Why would someone think that gender-based biological differences explain why there aren’t more women in tech? This woman’s view.

09/26/2017 12:14 pm ET

It’s been an eventful year in the area of diversity and inclusion. On August 4th Google software engineer James Damore posted an internal memo to Google employees which has since ignited a media firestorm around diversity, affirmative action, and free speech. This is exciting for diversity leaders because it indicates one thing very clearly: this is a conversation that is far from over. We have not “solved” workforce diversity by a long shot. And we have not dispelled the exclusive, hierarchical attitudes that impede diversity efforts, which I suspect are very pervasive. So there is still work to be done.

Leading the research that drives our Business Beyond Bias initiative to embed bias detection, prevention, and elimination directly into HR processes via our technology, I was very interested in learning more about Mr. Damore’s perspective. So I read the entire memo, beginning to end, and then I read it again. I read the media responses and – my personal favorite source of information – the online comments to articles. I spoke to male and female colleagues in numerous industries, within and outside of tech. It is obvious Mr. Damore is not alone in his perspective. So what is going on here?

1. Men and women are different

When the Google memo covered inherent differences between men and women, the implicit message was that only one kind of person with a specific set of strengths is well suited to engineering. If women had those strengths, they could be engineers too. But here is the thing: women can be great engineers with the strengths they have. They might approach things differently. But that’s actually what we want.

There is a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding when it comes to initiatives to include more diverse talent in the workforce. Because it is proposed that everyone should have an equal chance to gain access to opportunities, the belief is that we should provide this because everyone is actually the same. A female of color will perform just as well, and just the same, as a while male, therefore she should have an equal opportunity to be considered for the role. Well actually, no, we’re really hoping she won’t. She will bring a different perspective and approach to that role. She will bring different strengths and capabilities. She will come up with ideas that her white male colleague will not. And she will add this diversity of thought to a team that contains people who are different from her. That is the entire point of building a diverse workforce. It is not that we want to create an entire team of these women. We want to add their diverse thoughts and ideas to the mix.

It’s not that I support Mr. Damore’s generalist statements about women and men and the careers they should pursue—that’s obvious pseudo-science. It’s that he is completely correct in that people are different and bring different things to the table. This can be easily seen in research on workforce age diversity. Certain values and preferences tend to be more commonly found in employees of different ages, with younger employees valuing opportunities to learn and get ahead and older employees being more intrinsically motivated. Of course, there are huge variances within age groups in these attitudes too. But the point is, neither of those characteristics are the one correct way to approach work—they are varied, and each has its advantage in driving productivity. Men and women are different. People are different. The point of workforce diversity is not that everyone is the same; it’s that there are many, many ways to do things effectively. And a diverse workforce is going to uncover those different ways, making that workforce stronger and more productive overall.

2. Inclusion is either missing the mark, or misunderstood

White men feel at a disadvantage when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and this memo strongly speaks to that. When we talk to business leaders about unconscious bias, we tell them that they succeeded in a broken system, not by their own merit but because the people around them were predisposed to viewing their demographic group as successful. When we talk about increasing workforce diversity we’re really saying that we want to give people who aren’t white men a chance at the jobs and opportunities white men could be well suited for. When we set recruiting targets, we are implicitly communicating that a less qualified diverse candidate is going to have a better chance at being hired than a non-diverse candidate, especially if we aren’t meeting our quota. Of course there is fear, mistrust, and anger coming from our majority group. So much of what companies do to build diversity and inclusion actually excludes them.

When executed correctly, workforce inclusion should promote a feeling of inclusion for everyone. The role of white men in the workplace is just as critical as that of diverse talent. Furthermore, white men are a diverse group in and of themselves, bringing different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to their work. We should be communicating this. We should consider white men as one of the key demographic groups we seek to engage and we should treat them that way. But—and this is key—we should not treat only them that way.

3. Bias is real…and it’s error, not politics

One of the issues with diversity training is that it can cause backlash and an exacerbation of negative attitudes toward diversity (and, believe it or not, it can result in a 28-year-old software engineer distributing a sexist company-wide memo). Unconscious bias awareness training is a slight improvement in that it removes the blame, emphasizing that we are all biased in some way. And while this might be true, situations like this reveal that this bias is not so unconscious after all. Many, many people openly believe women are less suited for STEM jobs. Fewer people openly discuss this belief, but this doesn’t mean it’s not there.

There is more than one way to effectively approach a job in STEM. To only select, reward, and promote people who approach these jobs in one narrow way is not an issue of sexism; it’s inaccurate. It is inaccurate to assume a female engineer can’t carry out basic tasks because we expect those tasks to be done a certain way. It is inaccurate to believe a woman will be an ineffective leader because she prioritizes things differently than the leaders of the past. This inaccuracy is costing organizations time, money, and critical talent. Simply put, our biases are adding error to our talent decisions.

In my work on the SAP SuccessFactors Business Beyond Bias initiative I frequently come across people who believe that our mission is to promote reverse bias—to put women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups in the limelight at the expense of white men. But that would be inaccurate too. What we are really doing is removing the error from HR processes, ranging from who is hired to how people are managed to who is promoted into leadership positions. Sometimes the best person for a role is a white man, and sometimes not. If your processes enable you to accurately determine this, then you’ve effectively moved your business beyond bias. The people with the greatest chance of working at your company will not be those that belong to certain demographic groups, but those that are the most qualified. A diverse workforce in which everyone’s perspectives are included will then be a natural fit.

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