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.