Avoid over-attribution to diversity

The Practical

Prevent over-attribution to diversity by highlighting skill based reasons for accomplishments. People sometimes anchor on highlighting diversity when mentioning the achievements of an individual because it’s rare and notable, but it can cheapen that individual’s feeling of accomplishment. Make an active effort to highlight other things. E.G. “Olivia would be a really great presenter, and she deserves it because of her contributions to the project. And it’d be good to have a diverse presenter mix,” is so much better than “Olivia should present because we need the diversity on stage.”

If you see an instance of over-attribution to gender diversity, to the point where it might be discounting someone’s personal accomplishments, you can counter act it by speaking up. 

The Story

I’d been working on Project Fi for two years prior to it’s launch. Right as new products launch, it’s customary for each team to present at Google’s internal weekly TGIF, which is broadcast to the entire company. It’s a big honor to be on stage as a presenter. 

The team that produces the event every week met with our team to prepare for TGIF. We had a room full of 10 people from Project Fi at the kick-off meeting when the topic of speaker selection came up. When asked if the TGIF team had guidance on speaker selection, they responded, “We like to have engineers on stage, since it’s an engineering audience. And if we can have some diversity, that’d be great, too.” It’s still unclear if I imagined it or if it actually happened, but when the TGIF team said this, I felt like everyone looked at me (I was the only female lead from Project Fi in the room). I nervously laughed and said, “Well, happy to present if you want a woman on stage.” 

In the following days, the politics on who got to present got increasingly tense. I felt awkward about having a “guaranteed” slot because of my gender, and started to feel like it was the only reason I was picked because it was the only reason ever cited.

A couple days later, I talked to my manager about how it was nagging me: “To be honest, I feel really uncomfortable about how diversity is getting pulled into this. It feels like the only reason I’m getting a slot is because I’m a woman.” My manager responded (looking very surprised), “That’s not the case at all! Look, you’d be presenting on stage even if you were a white man. You’ve given so much to this project, and you’re a great presenter. You deserve to be speaking at TGIF.”

I felt a wave of tension release. I didn’t realize how comforting it was to hear that it wasn’t just my gender getting me on stage. Then my manager followed up, “You know, in that first meeting, I should have spoken up. I should have told everyone immediately that you’d be a good presenter independently from gender. Sorry I didn’t do that.” The next day, he went out of his way to talk to some others involved in the presentation to reinforce that I was presenting for reasons other than my gender. After that exchange, I felt so much better about my own accomplishments and about being up on stage. And surprisingly, I felt prouder being a representative on stage for women, since I felt like I had earned the honor instead of being a token. 

Fast forward a few weeks, and a woman on my husband’s team was in a similar situation. Due to the lack of gender diversity in Google’s tech org, it’s always notable when women are on stage. But he noticed how the first thing people were saying about her presentation was “it’s great that she’s a woman”, instead of focusing on the fact that she’s a fantastic presenter. Because of my experience, he took a moment during a 1:1 to say that the reason she was picked wasn’t because she was a woman. It was because of all the other skills she was bringing to the table and that made her the best choice to be on stage. If she was responding to the diversity attention the same way I was, I’m sure she appreciated his comments. 

It’s great that as a community that we’re talking about diversity. But it’s how we talk about diversity that makes a big difference, too. The two take aways I want to drive home are:

  1. Prevent over-attribution to diversity by highlighting other accomplishments - People have a tendency to anchor on the most rare or notable thing in any situation, so in cases where a person from an underrepresented group is doing something notable, the diversity aspect can get over highlighted. If you find yourself in a conversation about why someone from an under-represented group is getting accolades, take a moment to acknowledge the reasons why that person deserves the accomplishment beyond their diversity (or maybe, skip the diversity aspect all together! If they deserve it, maybe diversity doesn’t need to be part of the conversation). 
  2. If you see over-attribution happening, take a moment to counter act it - Both my manager and my husband saw the diversity angle being over-emphasized, and took a step to counter it. If you see a conversation happening like, “It’d be really great to have ______ on stage, it’ll be good to have a woman presenting,” you can be that voice that says, “______ would be a great representative, even if ______ wasn’t a woman.”

Side note: This experience and subsequent conversations with my husband were the reason why I started Fear of Poets. Huge thanks to Tyler for telling me this story was useful and encouraging me to start this blog to expand its reach. 

Actively acknowledge and encourage individuals with potential

The Practical

As a mentor, evaluate individuals based on potential vs. overall results. When you find someone with potential, especially if they're in an under-represented group, actively acknowledge their potential and encourage them to keep exploring. They might not be aware of their own skills. 

The Story

Since we're at the beginning, I figured I'd tell the story about the first time I thought I could have a career in computer science. 

Growing up, I didn't get a lot of exposure to computer science. In fact, I didn't even know what the word meant until I went to college. In high school, I went down the straight and narrow of traditional science and math, and the high school I went to didn't offer anything beyond a typing class when it came to computers. My parents always encouraged me to pursue math and science, but programming never came up. 

