Autopsy of My Attempt to Explain Workplace Diversity

young woman sitting at conference table with two businessmen
young woman sitting at conference table with two businessmen

Cause of death: crush injuries from rapidly lowering bar

Real talk around diversity can be hard to find in the workplace. I've had conversations about it here and there, but nothing that got too deep. The focus was usually hiring, and the theme usually struggle. Things like: "there are pipeline issues" and "it's so hard to even find good candidates at all."

Hiring is relatively easy to talk about, because it's comfortably all about "them" and not about "us." The diversity in hiring conversation often has echoes of the "nice guy" trope: "I'm a nice guy, I don't understand why it's so hard to find a good woman."

Dude. It's not them, it's you. When it comes to diversity, the hiring conversation is just the tip of the iceberg. Candidates evaluate workplace environments before they decide to apply, and they're free to swipe left if they don't like what they see. It's time for companies that are struggling with diversity to take a hard look at themselves. It's not just about tweaking the little things, like removing aggressive language from job ads and eliminating unconscious bias from the interview process. It's about the company deciding if it's ready and able to change who it is as a culture. This starts with understanding what diversity actually is.

I tried to explain this recently in a job interview. As you can tell from the title of this piece, it didn't go well. Actually, it was so bad that while it was happening, all I could do was tell myself "at least this will make an interesting story later."

So here's the story.

I was on my second interview for a writer position, and I was asked to come prepared to pitch a piece of scientific research that could be packaged into a compact training for someone in a manager role. So I ... gulp... chose to talk about diversity research.

I knew it was going to be awkwardly meta to talk about hiring practices in a job interview. I also knew that women and minorities are generally punished for promoting diversity in any environment. But most importantly, I knew I was going to be pitching this research to an entirely White male group, and that it would make them uncomfortable. But I did it, because after spending hours looking through the kind of content the company produces, I knew it needed significant anti-bias work. The only way I was going to take the job is if I saw that my potential employers would be open to examining some of the bias issues in their content, so my goal in the interview was to understand how they were thinking.

Note that my goal was not "get this job at all costs." If I had really needed the job, I would have behaved differently. I would have chosen a "safe" topic, and I would have done everything in my power to make my interviewers feel comfortable with me. I'm not saying it would have worked. I'm just saying that difference, and drawing attention to difference, tends to make people uncomfortable.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that there's some hefty privilege (and delusion) behind my thinking I had a choice to not bring up differences. I was already up against gender bias from the moment I applied. But I did have the ability to avoid mentioning race completely, because everybody in the room was White. If I had been a Black person with a Black-sounding name, I could still have chosen not to say a single word about race, but it wouldn't really matter. The unconscious biases around race are so strong that I might never have gotten called for the interview in the first place. And there are all kinds of other intersecting identities that trigger bias and affect your job chances, like whether you're an immigrant, whether you're transgender, whether you have a disability or not. It's pretty ridiculous to talk about having a choice to make people feel comfortable or not, since their discomfort is likely in response to who you are as a person. But I couldn't help thinking (knowing) that in this case I was totally sabotaging myself.

Back to the story.

Let's cut it open and look at the guts

On the day of my interview, I showed up, shook all the hands, listened to a couple of internal pitches, and then it was my turn.

I decided to state the problem (from a manager's point of view) as: "I need to hire new team members, and I'm getting pressure from higher-ups to make my team more diverse. But I don't want to lower the bar."

First off, I wanted to explain why a manager should be invested in making their team more diverse, as opposed to seeing it as some top-down demand they aren't inclined to follow. The research I used was something I'd heard in the "Raising the Bar" episode of the Reply All podcast. The hosts had interviewed Leslie Miley, the only Black engineer in a managerial role at Twitter, who quit after wrestling for years with an environment that didn't understand the value of diversity. It's a great counterpoint to the typical hiring-focused conversation, because Miley talks a lot about how Twitter's culture was the real problem.

The podcast references research done by Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan. Page created two groups of problem-solving algorithms and put them to work solving tough problems. One group was a set of the best individual performing algorithms. The other group was a set of randomly-chosen algorithms, diverse in how they encoded the problem and searched for solutions. The diverse set of algorithms consistently beat the best-performing group at solving tough problems. Why? Because it got stuck less often. The diverse group saw more ways to approach the problem and had more problem-solving tools to use.

I explained this research, and then I used the following example to really drive it home:

You could select a toolbox filled with the best hammers money can buy. Or you could select a toolbox with hammers, screwdrivers, chisels, and drills of varying quality. Which option will prepare you to build and fix more things? It also bears mentioning that your tools (skills, cultural background, education) impact your perspective. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I explained to my interviewers that, in a nutshell, the research shows that diversity has a greater impact on team success than ability.

The looks on their faces were polite but skeptical.

I said that it's very important to get it straight that ability is an individual thing, but diversity is a group thing.

Then I said that companies should hire people of high ability, aiming to create teams that are highly diverse. There are two categories of diversity:

  • Inherent diversity: things like race, gender, and age.
  • Acquired diversity: things like education, experience, and knowledge bases.

Both make up the "tools" a group has at their disposal when they solve problems. You can't just look at one of these categories of diversity and pretend the other isn't important (but that's a whole other subject, for another post).

Next, I wanted to get into what's going on behind the cringeworthy "lowering the bar" idea.

I explained that even though it makes no sense to call an individual person "diverse", people do it all the time, as a shorthand way to describe an individual person of color, or a woman: "we're trying to hire a diverse person for the role."

Then I told them that this is where we uncover the bias. Turning diversity into a personal characteristic, and then equating it with low ability, is racism and sexism at work. Have you ever heard anybody called "non-diverse" as a shorthand? Have you ever heard any worry expressed over "non-diverse" people lowering the bar? No. Because sameness is equated with high ability (and whiteness, and maleness, I might add, but I didn't say this in the interview).

