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On diversity

·2117 words·10 mins·
Three tall windows with a view of snow-capped mountains.
Daniel Seßler via Unsplash

️ πŸ‘‹ This post represents my own views on the topic of diversity and it doesn’t represent the views of my employer or any professional group I belong to.

I’ve written a post on diversity and deleted it several times. It remains a sensitive topic for different people for different reasons. My gut feeling is that no matter how you frame a post on diversity, some group of people will be upset about it1.

There was a great speaker who came and spoke to us at my last job and she made an excellent point that I remember today:

Your experiences are yours. Nobody can take them away from you.

Nobody can say that your experiences do not matter.

Nobody can tell you that you didn’t experience what you experienced.

Sharing these experiences with others allows us to grow and understand more about the world around us.

That speech entirely changed my way of thinking about interactions with other people at work and at home. There are two main benefits here:

  • It’s incredibly freeing for someone who has experienced something to be able to share it with others and not be told that their experience was wrong or misguided.
  • It’s also freeing for the listener to take in someone else’s experience and be able to ask clarifying questions so they get a better understanding of how something felt for someone else.

With that in mind, here’s we go with the rest of the post. I’m not deleting it this time.

I promise. πŸ˜‰

My first experience #

I’ve written in the past about my unexpected leap to lead an information security architecture team in a previous role. Being a director was a new world unto itself, but then I found that my team wasn’t performing well. To make matters worse, our success was critical to the ongoing work of the security department as a whole.

We had three members of the team that all brought something unique to the team’s perspective. All three were men of different races, but each had a different approach to security based on their backgrounds and experiences. One left the team due to some interpersonal issues that eventually boiled over.

I was suddenly down to two people and our team needed to hire two as soon as possible.

Recruiting teams started putting feelers out into the market to find talented people and I was poking several friends for referrals. A colleague in another department reached out and really wanted to join the team. I knew about her experience from several previous interactions and she was highly recommended from her peers. She joined the team and hit the ground running.

As applicants began trickling in through the recruiting team, I started with screening calls for each. We really needed someone with skills in a few key areas:

  • Great communicator with empathy
  • Knowledge of secure development and operations practices
  • Someone who could be trusted to operate independently and work on team projects

Most of the applicants I screened were male and that wasn’t a surprise at the time. We brought five through the screening into interviews and it was down to four males and one female. Three of them turned out to be great and they all had deep knowledge of security architecture. After another round of interviews, we began to realize that the female matched the other applicants, but her communication skills were stronger, especially under pressure.

Needless to say, we sent her the offer and she accepted! We were thrilled! Our team was full!

Getting underway #

We began chipping away at the mountain of projects set aside for our team and started making progress. Our new team member was struggling to move from the rigidity of her previous employer to our new way of working, but she adjusted well over time.

I sat down in one of our weekly leadership meetings some time later. These meetings usually involved a round-the-horn of what’s working well for each team, the threats on the board for the next few months, and our plans.

We usually had an attendee from HR in the meetings for various reasons and she asked me how our new team member was doing. I said:

Oh, she’s doing a good job. Her last company was pretty rigid and things are different here, but she’s figuring it out. She knows her stuff and she’s a team player. We’re working through some small things here and there.

Then the HR representative said:

Well, I have to commend you for building out a such a diverse team. It’s much more so than the other teams. That’s really great work and I want to make sure you’re recognized for it.

I smiled and thanked her (because that’s my usual response), but then I almost felt sick.

Different view #

I left that meeting and went back to my desk to think.

Had I assembled a diverse team intentionally? No, I didn’t. I looked for people who had the qualities we desperately needed, gave them guardrails, and got out of the way. That’s what you do with smart people, right?

Then I wondered, “Is my team really diverse?”

  • There were two men and two women.
  • Two were on the younger end of a generation and two were on the older end.
  • One was of mixed Asian descent, one was Hispanic, and two were what most people would likely refer to as “white.”

So maybe my team is diverse.

Then I realized that most of the people on the team had the same certifications, all had at least an undergraduate degree, and all were married. All of them were in heterosexual relationships and all dressed in a way that aligned with their gender.

Does that mean they’re not diverse?

Is my team more or less diverse than other teams?

Does any of this even matter?

Did I do a good or a bad thing?

Diversity challenges #

This brings me to the two problems I struggle with most around diversity, especially when people talk about increasing or improving diversity on their team or within their company:

  1. Quantifying diversity is highly subjective and in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Challenges arise when you apply diversity requirements to real world situations.