When Spring Quarter of freshman year arrived, all my friends and I decided to take Stanford's introductory computer science class "CS106A" on the recommendation of an RA that said, "Everyone who goes to Stanford should take CS106A." I didn't really know why at the time, but I'm glad we all trusted him. 

Through the rest of the quarter, I genuinely enjoyed the coursework. We learned the fundamentals of coding and got to code up games and logic puzzles. I did alright... but when it came time for competitions in class, I realized very quickly I was behind the learning curve. During a graphical programing competition, I wrote a buggy program that threw an axe at a pixelated Stanford tree. Others in the class wrote programs that were rich animated videos. Working really hard, I earned a consistent B+ on assignments. By mid-quarter, I found myself feeling like an underdog among peers that had been programming since middle school. I decided I wouldn't be daunted because I enjoyed what I was learning.  

I was lucky that Stanford has a very hands on approach to teaching beginning computer science. I had a TA named Jonas who taught a small group of 10 students and hand-graded programs. On the last day of the quarter, I had one last meeting with Jonas to cover my final coding assignment (I'd already received a B on my final). We chatted, went over possible areas of improvement for my program, and then something life-changing happened to me. Jonas said:

You know, you’re really good at this. You should really consider pursuing Computer Science.
— my introductory CS TA

I was shocked. I responded, "Are you sure? I mean, I've been getting B+s the whole time. There's so many others in the class who are way better at this." 

He quickly assured me that it wasn't the grade or performance that mattered, it was potential. He saw talent in me, and urged me to enroll in the next level course. I hadn't even considered taking another CS class until that moment, since it was clear so many others were "better" at coding than me. That conversation lasted only a couple minutes, but it shifted my perspective to seriously consider technology as a career. The next year, I took another CS class, and shortly after declared computer science as my major. 

Some time senior year, I saw Jonas visiting campus, and told him proudly that I was a CS major. He was really happy to hear the news, but not sure he ever understood how much he contributed to my identity as a woman in technology. 

I wanted to share this story to illustrate how Jonas did two things incredibly well:

  1. Evaluate potential, not results - He evaluated my potential, not the quality of my code on the bell curve of my peers. Many of my peers had a lot of past experience, so their results looked a lot better. As a student who didn't have access to computer science resources prior to college (like many under-represented groups), there were many years of experience between me and the A+ students in the class. But I think what Jonas noticed was how I quickly I learned concepts despite my lack of expertise, and I thank him for that.  
  2. Proactively encourage - He sought me out and let me know that I had potential. I sometimes wonder if I would have considered computer science as seriously if I didn't have his encouragement in the back of my mind. So if you're a mentor, and you see someone who has potential, don't hesitate to reinforce it with your words. On the way into a career as a minority demographic, under-represented groups hear a lot of things that might cause second guessing a chosen career path. By proactively encouraging your mentees, you're putting a few more words of encouragement in the bank. And who knows, your one comment might cause someone to consider a career they never would have thought to pursue. 

An introduction

My name is Laura, and I've been working in the technology space for the last 7 years since graduating college. During that time, I've seen a lot of dialog about diversity in technology, which (looking at the stats: tech & US) still has a long ways to go. 

But being completely data driven can be grim. You see the gap, and you wonder: "How the hell can we catch up?"  This is particularly challenging when looking at something like diversity in leadership; leaders look around for qualified candidates, and the pipeline has already reduced the number of diversity candidates to almost none. For myself, I've chatting with my manager about the current lack of diversity on his own leads team. Of the 25 people currently in his staff meeting (mostly Engineering and Product leads), I'm the only woman. He's aware, he wants to have more diversity, but recruiting is hard when the distribution of qualified candidates is already male heavy. I was one of his first hires, which has helped with hiring more women to the team, but not at the more senior levels. 

Another challenge with the current dialog is that it sometimes alienates allies. White men I know ask me "how to not be part of the problem" but feel guilty instead of being guided towards things they can do. They want to help, but don't know how. 

Starting this blog is my best answer; I want to document stories and practical advice for anyone wanting to help improve diversity in tech and other industries struggling with diversity. I feel very lucky to have achieved my professional accomplishments through an amazing network of managers, mentors, and peers. When I meet with other mentees or when I manage my own group, I lean on my own experiences, either channeling the same empowering messages told to me, or trying to proactively avoid mistakes I've seen myself. This project is an attempt to codify those experiences and advice, but I want to take it one step further: I'm embarking on a journey to interview other under-represented groups and allies to bring their own stories of empowerment to life. While focusing on gender diversity is closest to home to me, I'd also love to cover different types of diversity across race, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, and more. 

Through a lot of practical examples of what's worked and what hasn't, my hope is to create a resource about every-day actions we can all take to encourage diversity. Let's get started.