I went to a two-day “D&I workshop for leaders”. Many in biz will know what that stands for: Diversity and Inclusion. The people facilitating were WMFDP, which stands for “White Men as Full Diversity Partners”. Having said that, only one of the two was a white man, and the audience was more gender-diverse than the high-tech norm. Everyone was senior, there were lots of VPs in the room. It had a strong effect on me.

Truths · In the technology space, we suck at diversity. We’re broadly better than average at LGBTQ, probably not far off the mainstream at Under-Represented Minorities, and terrible at gender. Tech leadership is by and large aware of the problem, takes it seriously, and would be very happy if there were a lever they could pull to fix it. They are investing considerable energy, including a nontrivial amount of leadership time, a very scarce resource.

Reportage · I’ve been trying for weeks to figure out my take on the workshop, turn it into a nice narrative with a story arc and Big Lessons. That hasn’t worked. But when I went back to review my notes I found a few really resonated. So what the hell, here are the ones I think worth reading. Draw your own conclusions.

Some of these are what the facilitators were saying. Some of them are quotes from other people. Some are me talking to myself. They start out pretty business-y but get personal.

  1. We were trying to close a $100M deal, and the customer wanted to see our D&I numbers, including diversity among our suppliers.

  2. In hiring, look for “Returnees”, people who’ve taken a break and want to come back to work. In practical terms, these are almost all women who’ve been doing family caregiving.

  3. Shortening the list of qualifications in job postings can be useful, because of men’s propensity to be aspirational in describing their qualifications.

  4. When we get women into the interview process, we hire them at the same rate as men. So we need to interview more.

  5. I am the tech business. I’ve had all the jobs, done all the things. If a diverse population doesn’t want to join it, I’m what they don’t want to join.

  6. If you look at the Fortune 500’s diversity programs, they’re basically all led by women. So we’re asking the outsider group to do all the work of fixing the discrimination against them. A few white guys running some of these things might not be a terrible thing. There’s a parallel with husbands who say they’re happy to help at home but ask their wives to do all the hard emotional/logistical work.

  7. The evidence of bias and anti-diversity prejudice is statistically overwhelming, no matter how many individual leaders deny having it.

  8. Men will remain indifferent unless they perceive they will benefit from D&I.

  9. In tech, the bias is present and measurable, but is rarely explicit or intentional, and the people who empirically must be responsible will hotly deny being part of the problem. (But maybe less so based on attendance at this exercise?)

  10. People don’t know how to talk about it. Talking about it is difficult, and that’s OK.

  11. Short meetings are a form of discrimination — shy people don’t get words in.

  12. This black guy in the sales organization, super senior and successful, says “I haven’t told anybody, but I’ve been keeping count, in meetings, of black people among the customers at my level. Still haven’t got to ten.”

  13. “Insider culture” — individualism — low tolerance for uncertainty — action vs reflection — rationality over emotion — time is linear and future-focused — status and rank win over correctness.

  14. The ultimate privilege is being listened to.

  15. When I mentor people, should I encourage them to be more like me?

  16. Who should be teaching about male privilege? Ideally not always women.

  17. Women say they have to do a lot more thinking before they get their clothes on and walk out the door.

  18. So disappointed at the times I’ve heard “I’m used to it.”

  19. Insiders are identified as individuals, not as members of a group.

  20. It’s totally reasonable for outsiders to see me as “just another white guy”.

  21. It’s not my fault but I’m responsible.

A conversation · In one of the exercises, we were in smallish groups and were asked: “Everyone look inside themselves and find a dimension along which you’re an outsider. Say a few words on what that is and how you feel about it.” Well… I came up empty, and said so. I’m white, male, live in the nation where I was born, straight, able-bodied, well-paid, lucky, and have mainstream tastes.

There was a short uneasy silence. Then this smart, polished, accomplished, person who unlike me is not an insider-on-every-axis looked me in the eye and said “So, why are you here?” The honest truth is I’m really freaking sick of spending all my time in rooms full of men, so I said that but it felt unsatisfactory. I looked for something deeper to say but came up empty.

