D&I Myths and Pitfalls

28 minutes, 39 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

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Given the wealth of data and well-established arguments for why D&I matters for businesses, why haven’t hiring and inclusivity practices caught up? Often, hiring managers and other company leaders face multiple and sometimes conflicting priorities and constraints, and it’s easy for companies that lack diversity in leadership to pay less attention to problems they don’t see as impacting them directly. Even when a company of any stage or size makes the choice to improve, it is not easy to change systems that have been in place for so long, and it’s often difficult to figure out who exactly is in charge of inventing and enforcing new policies.

Many of us understand the benefits of D&I and want to move forward, but we don’t always know where to begin. Dismantling common myths and pitfalls around D&I is a good place to start.* (In fact, we already tackled one of the most common: “it’s a pipeline problem.”) As you seek to create a more inclusive hiring process, unpacking these myths and pitfalls can help make sure your actions are impactful and long-lasting, as opposed to performative, shallow, and misdirected. As with any organizational change, you will encounter pushback from many possible directions. Members of your team may take exception, your peers may question the efficacy of your new hiring proposals, you may uncover hidden racist, sexist, and ableist sentiment in your C-suite.

This is expected. Your greatest tool on this journey will be a strong sense of humility and an ability to focus on the experiences of marginalized groups.

It may be useful to refer to the following sections in the moment, when you hear one of these myths or misunderstandings in a hiring huddle. You can also share them with your team to set everyone up with the same baseline of knowledge and understanding. It is likely, too, that you’ll have to have these conversations many times in different ways; it often takes people some time to unpack why they are reflexively against improving diversity and inclusion. As a hiring manager, you can help improve your retention rates and the quality of your hires by helping your team understand how they can work to foster a work environment that is welcoming and supportive of all.

“We don’t want to lower the hiring bar.”

When you hear people say this or “I know I need more diversity on my team, but I’m also supposed to hire the best person,” it tells you that either they believe the hiring process would elevate unqualified candidates just because they’re underrepresented, or they believe diversity efforts in general are equated with lower quality—or both.

The Basics

While the intention here may be one of concern for the quality of your organization, this statement implies an underlying belief that the average performance of minorities across gender and race is less than the overall mean—that you must choose between having a high performing engineering organization and opening your doors to URGs. This belief reflects conscious or unconscious biases: the phrase reflects the thinking that “underrepresented” means “not as competent.”

Laura Weidman Powers picks apart this phrase word by word in a post we highly recommend, where she points out “the implication in that statement [is] that you have to defend yourself against others who want you to lower the bar.” No one, least of all hiring managers, wants a process that’s going to lead to a poor candidate-company fit. D&I efforts combat lazy hiring based on pattern-matching and kinship, which favor a limited set of experiences. D&I raises the bar.

We found that the engineers who are excited about the fact that we are trying to recruit women and that we have that as a value—men or women—are the people we actually want to be hiring. The men who come into our organization who are excited about the fact that we have diversity as a goal are generally the people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication. They’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads.Kellan Elliott-McCrea, Dropbox*

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If a team member says something like, “We don’t want to lower the hiring bar,” here’s one way to respond: “Diversity is an indicator of great hiring taking place. If our team is homogenous, it means we’re over-relying on shallow signals like pedigrees. We don’t want our hiring process to favor candidates that confirm our existing biases. Recruiting from more diverse pools of talent forces us as a company to make improvements at all stages of the process, from attracting candidates, to evaluations, to closing. It will help us reduce problematic biases and develop a muscle around making thoughtful hiring decisions.”

