Why do we need more diverse teams? It’s not just about doing the right thing — it’s also about doing the smart thing.
The year is 2007 and a friend of mine has been recruited out of college to work for a successful, worldwide consulting company. One of the big ones. While I was happy for my friend, I was also interested in starting my career there when I finished my degree. It seemed so fancy! So I asked him “Can I send in a CV?”
“No,” he said “they don’t do that. Every shop only recruits out of their local top universities. They have an in-house recruiting team that goes only to the best schools and recruits on campus.”
“But, my grades are excellent, and I have good work experience” I said defensively. “I’m paying for college myself, it doesn’t mean I’m not smart enough to work there.”
“Di, I don’t know what to tell ya, you’re never going to work here. They’ll never recruit out of a state school and they don’t take unsolicited résumés”.
This was my first experience with bad hiring practices that ultimately lead to a lack of diversity, stagnation, and becoming obsolete as a company.
This is a great question, and one I hear often in my line of work. Sometimes I’ll also hear hiring managers say things like “Diversity is a priority for us, but we won’t lower our standards”. Think about what’s being said here and who is too often hearing it; what’s really being said?
With absolutely no irony, this manager is saying that if someone can get to the same finish line in exactly the same way in a system rigged against most of us, he or she would love to have us on their team. The reality is that we don’t all start in the same place, so we don’t (and can’t) take the same path to get there. Let’s examine a real-life example of what “the starting line” looks like to many people by going through a simple exercise.
When I consult on diversity and inclusion for tech companies, I often like to start with a short video from a diversity walk. 50 participants are lined up side by side, and the prompter tells them that they’re going to run a race with the winner taking home one hundred dollars. But there’s a catch: certain people are going to get a head start.
“Take two steps forward” the prompter instructs “if both of your parents are still married.” Many participants step forward. “Take two steps forward if you never had to worry about where your next meal would come from.” Some participants step forward. This continues for awhile, with the prompter providing more and more criteria and fewer and fewer participants advancing.
“Take two steps forward if you had access to free tutoring if you needed it.”
“Take two steps forward if you never had to help out with the bills at home.”
“Take two steps forward if you (not because of sports scholarships) didn’t have to take out loans to pay for college.’’
By now, something interesting is happening here. The people in front have been taking giant steps forward, thrilled with their luck, never turning around to see what is happening to anyone behind them. Meanwhile, a large segment of people are still standing on the original starting line, realizing by about the second prompt what’s happening here. A few even look defeated — what’s the point of racing at all with this much of a disadvantage? The prompter has the people in front turn around.
“This is life”, he tells them. Because of their life circumstances (and nothing they had done), the people at the front have a massive head start and therefore have a much increased chance of winning the hundred dollars. “Does that mean these guys back here can’t race?” he asks, pointing to the original starting line. “No, they still have to race. Everyone has to run their own race. There’s no excuse”. He fires the starting pistol and everyone runs as fast as they can to the same finish line.
So, why do I share this with my clients? I’m certainly not telling women or People of Color anything they don’t know. It’s because when we talk about diversity, people of more privileged backgrounds often feel chastised and guilty. A natural reaction is to feel defensive, which results in reactions that can range anywhere from refusing to participate all the way to becoming outwardly aggressive (social media trolls are a great example of this).
We need everyone to be involved in the diversity conversation. I show this video (when I can’t do a live exercise) to demonstrate that no one is telling people of privilege that they didn’t have to run as hard as they could to get to where they are today. Of course they did. The point is that if you base your hiring standards on John Smith in the front who had a major head start — you’re going to have a diversity problem. And we know that you and your company will lose the innovation race to a more diverse team every time.
It turns out that there are literally hundreds of diversity studies related to studying high functioning teams. One of my favorite examples comes from Scott E. Page and his book “The Difference”. He tells a fascinating story wherein two groups of smart people attempt to solve a problem. One team consists of ivy educated folks of presumably a standardized education, and the other is a team of smart people of more diverse backgrounds. The more diverse team solved problems faster by employing a broader range of perspectives culminating in more potential solutions.
“How can that be? Don’t the best companies show us that a team of ivy educated folks is the best team a company can have?”
Not exactly. See, smart people who were educated the same way are smart in the same way and get stuck on problems in the same place. People who are smart but different? Better outcomes. Let’s take a look at examples from two of the most well-known tech companies.
The Twitter problem
Twitter found itself in hot water in 2015 when their only (at the time) Black Lead Software Engineer, Leslie Miley, quit and refused a severance payout so he could speak publicly about his experience at Twitter and their diversity problem. Miley had looked around, noticed no one else looked like him at his level and asked his boss what the deal was. His boss told him “Of course diversity is a priority, but we aren’t going to lower our standards”. Sound familiar?
He also told Miley to build software to filter applicants by race by examining their names. Seriously. You should read the whole story from him (Leslie Miley is @shaft on Medium).
At the time, about 30% of Twitter’s users were People of Color. Less than 6% of Twitter’s entire workforce were People of Color. Not just software engineers, 6% of everyone. While all this was happening upstairs, Twitter was making a huge comeback from the brink of death as a real time social justice tool thanks in a large part to the Black Lives Matter movement.
YouTube’s User Experience
In the early days of YouTube the team noticed a bug that only affected 10% of the videos that were being uploaded to their platform — somehow, they were being uploaded upside down. I’ll give you a second to guess; do you know what type of diversity exists within a user population at roughly ten percent?
Left-handedness. The team discovered that left handed people shoot videos holding their phones thumb up, and right handed users shoot videos holding their phone with their thumb down. Not wrong; different. The early YouTube team just didn’t have any left handed people on it.
I hear this a lot. Unfortunately, our angst at still being in this place does little to impact the state of inequality in the workforce. In fact, we are moving backwards. We know that diversity at the top of companies leads to better returns and yet last year the amount of women heading up Fortune 500 companies declined by 25%. At the time of writing, there are only 3 Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 in the United States. Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest was asked on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah recently about the idea that because women software engineers are rare, it has to be expected that tech companies would be mostly men. She laughed knowingly and replied:
We hear all the time that there are no women software engineers; but our engineering team is 50% women, our company is 40% People of Color…If you only hang out in your network, with people who look like you, people you like to golf with, then no, you aren’t going to know anyone [and you’ll think] ‘there must not be anyone out there’.
There are a number of toxic barriers for women and People of Color in the career world today, and many of these barriers stem from antiquated hiring practices and the misguided belief that standards would have to be lowered to hire people of more diverse backgrounds. It turns out that if you have a standard set of requirements, you're blocking access to the greatest asset a company could ever hope to have - a dedicated workforce of smart, creative, diverse problem solvers. If a candidate had to take a year off from college, or took longer to graduate or went to a state school; writing them off wholesale to make the hiring process shorter is setting up barriers to entry that disproportionately penalize women and People of Color. Diverse candidates go into tech schools and tech careers in the same numbers as they exist in the world.
So, if you have a problem attracting people of diverse backgrounds to your team the problem isn’t a lack of qualified candidates. We need to stop letting ourselves (and our hiring managers), off the hook.