Diversity and Inclusion in Tech, Part 1: Foundations, Myths, and Pitfalls
Everything you want to know about D&I in technical hiring but are too afraid to ask.
Jennifer Kim (Inclusion at Work)
Jason Wong (JWong Works)
▪︎ an hour read time
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*
Two experts who have shaped diversity and inclusion strategy at top companies created this deep dive to help technical teams discuss and practice D&I in their hiring: lead author Jennifer Kim is a startup advisor, former Head of People at Lever, and founder of Inclusion At Work, a diversity and inclusion resource; contributing author Jason Wong is a coach and fractional VP of Engineering, formerly a Senior Director at Etsy. Part 1 of their two-part series covers foundational knowledge and how to address common myths and pitfalls. Part 2 covers specific strategies to improve D&I in your hiring process today. Anyone who has questions about D&I will benefit from this series; hiring managers and others involved in hiring technical roles will find it particularly helpful. The series is excerpted from the Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a comprehensive resource assembling the work of over 40 contributors and insights from dozens of interviews with experts.
The tech industry is increasingly powering businesses around the globe, and creating products that dramatically impact people’s lives. And yet, it is an industry that does not reflect the broader population. Women make up 57% of the U.S. workforce as a whole but only 26% of the technical workforce. Black, Latina, and Native American women make up 16% of the U.S. workforce and hold only 4% of tech jobs.* Pay gaps by gender and race persist. While 83% of tech executives are white, only 10% are women.** Asian and Asian American men make up 32% of the tech workforce, but only 20% hold executive positions; while Asian and Asian American women make up 15% of the workforce, they hold only 5% of executive roles in tech.
This paints a picture largely about race and gender (which are the easiest data to collect), but the problem is more pervasive. Harassment and discrimination affect workers based on their caregiver status, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability status.
In a 2017 study, 43% of people in tech worried about losing their jobs due to their age;* in a more recent 2019 study, 80% did.*
The role of bias
The above statistics speak to a much deeper history of systemic bias and discrimination toward people from all these underrepresented groups.
Definition A bias is an inclination in favor of or against a particular person or group based on factors such as race, ethnicity, age, educational prestige, appearance, and so on. As a type of observational error, bias leads to unfair and ineffective outcomes when it affects decision-making. Bias can operate systematically where an individual’s decision-making is persistently affected or on a systemic basis where a process or group dynamic produces biased decisions. Explicit biases (or conscious biases) are inclinations about particular people or groups that an individual has and is aware of. Implicit biases (or unconscious biases) are inclinations based on subconscious associations that influence our decisions without us being aware of them.*
Biases are a kind of mental shortcut; rather than treating everyone as a complex individual, we pick factors by which to group them and assign that group certain expectations, with no evidence that those expectations are borne out in individual behavior. Implicit or unconscious biases are especially difficult to deal with because we don’t know that we have them, and they may even contradict the views we consciously hold. For example, a group of physicians may not consciously believe that Black patients feel less pain than white patients, but nevertheless recommend less pain medication for their Black patients experiencing the same injury as their white patients.*
But there are plenty of conscious biases as well. For example, an overreliance on traditional academic pedigrees when screening for candidates vastly favors people who could afford a costly education and had access to resources and networks as a young person. We cover more biases throughout this section to help raise awareness and to provide practical suggestions on how to discuss and combat them in your organization.
Systemic bias and discrimination are a broad problem that affects not just recruiting and hiring, but also people’s willingness to remain in a given industry that does not represent them or treat them fairly. The Kapor Center’s landmark Tech Leavers Study reported in 2017 that nearly 40% of people who left the tech industry cited “unfairness or mistreatment” as the major reason they left, with men of color the most likely to leave due to mistreatment; 78% reported having experienced unfair treatment. In 2016, the departure rate for women was 41%—more than twice that of men, which was 17%.*
Underrepresented men and women of color experience stereotyping at twice the rate of their white and Asian peers, while LGBTQ+ tech leavers report bullying and public humiliation at significantly higher rates than other underrepresented groups. However, 62% of tech leavers said they would have stayed had their employer made efforts to create a more inclusive work environment.