My crazy idea · I think we in big tech companies should publicly face down our problems, starting with the worst ones. To start with, I’d like us to disclose the actual gender-diversity numbers in our engineering organizations and take a public goal of changing them, say by 5% over a couple of years, and then disclose the results.

Because here’s the thing: The people in the management ranks in big tech are, by and large, pretty smart and resourceful. Tell them they’re going to be judged on any given number, and they’ll figure out a way to move that number in the right direction.

“It’s not my fault but I’m responsible.”



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Rich Sands (Feb 09 2019, at 16:25)

How about a bolder idea. As long as diversity takes a back seat to more traditional results like profit, this problem will be unsolved. Truth: there are fewer qualified minorities to do the work than white guys. Just how it is after our history. If you hire less qualified people, results won’t be as good. Until companies either tell shareholders “tough nuts, we are going to sacrifice financial results - your money - to social goals” or are forced to by regulation, minorities will never have real opportunity, We need affirmative action in hiring over generations of time to overcome entrenched discrimination. Anything less is unlikely to work.

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From: John Roth (Feb 09 2019, at 17:24)

There's actually a fix for # 11. While it's part of a larger system, the gist is pretty simple: The presenter gets to present with NO interruptions. Then the facilitator (manager, whoever is running the meeting) calls on each attendee in some order (I'd suggest randomizing it at the beginning of the meeting). The first round is for clarifications. No criticisms, no suggestions. It continues until nobody else wants to talk when called on. The second round is for criticism, the third is for suggestions to resolve the criticisms. Same protocol: the facilitator calls on people in whatever order; the round continues until everyone passes.

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From: Anonymous (Feb 10 2019, at 00:21)

Tim, this did touch a nerve. I really love most Amazon Leadership Principles, but there is a glaring omission of any mention of collaboration. I believe this impacts women more then men!

Women tend to be more collaboration oriented. Adding this leadership principal would be a huge step towards creating a much more suitable place for women to thrive. e.g. at Salesforce they have their Ohana (family).

As you know Amazon LPs are taken seriously inside the company. All performance and promo evaluations are tied directly to LPs. So, if there was room to reward people who foster collaboration and coach those who kill it, I believe it would make material difference.

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From: Fazal Majid (Feb 10 2019, at 01:50)

@Rich Sands

20% of engineering undergrads are women, but only 13% of the engineering workforce (https://news.mit.edu/2016/why-do-women-leave-engineering-0615). There is no reason to assume those women are less qualified than their male cohorts, and if they are hired at the same rate, the problem is one of retention, because they are not treated the same as the good old boys.

That also partially explains the low 20% ratio at university, which has actually worsened in the last 40 years—if it is well-known that women won't be given the same breaks as men, it's only rational for them to opt instead for other majors that have less bias, like medicine.

The fact tech companies are still squandering 10% of their talent at a time when competition for talent is cut-throat, at least in the Bay Area, shows how entrenched bias and discrimination is from both peers and managers.

I don't know how much maternity leaves account for the 20% vs. 13%. If it is a high proportion, the answer is requiring employers to provide free childcare, as is the case in many European countries.

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From: Rob (Feb 10 2019, at 09:37)

Almost everything can be explained by the dire and highly related phenomena of the Peter Principle & the Dunning-Kruger effect. Hiring people, and promoting people, is actually insanely difficult.

Its pretty clear-- nobody actually knows how to do it. All the super fantastic secret sauce systems with weird tests and psych games companies use (tech is just the latest iteration of this, corporations have been cargo-culting in this area for a VERY long time), the research pretty convincingly shows, produce results that are not much different than random chance; that is, when they don't result in a marked tendency to select for psychopaths (psychopaths LOVE gaming systems).

From an evidence based point of view, there is only one proven way to get better organizational diversity: C-Suite diversity, and to a degree line management diversity. It isn't perfect, it isn't guaranteed, it isn't totally unproblematic, but there it is.

b-b-b-but! Howabout recruiting brilliance and selecting for the best and yadayadayada? Um, tech is turning out to be a fairly inherently monopolistic industry, Peter Thiel is absolutely correct. Forget all that free-market/libertarian/neo-con moonshine, it don't apply. Monopolies don't need brilliance and risk taking, they need stability and quality assurance. ie fewer psychopaths and more 9-5 moms.

