Move from “checkbox diversity” to valuing a “diversity of perspective”

Over the last three months, I’ve been collecting the insights and opinions from an amazing community of friends and colleagues from underrepresented groups in Silicon Valley. This post is the first of a series about the results of those survey results and conversations.

What does diversity-in-tech even mean? Some say it’s about having more gender diversity, racial diversity, socio-economic diversity, and more. I believe the current way Silicon Valley talks about diversity captures these categories in the form of checkbox diversity, which can alienate members of a diverse team by undercutting their value as individuals. I’d much rather we change the conversation to advocate for a diversity of perspective.

Tech companies use checkbox diversity when they approach building diverse teams by assigning individuals to specific categories and analyzing percentages. Google’s diversity statistics or Etsy’s diversity statistics, for example. Checkbox diversity holds teams and large organizations accountable for fair hiring practices and helps identify diversity issues, but the problem is when this framing begins to creep into how teammates and companies talk and interact with each other. Checkbox diversity results in comments like “You’re in class X, so you must Y” or congratulatory announcements about % diversity statistics without focusing on real inclusivity. (e.g. You might have a black or Latino Engineer on your team, but do they feel like a part of the team and valued beyond just being a black / Latino Engineer that helps your diversity stats?)

Here are some ways in which checkbox diversity has negative, unintended consequences:

  • It fails to capture intersectionality of our teammates - I was surprised and excited to discover the variety in survey responses to “What under-represented group(s) do you view yourself as a part of?”. Rather than just mentioning gender or race (a checkbox approach), respondents often self-identified with multiple categories that encompassed race, gender, sexual-orientation, physical differences, religion or cultural upbringing, e.g. “LGBTQ, woman of color”, or “Women; Foreign(ish) people.”. Some called out specific cultural identities like “Black/African-Caribbean”. A checkbox diversity approach encourages us put people in boxes, and doesn’t actually encompass how people view themselves: a combination of experiences that might not always be apparent.
  • It fails to capture non-visible types of diversity - Too often we consider diverse teams with respect to what’s visible, primarily gender and race. I don’t want to undercut the desire to build diversity with respect to these categories, but by focusing only on these visible types of diversity, we don’t acknowledge the types of diversity that may not be apparent at first glance: sexual and gender orientation, religion, political affiliation, family status and more. Some respondents said that while they identified with a specific visible class, they feel even more personal identification with a non-visible aspect of their personality (e.g. religion). And individuals might feel persecution in the workplace because non-physical differences often go unacknowledged or subject them to offensive comments.
  • It masks sub-diversity issues - Several respondents in our survey identified as a “Asian executive”, “woman engineer in developer products” or “woman in VC”, which point to sub-areas of technology with less diversity. While 25% of all computing jobs are held by women, the VC world is approximately 7-8% female. And while there are many Asians in tech organizations, there isn’t equal Asian representation in the C-Suite. The challenge with checkbox diversity is that there are sometimes subtler types of discrimination at play that don’t get surfaced with broad roll-up statistics.
  • It causes over attribution to diversity - When teams are so focused on checkbox diversity, teammates begin to justify opportunities with regards to that person’s diversity qualifications instead of their individual qualifications. The teammate with the opportunity can feel tokenized or unqualified, and other teammates might feel resentment, none of which are a desirable outcomes.
  • It causes underrepresented teammates to feel increasingly alone or tokenized - A couple of respondents pointed out a trend I have felt, but never really articulated: when leaders or teammates start to talk about our roll-up statistics, it can come across as not acknowledging that there are real people behind these stats. Respondent's comments reminded me of an experience I had in 2012, when Google’s head of HR said that >25% of Google’s tech force was women. As the only woman on a 10 person team, I was at first suspicious of the stat and then angry. I was dealing with a very unbalanced team and had a lack of female role models, while leadership thought we doing better than average. A lot has changed since 2012, including Google sharing more specific and less optimistic diversity data publicly, but this kind of percent-based rhetoric is still used very frequently throughout Silicon Valley and it can feel marginalizing to the people being described in the percentage. I wanted to share this parallel experience so I can tell the story while protecting the anonymity of respondents who still feel this way in 2017.

An alternative to checkbox diversity is advocating for a diversity of perspective: getting to know a teammate or candidate with respect to all of the different perspectives they might bring to the table, and actively hire for people who represent a different perspective than those already present on the team.

Some ideas for bringing a diversity of perspective into your organization:

  • Actively recruit teammates with different perspectives - Assess your current team across the perspectives it already has (It’s okay to think about checkbox categories here, as long as you don’t think of an individual as possessing only one perspective. Think about the intersectionality of your teammates). Then think about what’s missing or unbalanced. Actively recruit people to your team with different backgrounds, skills, or experience than those already on the team. E.g. Say your technical team came together because you were all on the same co-ed Ultimate Frisbee in college, and is equally split across genders. As you expand your team, you might want to recruit someone from a different age group, isn’t interested in frisbee, and came from a different educational background than your alma mater. (Also, see these tips for diversity hiring.)

  • Give your team a forum for expressing identity - You’ll never know how many perspectives are currently on your team if teammates don’t talk about who they are outside of work. Here are some ideas:

    • Team introductions - When a new person joins your team, have an intro email that allows them to describe their professional experience and who they are outside of work. Bonus: Have everyone include their preferred pronoun (e.g. “Preferred pronoun: she”) to make gender identity easy to navigate.

    • Have regular team lunches - Make sure everyone on the team attends, and ask people about their weekend plans.

    • For bigger teams:

      • Host listening lunches - As a team lead, you can organize lunches for different groups (e.g. Women’s group or LGBTQ group) for them to talk about their experience in the workplace. Just listen. You’ll learn a ton.  

      • Encourage Show&Tell - At team offsites, host a Show&Tell as a palette cleanser session. Encourage people to teach their other teammates about a skill or talent they have outside of work.

  • Proactively solicit different perspectives during meetings - If you’re having a meeting and a teammate might offer a counterpoint to the discussion based on their experience, actively solicit their feedback (e.g. “Wei - You regularly volunteer at a women’s shelter. Do you think we’re missing any privacy issues with this feature?”). By actively soliciting this difference of perspective, you can make better decisions by considering more options while simultaneously reinforcing to your team that diversity is valued on your team.

In conclusion, checkbox diversity still has it’s place in holding organizations accountable for diversity in the workplace, but its role needs to stop there. We need to start talking to our teams and potential teammates about who they are across all the many identities they may hold.