Along with the negative consequences for candidates and employees, homogeneous and inequitable, unfair work environments also pose significant risks to organizations.* The Tech Leavers Study concluded that the industry stands to lose more than $16B per year in employee replacement costs.* Companies also may face backlash and negative brand associations for not dealing with potentially harmful features and unforeseen consequences of their products.*** For example, Facebook’s “real name” policy—which failed to realize the importance of privacy concerns of people from marginalized groups—was so controversial there’s an extensive Wikipedia page about it. When Twitter was in the running for acquisition, a number of potential buyers apparently balked at the company’s inability to deal with the harassment issues on its platform.
I observed a company of mostly white, affluent iPhone users delay shipping on Android because Android users reportedly earn less money, and later regretting the choice after discovering their Android users are more engaged. I’ve watched helplessly as another company used the data they collected on users in discriminatory ways, which not only erodes users’ trust but also the trust of the employees who have been subject to discrimination in their lives. If these teams were more diverse, especially among the leadership, I doubt the same choices would have been made.Leighton Wallace, engineer*
A dearth of diversity doesn’t just limit the number of innovative products companies can produce and the markets they can reach—it also poses serious risks to underrepresented populations. In 2015, Google was called out for racist image search results, a problem it has not solved. A recent study from the University of Georgia found that the technology used by self-driving cars may detect dark-skinned pedestrians less effectively than light-skinned ones. As Vox reports, this kind of “algorithmic bias” results from many factors, including sources of training data and homogenous technical research and product development teams. This has implications both for the kinds of tools and products we use as consumers and for the work environment of the people at those companies, as much as it impacts those companies’ ability to innovate and drive change.
Benefits and opportunities
Anyone who owns a company or runs a hiring process has the power to help bridge the opportunity gap that has been created through years of institutional discrimination of marginalized groups. There are also countless advantages—to your company, to candidates, to your industry, and to your customers—to embracing and supporting diversity. The rules of business-building have changed. Building a technical product today requires enormous adaptability, creativity, and global reach—all of which improves with diversity.*
Research extensively and consistently bears out that diversity positively correlates to better financial performance.*McKinsey has conducted some of the most robust, oft-cited studies on a direct correlation of diversity and better business outcomes. Among their findings: “Gender-diverse companies are 21% more likely to have better financial performance. Ethnically diverse companies are 33% more likely to financially outperform their counterparts.” A 2013 report by Harvard Business Review found that companies that had more diverse workforces were “45% likelier to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.”* Researchers also found that more diverse companies announced, on average, two more products a year.*
In addition to correlational studies, diversity seems to have a causal relationship with innovation. Numerous psychology studies have shown that diverse teams shine a light on organizational blindspots, solve problems faster, and are more creative.** Diverse teams have the ability to see and solve problems that might otherwise be missed or mysterious, and increase returns for the business by doing so. In early 2019, Pinterest released a widely applauded inclusive search feature. Development was driven in large part by feedback from employees and diverse members of their customer base who were looking for beauty tips for a wide range of skin tones. When it comes to the business argument, the research is conclusive: diverse teams are more productive and effective at making decisions,* and diversity is markedly better for a company’s bottom line.
Finally, as a recruiter or hiring manager, expanding your hiring pool gives you an advantage in an increasingly competitive market. When you’re no longer competing with Google and Facebook for the same set of people, you have the opportunity to find more candidates in general, adding volume along with diversity to the top of your hiring funnel.
Whatever your role in recruiting and hiring, diversity and inclusion present a complex, multifaceted challenge. The goal of this section is to provide enough background and perspective that you understand the issues, can have thoughtful conversations with anyone else involved, and can make an impact on your company’s hiring processes. This is a difficult and nuanced subject to tackle, so we’ll start with the basics (what is D&I?), and then move on to cover many of the myths and pitfalls you may encounter along the way. Finally, we provide practical tactics you can implement at your organization to improve the hiring process for everyone involved.
contribute Coverage of D&I is always changing. Questions and suggestions will help us improve this section and keep it up to date.
Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.Verna Myers*
Diversity and Inclusion (or D&I) is an approach taken by organizations to building diverse teams and promoting an inclusive workplace, in order to set underrepresented groups up for success. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Diversity & Belonging, and other variations are also common.
Understanding the differences between diversity and inclusion is essential, because both are necessary to building and fostering a workplace where all employees can thrive. As noted earlier, diverse teams perform better and contribute to longer-lasting, more successful companies. But having a demographically diverse team does not automatically lead to these benefits. It’s not possible to reap the benefits of diversity without inclusive practices.
Diversity is a condition of reflecting demographic differences in a group of people. Elements of diversity include age, caregiver status, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, immigration status, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background.
importantIn the U.S., diversity is often a shorthand for “women and people of color,” as these are two of the most visible dimensions of diversity. But it actually includes all of the factors listed above, and more.
confusion The term diverse describes differences present in a group; therefore individuals cannot be diverse. Referring to an individual as diverse (as in, “a diverse candidate”) can put people from underrepresented backgrounds in a disempowering, “other” position. It can lead team members to think of certain candidates as “diversity candidates,” and certain new team members as “diversity hires.” It also is often used as a synonym for person of color (POC), centering “the social construct of whiteness as the normal, the axis we all move around.”*
Inclusion is the process of creating an environment that supports and encourages all employees, giving particular attention to and elevating the voices of those from underrepresented backgrounds. Inclusive processes and policies, such as eliminating vague “culture fit” interview questions and offering parental leave, address structural barriers to employees’ success.
Diversity means increasing the representation of people from marginalized backgrounds at all levels and across all functional areas of the company. Inclusion means building policies, procedures, communication channels, and compensation policies where everyone is a full participant in the structure of your company. Not enough of one or the other, and the true benefit of a diverse workforce will never be reached.Nicole Sanchez, D&I strategy consultant*
Underrepresented groups (or URGs) are groups of people who make up a smaller percentage in an organization than they do in the overall population. The term can be used to refer either to the groups themselves or to individuals who belong to those groups.
confusionAs with much of the language on this topic, the language for describing underrepresented groups is shifting in real time. You may also see the term underrepresented minorities (URMs) used elsewhere, but this Guide will use underrepresented groups (URGs) throughout because we think it is the most accurate and up-to-date description available.*
There’s plenty of research that shows that diversity without inclusion doesn’t work. In 2015, Rachel Thomas wrote a post summarizing the available research and discussing many of the same problems we explore here. Thomas emphasizes that progress toward equity is possible when diversity and inclusion issues are both addressed, and that progress requires the involvement of everyone, especially white men and those in leadership roles. Notable among her examples were efforts at both Harvey Mudd College and Harvard Business School that increased the percentages of women in their programs after making a number of comprehensive, structural changes, focusing not just on recruiting but on making the student environment more welcoming and inclusive for everyone.
A few other key concepts round out the general understanding of diversity and inclusion.
DefinitionIntersectionality is a prism through which to understand the interconnectedness of social categorizations, which creates overlapping and compounding systems of oppression in society. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in a 1989 article discussing the particular challenges faced by Black women in the workplace.*
As Crenshaw described in a 2016 TED talk, she was inspired to give intersectionality a name by the case of a Black woman who was turned down for a job at a manufacturing plant. When she brought a lawsuit against the plant, her case was dismissed. The judge pointed to the fact that the employer hired both Black people and women. However, the Black people the plant hired were all men, and the women it hired were all white. Moreover, both groups were hired for work associated with racial and gendered stereotypes: the Black men were hired for industrial work and the white women were hired for secretarial work. Crenshaw concluded, “Only if the court was able to see how these policies came together would he be able to see the double discrimination that [the Black woman] was facing.”
Tokenism is the practice of hiring or appointing a small number of people from underrepresented groups to deflect criticism that a team lacks diversity. Efforts to fill roles in this way are perfunctory and symbolic.
Tokenism is a harmful practice that creates further barriers to the success of individuals from underrepresented groups, distorts the aims and intentions of D&I efforts, and perpetuates the notion that promoting diversity means lowering the hiring bar.