"Disrupting" and "Moving Fast & Breaking Things" and so on usually results in Enrons and Bear Stearns and BCCI (or Theranos for that matter, yes women CAN play with the big boys). (I can see FaceBook joining that list in the not too distant future.)

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From: Doug K (Feb 11 2019, at 16:32)

"If you look at the For­tune 500’s di­ver­si­ty pro­gram­s, they’re ba­si­cal­ly all led by wom­en. So we’re ask­ing the out­sider group to do all the work of fix­ing the dis­crim­i­na­tion against them."

-

As a woman in tech once observed on her weblog, now sadly gone,

"I think it’s going to do more for everyone if the house is cleaned up

first, before inviting more women over and asking them to clean it up."

I started working in IT in the 80s. In those days half the professors in my CS graduate school were women, and slightly more than half our class. In the workplace the same proportions held. It was a much much pleasanter place to work than IT today, which has a remarkable number of toxic asses fouling up the place. There's nothing inherent in tech that makes it hostile to women or minorities. That is a problem of culture. The pipeline isn't the problem.

Two things I saw happening in the 80s that turned the workplace toxic:

1. home PCs and video gaming, marketed to boys exclusively.

2. IT/CS became a place where fortunes could be made. This attracts a different character from the geeks who just like to code, and creates a brutally competitive environment.

With Github it is in fact possible to have blind auditions for programmers. Guess what, turns out to be the same as blind auditions for musicians – seem to be a lot more good women once the gender bias is disarmed. How odd.

https://news.ncsu.edu/2017/05/gender-bias-in-programming-2017/

“Programmers who could easily be identified as women based on their names or profile pictures had lower pull request acceptance rates (58 percent) than users who could be identified as men (61 percent). But woman programmers who had gender neutral profiles had higher acceptance rates (70 percent) than any other group, including men with gender neutral profiles (65 percent).

78.7 percent of women’s pull requests were accepted, compared to 74.6 percent for men.”

It’s certainly not a pipeline problem either. As Fazal mentioned, there are more CS women and minority graduates entering the workforce than are getting hired. This includes graduates from the highly competitive universities where the tech companies do all their recruiting – MIT, Stanford, Harvey Mudd, etcetera.

These statistics are quite simple.

From 2014,

https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/10/12/silicon-valley-diversity-tech-hiring-computer-science-graduates-african-american-hispanic/14684211/

From 2017,

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2017/08/facebook_s_employee_diversity_numbers_are_not_a_pipeline_problem.html

Every time a study of this kind is done, the results are the same.

We are forced to conclude that the gender/minority disparity in tech is due to rancid dimwit techbros like James Damore, and the hostility they engender towards women and minorities. In my experience women in tech tend to be 2-3x better than the men – they have to be in order to survive.

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From: Tim Converse (Feb 14 2019, at 23:07)

Tim --- It's interesting that you racked your brains and couldn't think of an outsider dimension for yourself, because I can think of an outsider dimension that I share with you:

Age, as a worker in a tech company. Especially, age, as a worker in a tech company that still does hands-on technical work. (I don't any longer, and I think I'm just barely younger than you.)

Maybe you're correctly overwhelmed by all the other dimensions along which you are insider and/or fortunate (all of which I share). But surely there must be times where you sense that you are the other, for this reason only.

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From: Rob (Feb 18 2019, at 07:03)

Here's a fascinating story.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/magazine/women-coding-computer-programming.html

Something went Really Wrong, very specifically in the early 80s.

That didn't go wrong in for instance India of all places, which is fascinating. One takeaway: you gotta know something is deeply wrong when your North American industry is massively more gender imbalanced than India's!

(And an interesting side note is that many women who are doing well in coding in North America seem to be well endowed with melanin and surname syllables. Hmm)

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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.