If we juxtapose all the data we now have about the business benefits of diversity next to the demographic composition of our engineering teams, the real question we need to grapple with is whether or not we ever had a clue about what an effective engineering organization was.Jason Wong, leadership coach

Going Deeper

caution Concerns about lowering the hiring bar might come up when a hiring manager or leader institutes hiring mandates, whereby a certain number of new hires must be from underrepresented groups to reach goals set by the company or team. Mandates can impact a team’s sense of choice and fairness, but it’s not always so simple. If your organization is falling short of its diversity hiring goals, this approach involves some sort of hard stance on who will get the spotlight in the next hiring round. Mandates might seem like the only means available at the moment, but being successful in building a diverse workforce requires a holistic approach. It can be useful to ask yourself:

Mandates may solve your immediate goals for the next few hires, but can hurt those new employees, who may be treated as a token by their peers and potentially exposed to an unwelcoming environment once they’re through the door. Ultimately, they are unlikely to stay. True success is understanding and addressing the conditions creating passivity or resistance on this issue among your employees and within yourself.

That said, it’s worth noting that mandates correlate with effective change in some cases. In 2002, France enacted parity laws which mandated that each party had to field an equal number of men and women.* This led to the National Assembly going from 10.9% women to 39%. Title IX in the United States is another great example. Prior to 1974, fewer than 300,000 women participated in high school sports. Today, there are over 3.1 million.* While we can’t ignore these leaps in progress, these directives were not complete solutions. Unless you’re looking to create an organization that’s an ever-revolving door for underrepresented people, you will need to do the hard work of changing your workplace norms in order to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.

“We believe people should be hired on their merits.”

Similar phrases include, “Our hiring process is fair” and “We’re a meritocracy.”

The Basics

While talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. Many URGs face barriers that people from majority groups do not. They don’t receive as many referrals, they get passed over for promotions, and they get paid less, to name just a few. They often have to work twice as hard or more to get the same level of recognition, while facing continued barriers like harassment and discrimination. The merit myth is a particularly difficult one to address, because you don’t want to make anyone feel that they don’t deserve what they’ve worked for, as you work to help more privileged people recognize the barriers URGs face. But this myth can be so harmful to individuals and teams that it’s critical to take steps to address it.

The belief that people get where they are based on individual effort alone —hard work—rather than by a combination of hard work, talent, circumstance, support, and luck, is particularly pervasive in the U.S. Faced with the kind of pressure and uncertainty that hiring presents, the idea of meritocracy has become a common mindset in tech. Believing (and being told) that those who work hard can get ahead gives us some temporary comfort that there’s a sense of fairness built into the system that we all “get what we deserve.”

But it isn’t a benign belief. Companies that believe in the myth of meritocracy—that people who try hard and are qualified are the ones who get the job offers, the corner offices, and the big paychecks—are more likely to find themselves in trouble, as they won’t be as vigilant about looking out for biases and making constant process improvements as the organization grows. Studies have shown that even believing in the idea of meritocracy increases discriminatory behaviors and biased beliefs.*

Going Deeper

important The term meritocracy was coined by sociologist Michael Dunlop Young to warn against the privileged class justifying their success and disenfranchising others. It is satire.

The tech industry tends to value metrics and being ‘rational’ above all else, but it would also serve us well to remember that hiring is an inherently human activity. That’s why it’s so hard and will never be completely solved. Every individual is a rich combination of their skills, values, life experiences, and background. There is no way we can make truly objective, rational decisions without our own biases coming into play. One of the most important things you can do is to acknowledge those biases, because then (and only then) can you make meaningful, ongoing improvements to your hiring process that result in a stellar team.Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate*

You might notice that people saying things like “our hiring process is fair” are usually—though not always—from the majority group. People from the majority groups often benefit from biased systems, which makes them less likely to examine their own privilege and more likely to assume that the system is fair. However, people from majority groups are not the ones who can properly determine whether a system is fair or not.

Some people who hold these beliefs might say things like, “There are laws that protect people from discrimination, so it doesn’t happen anymore,” or “This is a legal thing, legal people will sort it out.” Laws are often more punitive than preventative, and by the time a company or manager is held accountable for discrimination (if at all), the damage has been done. And it’s important to note that the law does not protect against all kinds of discrimination; businesses today can still legally discriminate against transgender employees without loginviolating federal law.