Whether you work at a large company with a robust hiring processes already in place or you’re a startup founder figuring out how to make your first technical hires, it’s never too early to start thinking critically about diversity in hiring. You may be approaching this feeling out of depth and anxious—“I know it’s a problem, but who am I to help solve it?” Or maybe you’re thinking, “It seems like someone else’s job.” Or maybe you’ve seen past efforts to incorporate diversity and inclusion into hiring practices fail.
important The principles behind effective recruiting with diversity in mind are the same as great recruiting, period. Lack of diversity in an organization signals a need for better recruiting practices. Hiring with diversity in mind is the most effective way to find and recruit talent to your team, because it will help you build a process that’s better for everyone, while building toward a workplace that makes employees want to stay.
story “In 2015, the engineers of the still small, 25-person Lever team voiced their gripe about the hiring process. As was the norm at the time, our interviews were primarily focused on evaluating technical skills. Some of the veteran engineers started saying, ‘If I were a candidate now, I don’t know if I could pass our technical screens.’ Hearing this from some of my most tenured, productive colleagues worried me. Behind their concern about the difficulty of the technical screen, I could hear their thinking: ‘Am I valued here? Do I get considered as a full person, or just a code monkey?’ If it were true that these employees couldn’t pass our screen, what other great candidates might we be missing out on, and how would we even know it? We gradually improved our process, moving away from a sole focus on technical skills. We added an interview that focuses on communication, collaboration, and personal motivations. We doubled-down on interviewer training. We aimed to deliver a great experience for every single candidate, so that even rejected candidates ended up referring us to their friends.* A couple of years later, these changes to our process resulted in gender parity across the company of 100+ people, 42% in technical roles, and significant representation of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ employees, as well as parents and caregivers, and a more supportive environment for everyone. The motivation wasn’t, ‘Let’s build a diverse team’; it was ‘Let’s improve our process, because something’s broken here.’” —Jennifer Kim
D&I is not like a new feature you can simply add to your existing platform. It will most likely require re-architecturing your system. Increasing focus on D&I is more akin to going from a monolith to microservices than adding a new text box to a user profile page. But there are strategies to get you started.
It’s not just a pipeline problem
Every part of the tech ecosystem, from education through the hiring processes and the culture of companies, affects overall representation in the industry. And yet, tech companies often mark the “pipeline” as the biggest impediment to increasing diversity. This often manifests in a few different concerns:
Not enough underrepresented candidates apply for tech jobs.
Not enough underrepresented people graduate with STEM degrees.
Underrepresented people are not interested in STEM or in tech jobs.
There’s a lot going on here. There is no evidence that certain people are simply not interested in tech. But more notably, research indicates that the idea that certain people aren’t interested is dangerous. Stereotype threat influences performance in STEM at a young age, particularly for women.
DefinitionStereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon that affects individuals’ performance when they are reminded of negative ideas about groups to which they belong or are perceived to belong.** Researchers are still discussing the exact ways that stereotype threat causes underperformance, but hypothesized causes include extra pressure to succeed in the face of negative stereotypes, negative stereotypes threatening self-integrity and belonging, and individuals subconsciously conforming to stereotypes.*
The seminal 1995 study on the topic found that “making African American participants vulnerable to judgment by negative stereotypes about their group’s intellectual ability depressed their standardized test performance relative to [white] participants.” Even asking participants to record their race had this effect. However, Black participants’ performance matched white participants’ when the study designers removed these reminders of group identification and stereotype.*
In the tech industry, stereotype threat can affect individuals from underrepresented groups on the basis of negative perceptions about those groups’ performance in STEM. For example, women report that the negative stereotypes about them being bad at math, not belonging on a developer team, and so on, hurt their job performance in STEM roles.*
Among other things, this can lead women to feel isolated, suffer from imposter syndrome, and work longer hours to demonstrate their worth, which in turn can lead to burnout*—all of which are factors that contribute to them leaving tech in larger numbers.
