Discussion: When Policies Don’t Work, What is the Best Way to be a Diverse Company? by @NikkiElizDeMere


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

This is the tweet that blew up the Twitterverse last month when Jeffrey Siminoff left his post as head of diversity and inclusion at Apple to become Twitter’s VP of Diversity & Inclusion – replacing a white woman, for the record. Also, let the record show that Siminoff is a middle-aged white male. Cue Twittersplosions of Inglorious Basterds proportions.

But someone felt good about this decision (besides Siminoff).

TechCrunch reported Siminoff’s latest career move in glowing terms: “Siminoff, who starts in January, seems like a great fit for this role.”

Fortune was just as optimistic: “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has made hiring a diverse workforce a priority.”

One can only imagine that the men sitting around the conference room at Twitter headquarters felt the same way. Their more politically astute users, however, spotted the problem instantly.

How can you say you are making diversity a priority, and acknowledge that you have far too few women in management roles, and replace a white woman with a white man?

And, how can you ignore the fact that the diversity issue is about so much more than the male-to-female ratio. We need more colors of the rainbow in all genders and orientations and abilities. We need, well, actual diversity.

You would think that devoting a VP position to diversity would accomplish something. You would think that drafting diversity policies would be a step in the right direction.

Damned if you do…

Studies are cropping up that show diversity actually suffers from policies and designated positions, such as “VP of diversity.”

The Harvard Business Review put several of these studies into context in the article “Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men.”

“Many managers are tasked with the complex goal of ‘managing diversity’ – which can mean anything from ensuring equal employment opportunity compliance, to instituting cultural sensitivity training programs, to focusing on the recruitment and retention of minorities and women.

Are all of these efforts working? In terms of increasing demographic diversity, the answer appears to be not really.”

The authors cite a longitudinal study of 700+ U.S. companies that looked at the efficacy of diversity programs based on 30+ years of data. The study found that diversity training and evaluations do nothing to increase the numbers of white women, black women, and black men in management – and they may even decrease representation of black women.

How do good intentions go awry? The answer lies in another study.

In Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures, researchers found that diversity initiatives, policies and programs within companies caused white-men-in-power (the study calls them “high-status group members”) to feel like they’re in an equal-opportunity environment – even when there is clear evidence to the contrary. Not only that, but they become less sensitive to seeing discrimination, and react more harshly to minorities claiming to have experienced discrimination.

The “Diversity Defense”

People in power feel all warm and fuzzy when there are diversity programs in place – including federal court judges. When Walmart was sued in a 2011 class action case, it used its anti-discrimination policy as a defense against allegations of gender discrimination. The “diversity defense” has been used successfully in several cases, inspiring yet another study.

Your average white male, however, doesn’t get the warm-fuzzies when diversity values are mentioned – he feels threatened: “Two initial studies (N = 322) demonstrate that when imagining applying for a job, whites – and not ethnic/racial minorities – expressed more concerns about being treated unfairly and about anti-white discrimination when the company mentioned (vs. did not mention) its pro-diversity values.”

In a nutshell: White men in power love diversity programs – even though they don’t do any good for minorities and make white male job applicants feel like Julia Roberts trying to shop on Rodeo Drive in Pretty Woman (the first time).

It turns out, the most dangerous place to be a minority or woman is in a company that has a diversity program.

Case in point: The Dreamforce panel “Building an Inclusive Workplace” in which salesforce founder Parker Harris responded to Kara Swisher’s question on diversity beyond women:

Parker: Well, right now I’m focused on women, you know, and it’s back to Marc’s focus on priorities. I have employees, that are, you know, other types of diversity coming to me and saying well why aren’t we focused on these other areas as well, and I said yes we should focus them but, you know, the phrase we use internally is “If everything is important, then nothing is important.” And we repeat that over and over again. And, we’re trying to figure out how can we move this one thing forward, and you know we don’t have all the answers, so I can’t sit up here and say I’ve got it figured out.