I’ll break down both of these now.

In the eye of the beholder #

You can choose how you want to measure diversity on all kinds of factors. Depending on the factors, a team can look more or less diverse. Also, your experiences often define how you judge the diversity of people and teams.

One could argue that a team made up entirely of white males is likely not very diverse. The majority of people would likely agree with that statement.

However, what if those males vary in their sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic status. Is that diverse?

If you have a team of people made up of various genders with various sexual orientations from all contents on the planet, but they all went to Ive League schools and they’re all wealthy – is that diverse?

Are any of these examples diverse enough? Does the answer to that question even matter?

In my experience, assembling a team of people with different backgrounds and approaches to problems is incredibly valuable. That type of diversity led to some incredible innovation in the past.

However, these diverse backgrounds and approaches don’t always line up with differences in gender identity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or other factors. This is why I find it really challenging to quantify the level of diversity within a company or in individual teams.

Rubber meets the road #

There’s a common phrase in English: “when the rubber meets the road.”

In a literal sense, it’s referring to when car tires move on pavement during a race. What it really means is, when it comes time to do something for real and the stakes are high, what happens?

Here’s another example. Let’s say you lead an engineering team that is all males and your company says that diversity must be a priority in hiring decisions.

So you take your job requisition and send it through the recruiting team. They work hard to remove any gender-specific language or anything else that might turn an applicant away. You put the job on the internet, talk to your friends about people they know, and then wait for the responses.

Let’s assume you get ten male applicants.

Do you proceed with screening and interviewing them while you try harder to drum up more female applicants? If a female applicant never appears, do you pause the hiring process while you try to find one? What if your existing applicants find other roles in the meantime and suddenly your applicant pipeline is empty?

Some might say “Yes, of course you wait until you can find a female applicant!” In that case, your team is still short-staffed and likely not performing as well as it could. Would that be good for your customers? How about your shareholders?

Others might say “No, go ahead and complete the hiring process but you should search harder for women for future roles.” In this case, you’ll have a fully staffed team and hopefully be delivering more value quickly. However, you haven’t improved the diversity on your team and that could come back to be a problem if you’re asked about it later.

Go backwards a bit with the same example and assume you get a split of ten applicants: half male and half female. That’s awesome because now you have a diverse talent pool, right?

Here’s where it gets challenging.

If you interview them all and make an offer to the female applicant because she has the skills and qualifications needed, you now have a more diverse team (on one measure) and you’re fully staffed! Great!

If you interview them all and it turns out one of the men has the best skills and qualifications, what do you do? Your company made diversity a priority, but you’re also trying to assemble a strong team.

Do you take a less qualified applicant that improves the team’s diversity?

Or, do you take a more qualified applicant that leaves the team’s diversity unchanged?

This is where diversity breaks down: when you have to really sit down and compare outcomes, there’s not a right answer.

Another viewpoint #

My wife constantly points out things to me that I completely missed and we’ve talked about this topic many times. She has asked me the same thing in the past:

Why do people in your field care so much about getting women into technology? I hate technology. Maybe other women hate technology, too. If I knew I was hired someplace because they wanted a woman for the role and they weren’t looking at how well someone could do the job, I’d be pretty upset.

She’s a medical professional and she’s happy to remind me about this:

I went to PA (physician assistant) school and most people there were women. All the nurses at my office are women. All the front office staff are women. We’re not out there trying to get male nurses or male front office staff in here all the time. We just find people who do their job well and hire them.

Our conversations really make me stop and think.

My goals #

I’d also like to see more people from underrepresented communities across the globe break into the world of technology and really change things. This means empowering a wider array of people with varying gender, education, nationality, wealth, and opportunities to join a field of work which they thought might be inaccessible to them.

This is why I try to volunteer as much as possible to inspire young people of all backgrounds to set goals for themselves and look at the world as if nothing is out of reach.

It’s one of the reasons I write this blog and put everything out there for free. Democratizing access to learning (and my mediocre blog posts) is key to leveling the playing field.

These are some of those pieces of work that are never finished.

However, I really worry that quantifying diversity or forcing one’s definition of diversity onto someone else could lead us to a bad place where no result is satisfactory. It’s much more subjective than some would like to admit and that becomes a problem when you directly apply it to specific situations.

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing these posts, mentoring others, and lifting people up to do things they never imagined they could do. ️β™₯️

  1. Then again, we live in a world where someone can say “Puppies are cute” and the first reply would be “Why do you hate cats so much?” πŸ˜„ ↩︎