Stereotype threat may hurt underrepresented groups in the recruiting process, especially when elements of the process, such as being confronted with non-diverse interview teams, draw their attention to the stereotypes against their groups.*
When it comes to the number of underrepresented people graduating with STEM degrees, Forbes reported that access to STEM programs early in education, rather than lack of interest, affects the number of these folks who choose degrees in the field:
“When looking at the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds taking AP computer science courses in the state of California, Black and Hispanic students make up 60% of California’s student population, yet only 16% of the population taking AP computer science courses. These underrepresented groups are also less likely to have access to and exposure to computer science at home and elsewhere. These students often do not have role models that look like them in the computer science field.”*
While 53.3% of men with STEM degrees are employed in STEM within two years, 41.4% of women are.* However, STEM is a broad field, and it can help to look more deeply at these numbers: engineering specifically employs 14% women, up just 2% since 1990, according to Pew.* The same study shows that the representation of Black engineers has risen 2% since 1990, from 7% to 9%, and Hispanic representation has risen 3%, from 4% to 7%. Compared to those groups’ representation in the U.S. workforce as a whole, and their graduation rates with STEM degrees, they are vastly underrepresented in tech, while whites and Asians are overrepresented.*
Lack of representation is a big problem for underrepresented people at every stage of their education and careers. If your company or team is homogenous, they are less likely to apply and more likely to drop out of the field due to unfairness and isolation. The “leaky pipeline” is often seen as the bigger problem; the number of underrepresented people leaving tech affects representation overall.
Any student of color looking at the numbers from the tech giants is going to be turned off and wary about taking a job there because it tells you something about what the climate is. They don’t want to be the token.Maya A. Beasley,* sociologist and author of Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite
With more people of all backgrounds earning degrees in tech, and representation in tech jobs staying relatively stagnant, how companies design the pipeline itself is one of the biggest issues. Overreliance on requirements like four-year degrees from the same few top schools, and on referrals from current employees, limits the number and kind of people considered “qualified” for technical roles. D&I can be approved by analyzing role requirements, improving other areas of the job description, honing your company’s value proposition, and changing how your company talks about and characterizes its current make-up and D&I efforts.
Having a narrow definition of what great technical talent looks like makes hiring needlessly difficult. If you can break out of the traditional mold of hiring—based on pedigree, network, and traditional credentialing—you dramatically expand your pool of qualified candidates. This can give your company leverage in the hiring market,* where there are more open positions than there are engineers to fill them.
Not only does hiring with diversity in mind allow you to escape the escalating bidding wars for the Stanford-educated engineers or Google alumni, it’s also an approach that leads to a better hiring process for all candidates. Actively designing for fairness and mitigating biases against underrepresented people makes for a more equitable process in general.
Talking about the pipeline myth
important The pipeline myth often comes up because teams have talked about diversity but haven’t meaningfully changed their recruiting practices or focused on retainingURGs. One reason people are resistant to moving beyond diversity in their hiring is that diversity is easy to measure, but assessing inclusion is much trickier.
Humans fixate on the idea that diversity is mostly a hiring problem for a number of reasons. First, it’s difficult to perceive the ways in which we are programmed by systemic racism and sexism—so we say it must be an issue with the pipeline instead. Second, we are each the hero in our own story, and the work it takes to de-center ourselves and understand how we are complicit in perpetuating the norm is not something we’re good at. We’d rather look at the mechanics and blame the machine, without understanding who built it in the first place and who maintains it.Jason Wong
In some ways, the focus on the pipeline can distract from the larger context of D&I. Getting URGs in the door isn’t effective when you’re not welcoming them to an environment in which they want to stay. People in leadership positions often insist on focusing just on increasing the number of URG candidates that move through the pipeline, even though those efforts have not resulted in better hiring policies or a more equitable environment in tech.