Read: Their big effort is to increase the number of white women. And they feel pretty good about their efforts, too. Erica Joy said it best in #FFFFFF Diversity: “Get in line people of color. Wait for (white) women to get theirs, then we’ll get to you.”

But it’s all okay, because there’s a diversity policy… (that’s sarcasm, if you can’t tell)

Maybe if we phrased it in language the tech industry under$tands…

Rand Fishkin gives the most eloquent statement of why pursuing diversity isn’t just about being a good citizen of the world – it’s good business. In Why I believe in Intentional Efforts to Increase Diversity, he lists out significant improvements to Moz products and Moz as a company that were purely due to having input from a diverse workforce.

“In all of these cases, diversity improved our empathy internally and externally. The variety of people in leadership and decision-making roles, as well as on individual teams helped us make a better, more accessible company and product. I believe diversity isn’t just the right thing to do for the world; it’s also the optimal thing to do for the long-term success of an organization (and there’s plenty others with great data to back that up).”

Important to note is Fishkin’s acknowledgement that diversity isn’t just about gender or ethnic background – he cites improvements made to fonts, kerning, and colors thanks to employees who were color blind or older.

“I recall a design review of the first version of Moz Analytics, one of our software tools. . . . David Mihm (who’s partially colorblind) helped identify a few contrast variations that he literally couldn’t see. Martin York, one of our senior engineers who has dyslexia, commented on form inputs missing auto-corrections for spelling/mistypings. One of the older members of our team noted that she had difficulty in parsing the text because the lines were too close together (aka overly-tight leading).”

While few people are having the ethnic diversity conversation in tech industries, it’s the exceptional founder who addresses age or impairments.

Moz is actually an ideal case study for diversity done thoughtfully. Its initiatives aren’t a separate department, or a veneer laid over existing diversity problems to try to hide the divots. Diversity was a goal from the beginning, and perhaps even more importantly, it was a value promoted and actively pursued by the company’s founder.

Moz isn’t alone – though it’s in the minority (no pun intended).

Wil Reynolds, founder of Seer, “unintentionally” built an online marketing company that’s over 60% women, which he says he didn’t set out to do, “I just set out to hire the people I thought were the best for our team and our clients.” Check out Wil Reynolds and Rand Fishkin discussing their different takes on diversity here.

Pandora, the Oakland-based music company, not only has a nearly 50/50 male-female workforce, they are actively supporting their underrepresented employees with company “communities” like Pandora Women, Pandora PRIDE, and Pandora Mixtape, and with mentorship programs that connect women in different stages of their careers. Like Moz and Seer, they recognize that working to fix their company ratios can only happen when they also contribute to strengthening the “pipeline.” Pandora partners with programs like Little Kids Rock, NYC Ladders for Leaders, The Ally Coalition, Management Leadership for Tomorrow and CODE2040 to contribute to STEM career prep and recruitment outreach.

But aren’t these just more policies? And didn’t we just say policies don’t work?

Seer, very intentionally, does not have a diversity policy. Moz and Pandora have policies, and Pandora has an official “diversity program manager” position (filled by Asian-American Lisa Lee), but in each of these cases, their practices seem to stem from their very DNA as companies. And, it should be noted that while these companies are far ahead of the Silicon Valley pack, they all have a ways to go. But here is what I see them doing well:

Diversity doesn’t start once you enter the building: these companies go out into their communities to create opportunities for underrepresented groups – by ensuring 50% of conference speakers are anything other than white male (MozCon), or working with organizations to help minority students pursue STEM careers. And, supporting diversity doesn’t end once you enter the building either – these companies are making changes to retain their female talent with family-friendly policies.

I guess what I’m trying to say is – diversity policies don’t work when they’re Band-Aids. But when diversity becomes a mission, pursued with passion from the top down, we can move the needle.

What do you think?

Do you feel supported by policies – or do you see them as lip-service (or worse, a convenient legal defense)? Should there be “VPs of diversity” – and if so, should those roles be filled by people of color? How would you like to see companies move the needle towards cultivating more diverse workforces?

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