Further Reading on the Meritocracy Myth

“What about ideological diversity?”

You might also hear someone say, “What about diversity of thought, isn’t that more important than what people look like?” or “Doesn’t my opinion matter anymore?”

The Basics

Ideological diversity (or diversity of thought) is the presence of diverging viewpoints, especially political viewpoints, in a group of people. Measuring ideological diversity can be useful in circumstances where this heterogeneity affects behavior or outcomes.*

It’s hard to look at a definition like that and think “diversity of thought” would be a bad thing. It’s not! Inviting underrepresented people to sit at the table and giving them a microphone brings different viewpoints to an industry that has historically heard only a limited set of ideas in a feedback loop.

It’s important not to conflate ideological diversity with diversity related to the immutable traits that define so much of individuals’ lived experiences. It is also necessary to question the motives of the person who insists that “diversity of thought” has nothing to do with increasing representation in the industry.

‘Diversity of Thought’ should be achieved as a result of diverse representation.Michelle Kim, co-founder and CEO, Awaken*

Going Deeper

caution Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The phrase “diversity of thought” has a history, and that history is racist and misogynistic.* Of course not everyone who’s ever asked the question is operating within those ideologies, but it may help those confused by the difference to learn a bit about how and why the phrase has been used in disingenuous ways to actively counteract D&I efforts within an organization. A notable tech industry example of the “diversity of thought” argument, in fact, comes from James Damore’s infamous manifesto against diversifying Google.*

danger “Ideological diversity” and “diversity of thought” are often used as dog whistles by individuals who have deliberately co-opted the language of diversity and inclusion, placing extreme conservative ideology on equal footing with systemic oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. They express feeling silenced and oppressed for their particular beliefs, a cousin to the idea of “reverse racism.” In this case, “ideological diversity” is a cover for espousing racist or sexist beliefs.

Without assuming anything about the person using these phrases, but still being aware that they may be operating with anti-D&I sentiments, a useful question to ask is whether or not the ideological diversity argument is being used as a way to diminish or dilute the concerns of URGs.

important But also, it is critical to be clear about where you are drawing the line. Your employees should feel free to express their views and beliefs as long as they are not harming others, and the arbiter of harm is the people being impacted. While this may sound unfair, it is the default for everyone who is not part of a majority group. If there were ever a time to say “when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,”* this would be it.

Figure: Tweets on Ideological Diversity

Source: Sarah Mei

Source: Jason Shen

You might also hear, “Isn’t this reverse sexism/racism/-ism?”

In some cases with these kinds of comments, people genuinely want to know what’s allowed and what’s not. But they may also be trying to get around any action the company is proposing, or they might be on the defensive. They may be afraid that their place in the company is at risk.

The Basics

In the U.S., it is illegal to discriminate against an employee on account of certain immutable traits such as their race, color, religion, sex, or age.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a U.S. federal agency, encourages employers to take steps to address barriers to equality in employment. In its Compliance Manual and Guidelines on Affirmative Action, the EEOC specifically notes that employers may engage in efforts “to overcome the effects of past or present practices, policies, or other barriers to equal employment opportunity.”* This may even go as far as establishing quotas for URGs, but employers should be aware that courts may see quotas as evidence of illegal discrimination in a diversity program. Other considerations include “whether the plan is flexible enough so that each candidate competes against all other qualified candidates, whether the plan unnecessarily trammels the interests of third parties, and whether the action is temporary, e.g., not designed to continue after the plan’s goal has been met.”*

For employers seeking to improve diversity, the law specifically carves out at least limited protection to correct manifest imbalances.

Definition Manifest imbalance is a state of affairs in which a protected class is drastically underrepresented in a particular workplace compared to its representation in the employable workforce.

dangerAlways remember to consult an attorney about these sorts of legal questions. Not only are there various restrictions—for example, efforts cannot “trammel on the rights” of members of the majority group*—but this is a developing area of law.*

Going Deeper

It’s possible that this question isn’t asked in earnest, but as a defense mechanism or even a mocking of D&I proposals.