It can be hard to convince people that there is more going on.
story “A VC recently asked me how they can help their portfolio companies ‘hire more diversity.’ I encouraged thinking more holistically, such as exploring how leaders can build a more inclusive organization and make thoughtful improvements to their hiring process. They got frustrated and cut me off, ‘No, no, you’re describing culture, which is step 2. I need step 1, hiring. Tell me what job boards to post in.’ I replied, ‘Given the reality of the talent market, what you think is step 2 is actually step 1. Job seekers in tech have a lot of options. You can’t do the lazy thing and expect to be successful. This is the case for top talent, but especially so for people from underrepresented backgrounds.’” —Jennifer Kim
caution Many companies mistakenly believe that they can magically hire a certain number of URGs, upon which, the work will be done, and the “problem” will have been “fixed.” This is in part due to the fact that companies disproportionately expect URGs to take on the work of diversity and inclusion.
story “One of the implications of a D&I program that only focuses on hiring is ‘we don’t know how to fix D&I, but if we hire enough URGs, they will know,‘ which—either intentionally or not—places the burden of fixing a noninclusive or even hostile environment directly on the people most impacted by it.” —Ryn Daniels, HashiCorp
In trying to shift this at your own company, when talking with people who are focused on hiring at the expense of inclusion, it’s helpful to recognize that it can be daunting to feel like you’re starting a step beyond where you’re at. Tackling the pipeline myth requires a mindset shift—it’s less about what the company “gets” (hiring more URGs) and more about how everyone benefits from having a more welcoming, inclusive work environment. It is best to consider this an ongoing conversation, and to explain to resistant folks that companies need to commit to changing how they source candidates and put effort into creating a more inclusive work environment. Once people get over this initial hurdle, further improvements are much easier to make.
This list from Matt Krentz and colleagues highlights that inclusion efforts are consistently ranked more important than traditional diversity measures by both URGs and white men:
Avoiding diversity debt
startup 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 they’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 “the one startup debt you can’t pay back.” Homebrew, an early-stage VC, strongly encourages founders to start thinking about diversity early. We suggest reading their “Diversity at Startups” guide if you’re currently a founder or early employee.
If your engineering team is five people, most candidates from underrepresented backgrounds won’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 it—whiteness conveys privilege, maleness conveys privilege, ability conveys privilege, and so on—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, “What do you want from me?” or “This isn’t my problem.” People who are not directly affected by inequity or don’t see it in their daily lives often don’t understand or accept that others have to work harder while facing discrimination, harassment, threats, or worse. When this is the case, people don’t always feel like doing something about a problem they don’t see—one they may not even believe is real. They may think this work should be relegated to those directly affected by bias and discrimination.
On the other hand, you might hear someone say, “I’m just a white dude. How can I help?” They’re saying that they really don’t feel prepared to address what they understand to be a deep and major issue, and they want to know where to start.
important When it comes to moving the needle on D&I, cisgender white men have an outsized impact on bringing about change. While they may not realize it, a vote of confidence or reaffirmation of belonging from someone in this group carries more influence than from anyone else. This is true at every level of your organization, from your C-suite down to your most junior employee.
When someone expresses that they don’t know what to do, or that they don’t feel that doing anything is their responsibility, it helps to frame the situation as benefiting everyone. Even though it may not seem like it, everyone is affected by bias and discrimination. When members of a team don’t feel supported or included, everyone’s work suffers, and so do the people they see every day. Eventually, those people are going to leave too. If candidates you’re trying to get to join the team don’t feel supported or included, they’re going to choose another company. By contrast, in a productive environment, everyone wants to make the team better, and that means supporting the needs of teammates and all of your candidates.
Being an ally
An ally is an individual who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of someone who does not have that same privilege. Anyone can be an ally—a member of the majority group contributing to inclusion work, a white woman to women of color, a cisgender person to transgender people, an able-bodied person to people with disabilities, and so on. Allyship is the process of acting as an ally. Because it is a process, rather than a conclusion, allyship requires ongoing learning, development, and effort from the privileged individual.
confusionTo highlight the importance of taking action, some prefer terms like accomplice to the term ally.*
Allyship is key because D&I is often misunderstood to be “a women’s issue” or “just for minorities to do something about,” failing to take into account the fact that D&I leads to better outcomes for everyone. One of the markers of effective D&I is when privileged allies start taking up the cause because they see themselves as part of the larger community.
caution Being an ally is a practice—something you do every day to support underrepresented people. Doing research and unpacking your own privilege is part of the work. It is not about getting praise for being a savior or fixing other people’s problems for them. And, like any new skill, you won’t get it right the first time.
