your tackling your own unconcious bias.)
Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of Agriculture