It is a testament to the power of normalization that we do not question the legality of hiring another white man* onto an already predominantly white male team in a predominantly white male industry—we have merely accepted that what exists today is nothing out of the ordinary. However, it is not out of the ordinary to be questioned about the legality of broadening our horizons to consider hiring URGs—this is where you hear folks throw around terms like “reverse-sexism” or “reverse-racism.” But if we take a step back and look at who is and who isn’t on our teams, anyone would be hard pressed to conclude that it is men who are being discriminated against in our industry.

“Our next hire must be diverse.”

When you hear someone say, “Our next hire must be diverse” or “We need to hire five more women and two people of color to have more diversity,” it’s usually said with good intentions. People are trying to be mindful of diversity debt and are determined to not make the problem worse. But this way of looking at D&I may do more harm than good.

The Basics

Talented people of all different backgrounds want to be given a fair opportunity to succeed based on their skills and aptitude. Demanding that your next hire must be a member of one URG or another can lead them to be referred to (or thought of) as the “diversity candidate.”

Going Deeper

First, let’s clarify some language. Saying “our next hire must be diverse” is problematic in part because diverse is a quality of a group and does not describe individual people. This may sound pedantic, but misusing this term has real ramifications, including tokenism, stereotype threat, impostor syndrome, and inequities that affect performance and contribute to the high leave rate among URGs in tech.

If your team has been saying “our next hire must be a woman or person of color,” even if you do end up successfully hiring a stellar URG candidate, they may always wonder whether they wouldn’t have gotten the job otherwise. And so may their colleagues. This may lead to resentment and defensiveness among the rest of your team, especially if you haven’t yet developed a shared understanding around D&I. Likewise, if a hiring manager gets blocked from hiring someone from the majority group, they may perceive the process to be unfair, and hold a grudge against the person who does eventually get hired.

caution Focusing only on outwardly apparent difference limits the scope and effectiveness of any inclusivity program the company might develop, and can itself be discriminatory. Such a focus also neglects to see individuals as their fully complex selves.

“Let’s focus on hiring women first.”

You might also hear, “How do we hire women?”

A common misunderstanding is that one kind of representation equals diversity and that D&I only matters in hiring. An employee or boss who has a more PR-centric approach to D&I might think that because media attention often focuses on gender imbalance, that’s where attention should be paid to avoid earning a bad reputation.

The Basics

This is one of the most common pitfalls for teams starting on diversity and inclusion efforts. Even when well intended, the “women-first” approach may lead to nothing getting tackled at the root cause, and surface-level solutions can actually have the opposite effect of reinforcing existing inequities. For example, the common advice for professional women to “lean in” tends to favor white women and actually punishes women of color who face additional barriers to equity, like being labeled too aggressive. “Hire more women” policies often reinforce the same inequities, where white, wealthy women are the primary beneficiaries.

Going Deeper

Effective D&I is not simply about “checking the boxes” on one demographic, especially because your hiring processes could still be biased against other marginalized groups. In that case, any gains or benefits you see are not likely to be sustainable. To develop hiring policies that support all marginalized people, it’s helpful to use intersectionality as a framework.

Programs that lack an intersectional approach can fall short of achieving the goals of D&I, instead benefitting a single group like white women at the cost of other underrepresented groups.* This can lead to its own diversity debt, continued poor outcomes for many groups, and frustration and fatigue with D&I efforts that are perceived as ineffective.

So when you hear this pitfall, a possible response might be, “Let’s take a more intersectional approach and build a hiring process for not just women but all underrepresented people to thrive.”*

“We don’t have the time or resources to prioritize D&I.”