I could see protest in their eyes, but they didn't interrupt me.

I kept talking. I was supposed to pitch concrete actions that managers could take based on the research, not just talk about why diversity is important. I'd framed the question around hiring, but I wanted to make it clear that hiring is just one of the areas where managers have influence.

So I said:

Managers have a huge influence on the diversity of their teams in two areas:

1. Hiring
2. Day-to-day team management

For extra concreteness, I broke down the two areas of influence. (Please note that my breakdowns here are meant to be a simple entry point and in no way represent all the work that needs to be done to address unconscious bias):

1. Hiring Process

It is not always easy or comfortable to hire for diversity. It feels more natural to converse with a job applicant with whom you share a similar background and interests. A diverse team also presents more of an initial learning curve, since everyone will need to work through some friction (differences in communication, work styles, perspectives) to figure out how to work together. But this friction is not only surmountable, it's key to a winning team.

Here are some concrete things you can do during the recruitment and interview process:

  • If you're involved in writing or reviewing the job description, pay careful attention to the language. Many applicants will choose not to apply if your job ad reflects an environment that sounds exclusionary.
  • Ask: "how did you get to where you are?" to find out how a candidate has handled obstacles along the way, and learn more about their knowledge bases. Don't hire for "culture fit", and steer clear of the "beer test".
  • Bring up team diversity when you discuss the candidates with the hiring committee. What perspectives or backgrounds do they bring that are not already present on your team? If you're looking at two well-qualified candidates, the one who brings more diversity is the one who will be more valuable to the team.

2. Day-to-Day Management:

You cannot sustain diversity in an environment that values sameness over difference. After all, nothing you do during the hiring process is meaningful unless your new employee encounters an environment where they want to stay. As a manager, there are concrete actions you can take to create an environment where diversity thrives instead of withers.

  • Be observant of who is asked to do "office housework" like taking notes in a meeting, planning team social activities, or cleaning up after a meeting. Figure out a nonbiased way to assign these tasks.
  • If you are involved in a performance review process and someone uses words like "abrasive" or "aggressive" to describe an employee, ask for performance-related examples. Same goes for "lack of initiative" and "not a team player."
  • Pay attention to the small things. Learn to recognize microaggressions, and address them when you hear them.
  • Notice who talks most during team meetings. Who gets interrupted? Work on solutions.
  • If you're asked to choose someone from your team to represent the company at a conference or event, find out about the composition of the group as a whole. Is it representative?

I presented all of this, and then I waited for feedback.

A total flatline situation

I knew this was a long shot, but I was still hoping for the best. My first indication that my attempt was a flop was their first comment:

"Diversity is really a c-suite issue. It's not something managers have influence over."

So I said "yes, I agree that diversity is a c-suite issue, but managers also very much have influence." I referred back to all of the concrete ways I'd just laid out that managers can directly impact team diversity. They really didn't seem convinced.

The next comment was:

"Everybody already knows that diversity is important. You're not presenting anything new or interesting. It needs more concrete, actionable advice."
I pointed out that the fact that diversity trumps ability is pretty interesting, and referred again to the bulleted lists of concrete actions managers could take. I kind of felt like I was being gaslighted at this point. Were my bulleted lists invisible? I said that while most people will agree that diversity is important, it might be just because they're looking at it from a moral standpoint, and they know that's what they're supposed to say.

Then we got to a piece of feedback that left me speechless. They said:

"But it is really hard not to lower the bar. Even if a diverse person applies, if they don't meet the qualifications, I can't hire them."

Headdesk. I tried to control my face, but I was a little bit horrified.

They were still talking about "lowering the bar" as if it is a thing.

They were using the word "diverse" to describe a person.

They were arguing against hiring unqualified people (nobody said hire unqualified people)

Nothing I had just explained made any impact. So I spent the next ten minutes trying to gently explain things in different ways. I honestly don't remember what I said.

I do remember there was one tiny sparkly moment. One of the interviewers said "so you're saying that a company could be doing something internally that's making diverse people leave?" I nodded. He looked thoughtful. "That's what happened at my old company. They left." He trailed off, and the discussion went somewhere else.

But for a second, he was thinking about it as an "us" problem instead of a "them" problem. And realizing that maybe his old company wasn't such a "nice guy" after all.

His word choice showed that he was still connecting the word "diverse" with individual people, so I doubt I had much influence on expanding his understanding of what diversity meant. But it was something.

If I had another shot

Hindsight is the worst. There's just so much I could have done differently. I'd really appreciate feedback, calling out of my blindspots, and suggestions.

One thing that was immediately obvious to me is that it's really hard to simplify this conversation. Every string you pull leads somewhere deep. If it had been just a conversation instead of a structured pitch, I think we probably would have covered less ground, but maybe the interaction would have been more meaningful.

If I had to do it again, I'd try avoiding the phrase "lowering the bar" altogether. I think hearing it might kick the "diversity = low ability" framework into high gear. But it's such a familiar phrase that I felt it would make a good starting point. Something to dismantle.

In Scott E. Page's book, he uses a fruit basket example that completely unlinks the idea of diversity and ability in a way the toolbox example doesn't. He compares a fruit basket of all oranges to a fruit basket with a variety of fruits. Which is more desirable? The basket with variety. Simply because variety is better. So maybe I could get rid of "lowering the bar" and talk about fruit instead of tools.

The last thing I'd do differently is to find a way to address the discomfort that talking about diversity brings. It seems like there's a strong knee jerk reaction to deny it, but discomfort is actually a good thing, and there's no way around it.

Have you ever had a substantive discussion about diversity in your workplace? What worked and what didn't?