Allyship behaviors include self-education, maintaining awareness of the issues that affect the day-to-day lives of the URGs in your organization, and amplification and endorsement of the achievements and concerns brought forward by underrepresented groups in their organization. In practice, these are small everyday actions like ensuring the voices of URGs are heard in meetings, affirming the technical difficulty of a completed project, or speaking up when witnessing discriminatory or exclusionary behavior. Allyship requires an ability to center the experiences of those impacted, rather than majority group experiences—including providing help and support in the ways that URGs have indicated they would like to receive it.
storyA good starting point is to find ways to listen to URGs. Allies can do this through diversifying who they follow on social media,* joining online groups or Slack channels where diversity and inclusion issues are discussed, or attending a D&I meetup in their local area. Learn how to participate in conversations without speaking—learn how to listen. When you hear something you disagree with, don’t automatically gear up for an argument, just make a note about it and keep listening. When you hear something that you object to or that runs counter to your intuition and experiences, don’t hop into the fray, don’t go ask the URGs in your network to explain it. Do the work to educate yourself. Get curious and Google it. The point of this is not to change your opinion or convince you of one perspective or the other. You’re learning how to de-center yourself and work toward an awareness of the issues that affect URGs. The goal is to develop an ability to recognize the moments in your day when an inequity happens so that you can take action to correct it. More often than not, that action will be nothing more than a small kindness—redirecting the conversation back to someone who was cut off, ensuring work was properly attributed, providing a public endorsement, inviting someone to participate in a meeting. —Jason Wong
important When it comes to hiring, steps you can take include listening for biased statements like, “She was too aggressive”; intervening when a hiring panel suggests adding on additional evaluation tests for URGs that no other candidate was subjected to; and trying to help candidates succeed.
dangerAllyship is especially critical because research has shown that underrepresented groups are often penalized in the workplace for promoting diversity. It’s people from marginalized backgrounds who can see the ways the system fails them, but they often lack the power to make changes without taking on significant risk. Gaslighting, retaliation, and labeling (like being called a “troublemaker”) are common.
Allyship acknowledges that it is risky for URGs to help each other. In a recent study, participants were asked to rate a fictitious manager’s competence in hiring decisions after reading a description of a hiring decision and being shown a photo of the manager that revealed their race and gender. They found the following:
“Participants rated nonwhite managers and female managers as less effective when they hired a nonwhite or female job candidate instead of a white male candidate. It didn’t matter whether white male managers chose to hire a white male, white female, nonwhite male, or nonwhite female—there was no difference in how participants rated their competence and performance. Basically, all managers were judged harshly if they hired someone who looked like them, unless they were a white male.”*
In addition to being risky, diversity and inclusion work often falls into a category of work with no promotion track and is handed off as a set of responsibilities on top of someone’s primary job. It is neither fair nor effective to ask people disadvantaged by the system—people who are historically underpaid relative to their white male peers—to be the ones charged with the bulk of the effort to fix that system. Success in building a diverse team requires allies to help shoulder the burden.
story“At my last startup, some of the biggest champions of diversity were cisgender white male engineers, especially because many had been so used to homogeneity of technical teams. They said, ‘It’s just so much better here—there’s a real culture around collaboration and thoughtful communication; I feel like we’re better at supporting learning and making mistakes better here.’ Having experienced the benefits of a diverse team firsthand, they said it’s something they would prioritize in future job searches. In the meantime, they wanted to know how they could use their privilege to help me and the rest of the team with diversity efforts. I felt like they were really getting it, that at the end of the day, it’s really about becoming better humans, not just more effective employees.” —Jennifer Kim
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.
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 Elliot-McCrea, former Etsy CTO*
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
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:
What ways have you communicated the benefits of working with folks from different backgrounds?
Have you defined what successful hiring is to your organization?
How are you educating your team about fair and equitable interviewing and evaluation techniques?*
What are you doing to make your organization attractive and welcoming to underrepresented groups?*
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.”
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.*
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.
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 federallaw.
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?”
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*
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.
“Is it legal to consider race and gender in hiring?”
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.
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.
DefinitionManifest 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.*
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.