This comes up a lot, at all levels and stages of a company.

startup At startups you might hear things like, “We don’t have the luxury to focus on this right now” or “There will be time for this later; we have to figure out the business first.” Or with even more urgency, “I’d love to think about diversity, but right now we need someone yesterday.”

If you’re at a larger company, you might hear something like this: “It’s too late for us to build a diverse team.”

The Basics

Many companies still see D&I as a nice-to-have and not an integral ingredient to success. “Diversity fatigue” and the feeling of being overwhelmed are also sources here, for both small and large companies. When people don’t know where to start, they might just decide to give up. Often, a fixation on diversity numbers as the end goal is the culprit.

At the same time, we are seeing how costly diversity debt can be. From founders being ousted,* to loginmillions lost in employee productivity, or talent drains, or lost revenue and costs to the economy, and even the complete collapse of companies, deprioritizing D&I carries significant risk.

When someone voices this concern (or if you’re feeling it yourself!), you might say, “I appreciate that this is a concern. I know how hard this can seem. But we’re not going to focus on perfection here. We can change our goals and redefine success to focus on progress.”

Another tactic is to say, “Let’s consider the costs of inaction.” You can point your employees or bosses to the data on the increased profitability and productivity of diverse teams. But if painting a picture of D&I done well doesn’t motivate people, it might be worth trying the opposite tactic. “We don’t want to be the next Uber” can be surprisingly effective in getting different folks to pay attention. Companies have to consider not only the competitive disadvantage created by not acting, but also the higher risk of incurring an incident that will cost them something tangible—whether it be loginproductivity, shareholder value, or the company itself.

Going Deeper

startup If you’re at a smaller or newer company, one crucial way to gain a competitive edge against other startups and larger companies is by hiring a diverse team and ensuring all of your employees are in it for the long term. The data are conclusive: diverse and inclusive companies have better products, more stability, and higher revenue. When someone says, “We can’t afford this right now,” an appropriate response is: “Can we afford not to?” Remember that the longer you put off D&I efforts, the more diversity debt you rack up, and the harder it is to get started.

Is building a diverse team harder when you’re starting with a larger team? Yes. But there will never be an easier time to start than right now. There is no point of no return. If your team or company has already incurred diversity debt, paying it down won’t happen overnight. But the goal doesn’t have to be achieving perfect parity or representation, especially for large, established teams for whom it will take many years. The goal is to make meaningful progress from wherever your starting point is today. And you can start making improvements by acknowledging blind spots and attempting to better understand the impact of your processes and decisions moving forward. You may wish to review how to set D&I goals. It’s OK to start small if necessary.

Improving D&I in the Hiring Processan hour, 60 links

Jennifer Kim compares underrepresented talent to the canaries in the coalmine— whatever biases exist in your hiring process, certain groups will feel them before others do. But just because they’re the first to notice (and potentially the first to be harmed), doesn’t mean they’ll be the last. Hiring with diversity in mind isn’t just about whom you let in at the top of the funnel—there are many pitfalls throughout the hiring process that can create an unfair or hostile environment. There are also many opportunities in that process for improving diversity and inclusion at your company, for current and future employees. There are a number of straightforward strategies and tactics you can employ as a hiring manager to make sure your team is hiring the best people out there and creating the kind of environment that will make them want to stay.

An important part of hiring with diversity and inclusion in mind is planning ahead. Many companies have an unstructured default where lack of foresight routinely catches them scrambling to fill one-off roles, and recruiting remains a stop-and-go effort.

When faced with constant firefighting, hiring becomes about “Who is available now? Who can we hire easily and quickly?” This is not a favorable environment for an underrepresented candidate. And while there’s nothing wrong with scrambling once in a while to fill an unforeseen business-critical opening, if this is your group’s default strategy, you’ll end up with a team built of those who were easiest for you to hire—those you already know, who were available. To raise the hiring bar, you’ll need to plan your hiring processes in advance. This section will help you do so with a focus on making that process more effective, and more inclusive for everyone.

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