Avoiding Diversity Debt

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Avoiding Diversity Debt

โ€‹startupโ€‹ You might be familiar with the concept of technical debt, which refers to having to make imperfect decisions during a product build, a result of having to make tradeoffs between short-term, quick fixes and long-term solutions. Teams often choose to focus on the short-term, knowing theyโ€™ll have to pay down the debt later as the company or project scales. Similarly, companies need to be mindful of diversity debt, especially early on when it is easier to prevent or correct.

Diversity debt is the result of expanding a team without ensuring it is diverse. The more members of majority groups on a team, the more difficult it can be to recruit members of URGs and provide an inclusive culture.

Phin Barnes refers to diversity debt as โ€œthe one startup debt you canโ€™t pay back.โ€ Homebrew, an early-stage VC, strongly encourages founders to start thinking about diversity early. We suggest reading their โ€œDiversity at Startupsโ€ guide if youโ€™re currently a founder or early employee.

If your engineering team is five people, most candidates from underrepresented backgrounds wonโ€™t have too many hesitations about coming in as the first woman, first Black engineer, et cetera. They might even expect it. However, if diversity debt gets racked up to the point where you have a 50-person engineering team that is entirely white and Asian men, it will be very difficult to convince talented people from underrepresented backgrounds to even interview. And that kind of homogeneity puts the long-term performance of the entire team at risk.

Privilege and Allyship

Privilege in the context of diversity and inclusion is a set of unearned benefits enjoyed by people who belong to particular social groups. Privilege can be a fraught topic because no single group has a monopoly on itโ€”whiteness conveys privilege, maleness conveys privilege, ability conveys privilege, and so onโ€”and because many are not aware of the privilege they have.

Acknowledging privilege can be uncomfortable, especially where overlapping systems of privilege are at play. But privilege is a critical concept in D&I work because it can help identify those with the social capital to effect change. It can also help to structure allyship relationships to ensure that less privileged voices are heard.

You may hear frustration or exasperation from some people, usually from the majority group, who say things like, โ€œWhat do you want from me?โ€ or โ€œThis isnโ€™t my problem.โ€ People who are not directly affected by inequity or donโ€™t see it in their daily lives often donโ€™t understand or accept that others have to work harder while facing discrimination, harassment, threats, or worse. When this is the case, people donโ€™t always feel like doing something about a problem they donโ€™t seeโ€”one they may not even believe is real. They may think this work should be relegated to those directly affected by bias and discrimination.

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